On the Grasshopper and the Cricket

There used to be a thing, back in the Seventies when “The Sixties” were being established as a retrospective era: “The Beatles or The Stones?” The idea was that this choice, which was supposed to be somehow exclusive, was an “opener,” a what’s your (astrological) sign query that would tell the questioner who you were—or at the least start a conversation.*

Among the smallish subset of 20th century young people who liked poetry in English and were inclined to the Romantic revolution launched by Wordsworth and Coleridge at the beginning of the 19th century, one could play a similar game: “Byron, Keats, or Shelley?”

Sarcastic Byron “Mad, bad and dangerous to know” was the bad boy. Shelley was the beautiful intellectual, the man whose genetic material you wanted to incorporate. And Keats was the misunderstood outsider, the garageman’s son who presumed words alone could elevate him.

English Romantic poetry’s boy band—choose your poster.

I was easily a Keats man in this forced choice. I’m not sure, but I think Parlando alternate voice and keyboardist Dave Moore was a Byron guy back then. Early supporter of this blog, Daze and Weekes, Shelley. There are no wrong choices there, and when it comes down to it, no necessarily exclusive choices there either.

Keats hasn’t played a lot here in the Parlando Project. I’ve expanded my interests much since my teenaged years, and I guess the English Romantics have fallen back into the pack of poetic schools as I moved on to other things. Coincidence can bring Keats back though.

John Keats and the Chirping Crickets 3

Unheard music will Not Fade Away! John Keats and his “Chirping” Crickets.

 

Last weekend I hesitantly went to the newly reopened Minneapolis Institute of the Arts with my family. It was my wife’s idea, a way she hoped would be fairly safe in these Covid-19 times and still get us out of the house. She wanted to see a special exhibit on the immigrant experience. I thought I’d like to review their Chinese section.**

I may well write about the immigrant exhibit later, but the reason I wanted to do a bit of a wander in the Chinese wing was from my recent presentations of 8th century Tang dynasty poets here: Du Fu, Wang Wei, and Li Bai. As it turns out the holdings are a bit lacking in artifacts from that time. While this was a golden age for classical Chinese culture, that might not have carried over to the tastes or availabilities of objects to Western collectors.

But as I wandered the hall, I noticed something that had persisted in Chinese culture for centuries that I hadn’t encountered before. Beside a large, lacquered Chinese string instrument (the size of a pedal-steel guitar), there was a note that Chinese interest in music extended to modifying pet crickets vibrating wing edges with metallic powders and resins to increase the qualities of the cricket’s song. That grabbed this music-nerd’s interest! I started to examine other displays: there were cages and holders for pet crickets, tiny dishes in cricket-scale to feed them, and in one, two tiny wands, like fine detail paint brushes, only finer, the brush a single small hair. These, the note told us, were cricket ticklers designed to encourage the insects to start their music.***

Chinese Qin and Cricket Note

Beatles or Stones? Qin, songbirds, or crickets? The sort of things that a Chinese scholar might have in China during the time of Keats.

 

I’d already been looking at Emma Lazarus’ summer sounds poem before this trip, with its pairing of cricket-chirp with far-off children’s laughter. And then I found this slight little sonnet by John Keats, another one with crickets. My favorite short Keats poem, In the Drear-Nighted December  is a fine quasi-Buddhist meditation on suffering depicted as an appreciation of a frozen winter water-run. This one, “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket”  doesn’t strike my heart as strongly, but it’s still charming in comparing warm days and winter. This one has almost a Midwestern tang to it. I could see James Whitcomb Riley or Paul Laurence Dunbar writing it. The humble man in nature noting the grasshopper’s****  song even in the hottest summer days, and the comparison of the like sound of a housebound cricket chirping behind a wood stove in darkest winter.

The player gadget to hear my performance of John Keats’ “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket” is below.

 

 

 

*Don’t ask a music-nerd like me this question. Yes, I understand the points it’s attempting to weigh, but I won’t be able to resist spilling out mini-improvised essays on The Animals, The Yardbirds, The Zombies, The Kinks and so on, and then I’ll interrogate the now exhausted and bored questioner about how these exotic British acts are viewed as “saving” us from Bobby Rydell et al, when Afro-American jazz and R&B artists—right on the other side of town in a lot of cases  here in the U.S. —were doing vital work then that inspired these Brits. You can see I’m no fun at parties now, can’t you.

**Like some American museums that date from the late 19th century, Asian art was a significant part of the MiA collection. A significant number of wealthy collectors then were interested in the “exotic east.”

***There’s more I learned. Besides keeping them as pets and enjoying their music, cricket fights were a broad Chinese cultural thing as well, and because a full-formed cricket’s life span is but a few months even without visits to the Disabled List, an entire industry rose up in the capture of crickets for song and sport, with a hunting season in August and September gathering the most from the wild.

****Despite their somewhat similar appearance and sounds, the cricket makes its spiccato with its wing-edges, the grasshopper with its legs. I plucked a 12-string guitar and had double-basses provide some heavy late-summer air for this piece, but probably the most cricket-like sounds in the recording are from a marimba. The old saw says that if you take the number of cricket chirps in a quarter-hour and add 40 to it you’ll get the temperature in Fahrenheit. If so, this is a fairly cool bpm cricket.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

This may have been one of the first poems I fell in love with: the richness of the language, some sense of strangeness, the exoticness of the depicted setting–all enough for a young teenager. I did not mind the often outdated language then—less then than I do now—as I expected poems then to be written in an old and alien adult literary language.

If you’d asked that teenager what it meant, I would have probably stumbled out something to defend my appreciation of it—but what I did know was that “Ode on a Grecian Urn”  is just flat-out lovely word music.

One could go on about that, but no technical analysis will increase or decrease a listener’s appreciation for that element. Music has a structure, theorems and practices, but it remains subjective and it is not engineering. My performance of it today may not do it justice either, let your own ear or voice be the judge.

Beyond that, what about my experience of the poem today? This week, the always Interesting Literature blog discussed the poem’s meaning, bringing it back to my mind, and causing me to read it anew. My immediate reaction, reading it in our current times, was that this is a poignant poem infused with an intense “almostness” and an express “never.”

You don’t need biography to feel this element in the poem, but Keats wrote this in the spring of a year in which he had cared for his brother Tom as he died of tuberculosis that previous winter. In around a year, the medically trained John Keats would notice symptoms that he well knew were from his own infection. Another year from there he would be dead from the feared infectious respiratory disease of his time. So I read it differently today in our time of the pandemic Covid-19.

But “Ode to a Grecian Urn”  isn’t poetry as memoir, a common genre in our time. Instead, despite its failure as an example of pared-back language avoiding words describing emotions, the concept of the poem is not unlike that of Imagists nearly a century later.*  Keats looks at a thing, a decorated classical Greek vase,** and records that moment.

Muses posponed by CaronaVirus

I’ve figured out why it’s hard to create this week—the muses are sheltering in place. And it ain’t mine.

 

I’ll resist the urge to go through this poem line by line, but as the poem’s speaker approaches the titular urn he wants to interrogate it. One could draw a cartoon where the vase is in a police station room and the poet-detective is trying to tease out the details of the caper, while we the audience look on. The vase ain’t talking. The detective says that you were seen with that couple at that musical party, would you like to tell us why she was running? OK, so who were the musicians at the gig? You don’t know! Whatd’ya mean?

But let’s return to that almostness, that never. The lover and the beloved are palpably close, yet they cannot touch. The musicians are playing, but it’s somewhere out of ear-reach. Are they all six-feet, a social distance apart? What’s avoided by this freeze, this lock-down? The sorrow with a “burning forehead, and a parching tongue.” Keats seems to intend this as an illness metaphor.***

The poem tells us this vase includes another scene, a cow being led to a ritual slaughter. A vegan, Hindu, or animal-rights advocate may cringe, but the scene is one of an entire town wishing for this consummation, and we may conclude the scene is “You will die so that we may live or prosper”—which after all is the belief of all such rituals. I’m not supposing that Keats was Joaquin Phoenix, however we may view this sort of thing; and most readers have historically taken the poem’s characterization of this as pious at face value. But Keats could have imagined his urn with another religious scene, and chose this one.

If he doesn’t want an element of dread in the sacrifice scene, why does he choose to add the detail that the pious morn has left a town with eerie deserted streets?

At the poem’s end, Keats places the famous couplet “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” As well-known as these lines are, they’re the source of some controversy. Some think them profound, some glib. They are meaningless babble or a concise summary of Keats’ aesthetic.

The urn, this mesmerizing object, has artistic impact, and that means it’s beautiful in an aesthetic sense. It doesn’t mean it’s clear in its message. It doesn’t mean it’s a simple comfort. Yes, Keats says near the end, the urn is “A friend to man.” But friends are friends partly because they will tell us things that mere sycophants or acquaintances won’t, and friends will be there when things are not all wonderful and happy. It’s true too in this sense: that it is not telling itself with ulterior motives or self-interest.

The experience of the two scenes that precede this summing up are not happy ones. Even the consolations of artistic immortality are slight: we know nothing about the end of the lover’s pursuit, the musician’s tune, the name of the village or if it prospered, or if the sacrificial cow had a soul that was reborn.

As I performed it I decided to downplay what that past teenager would have read as a ringing conclusion. After all, whatever Keats’ sweet unheard intent might have been, his object that we can see and puzzle over tells us that the urn is saying this to him, not some “deity or mortal, or both.”  A piece of art says what it says in ways its creator cannot control, as the poem predicts it: “In midst of other woe than ours.”

So, I read it today as that weak voice that says, from when this poem was written, from this time when I performed it, in a time of contagious illness, in a time when caretakers were at risk, to a time when our streets are silent, at a time when some pious ready sacrifices instead of remedies, a time when music is silences and lovers parted—that there is somehow something beautiful to be discerned that is still as true as our living moments.

Speaking of musical engineering, I decided to keep the music silent or very minimal for the first part of this one, even though this project is all about combining music with words—the text’s “unheard music” was just to powerful to contradict. I also chose to keep everything in a major key/major chords, because that too is how I read the text: the urn’s subjects think they are in joy, though we see them, like re-viewing films and video of past happy social crowds today, in a different frame. To read the full text of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”  go here. The player gadget to hear my performance of it awaits you clicking on the player gadget below. Stay well. Take care.

 

 

 

*The idea of poetry expressing the experience of another piece of art, particularly visual art, ekphrastic poetry, long predates Modernism and Imagism. By using this approach to the everyday encounter with the world, the Imagists extended this technique.

**There is wide agreement that there is no singular vase/subject to discover that Keats actually encountered in a moment. Britain had recently absconded with “The Elgin Marbles” from Athens, a series of marble sculptures that Keats viewed in London, and he had seen period vases, even making his own drawing of one.

***In Illness as Metaphor,  Susan Sontag spent a good deal of time on the historical ascribing of tuberculosis to a dissipated or too passionate life-style in pre-germ-theory times. Currently, lovers may be close but separated precisely by our knowledge of microbes.

The Snow Man

I’m sure many readers here are enjoying spring or its imminent promise. In Minnesota, not so much. It was 4⁰ F. when I awoke this morning, and everyone is already flinching for another snow-storm due this weekend. So let’s have one more winter piece, this time by Wallace Stevens from his landmark collection Harmonium, “The Snow Man.”

Abandoned Winter Schwinn 1080

Not the first sign of spring.

 

Over at the Interesting Literature blog, Oliver Tearle reminded me that Stevens was influenced by John Keats as a younger man, and in his reading of “The Snow Man”  he has Stevens’ poem as a statement of his break from that youthful connection. Keats, and the romantics of his sort, were great fans of the pathetic fallacy and have no shame in ascribing to any landscape or natural object feelings and personality that the poet can address.

Even if we think that talking Keatsian nightingales bearing messages is an absurdly old-fashioned trope, we’ve never left the idea that weather or a landscape is supposed to mean  something. Book, movie, poem, song video—if we’re given a bleak winter picture we’re usually led to understand that death, suffering, despair, scarcity, loss, or the like is what’s being conveyed.

In “The Snow Man”  Stevens describes a winter scene. Snow-trimmed trees in an icy wind which is carrying refracting snow crystals. Stevens’ conclusion from this is ironically—well there’s no other way to put it—cold. We’re not supposed to draw any meaning from it, other than meaning-free is-ness.

It just so happens, that Keats wrote his own short lyric poem about winter “In the Drear Nighted December.”  And yes, there’s immediately an emotion attributed to a bare-branched tree wind-whipped by sleet and then to a frozen brook in Keats’ poem.

What’s that emotion? Happy.

Woah—why happy? Because Keats has these landscape features also in a state of simple is-ness. They reckon no loss from summer, know no delay ‘till spring.

Keats Buddhist koan is “to feel and not to feel it.” Stevens, “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” These two poems approach in seeming opposition, but merge in agreement.

The Snow Man

A Modernist sculpture of American poet Wallace Stevens

 

One other thing in “The Snow Man”  to note: where’s the titular snow man? Perhaps including one in Stevens’ scene would add a connotation of jolly play, or the impermanence of artistic making—but if that’s so, why call the poem “The Snow Man?”  Could it be a mind trick, the equivalent of instructing “Imagine a winter scene, but I don’t want you to see a snow man in your imagination. Make very sure  you don’t even think a little bit about a jaunty snow man or an elaborately constructed one now melting…?” Tearle’s solution is that the snow man is the speaker of the poem, the “nothing that is” there, the cold observer that we don’t see because we’re looking from his cindered eyes.

My performance of Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man”  can be played with the gadget below. If you’d like to read along, the full text of the poem and Oliver Tearle’s short discussion of it is here. Want to hear Keats’ “In the Drear Nighted December?”  We presented it here a while back as part of the Parlando Project, and we have over 300 other audio pieces archived here ready to listen to.

 

To Autumn

October 4th is National Poetry Day in the U.K. this year, an event similar, though more condensed, to the National Poetry Month in April promoted out of the U.S.

No one’s revealed why April for the Poetry Month, though Chaucer and T. S. Eliot may have put in their votes, and the reasons for the fall date for Poetry Day could be arbitrary too. But autumn would have an emotional claim. Fall is changeable in weather, an underrated Spring of warm days and cold shuffling themselves. It has its long-established events: school years underway, harvests and harvest festivals, the closing of summer venues, Halloween, Veterans Day/Remembrance Day. Fall can also be an easy metaphor for approaching death, but poetry is one buffer we use to handle that subject anyway.

John Keats wrote one of his last and finest poems to the season almost 200 years ago in the autumn of 1819. It’s full of the strengths of Keats’ writing. Even in his time Keats was both praised and dismissed for the sensuousness of his poetry, and not a line goes by without some sensation of taste, touch, color and sound, and all that is contained in beautiful word music and an off-balance rhyme scheme that may couplet-rhyme two lines together, or tantalizingly wait two or four lines for the rhyme.

John Keats listening to the Nightingale on Hampstead Heath c1845 by Joseph Severn.

Look at that great single-track behind you John. In only 160 years someone will invent the mountain bike

 

Even if some of his words are 200-years-old antique, or for us Americans, peculiarly English, he crams all these sensations in his poem without them seeming forced, as if they were special or unnatural “poetic” things. Many of the sense words in this poem are of ordinary manual labor: load, bend, fill, set, reap’d, laden, press, and borne.

Where he is outrageously poetic is that this poem is an apostrophe. The entire poem is addressed, just as the title says, as if the season was a person: “To Autumn.”  A poet doing that today would, intentionally or otherwise, produce a humorous effect. Still, if we allow it, the second stanza gives us a leisurely fall, a farmer taking a break on a warm autumn day from rural labor, hiding in a barn, or taking a nap in a half-harvested field, but yet also returning to pressing cider from apples down to the last drop, and bearing away hand-gathered food on his head “like a gleaner.”

Gleaner is one of those antique words. It was a practice in some places to allow the poor and those without land to gather what leftover grain might be left in the fields after harvest. Just this week I was reading on the always Interesting Literature blog that Keats may have had this practice on his mind as gleaning had just been outlawed in England, and that other images in the poem may have had social resonances with Keats at the time.

The Gleaners by Francios Millet

Painters whose names suggest a subject for their painting: “The Gleaners” by François Millet

 

The poem’s final stanza retreats with distant banners flying, a symphony of extreme audio dynamic range. The infinitesimal sound of gnats flying is a choir. The wind crescendos and decrescendos. Lambs bleat loudly and then there is silence. Crickets arpeggiate for time. Birds whistle, twitter and leave in the sky, migrating away, and the poem ends.

Keats himself ends as a poet, this being one of his last works. He leaves for Italy in hopes it will help his tuberculosis, which it won’t. He’s dead in about a year.

My music for this today is acoustic guitar with bass and some orchestral parts: winds, a couple of cellos, a pair of violins. The player to hear it is just below.

 

 

Here’s a #nationalpoetryday bonus, featuring a very different British poetry from about a century later, T. E. Hulme’s “Autumn.”  Hulme was a too-little-known instigator of Modernist poetry in English, and like a lot of instigators he moved by opposition to previous schools. In particular, he disliked the English Romantic tradition of Keats, viewing it as too flowery, to full of images that were no longer real and which had become only conventional symbols.

Interestingly, in his “Autumn,”  Hulme’s central image is similar to Keats: instead of a farmer taking a break in his granary or napping in a field, he has a harvest moon looking over a hedge like “a red-faced farmer.”

Here’s my performance of Hulme’s “Autumn,”  which you can also listen to with the player gadget below. If you like this sort of thing, be sure to spread the word about what we do here at the Parlando Project.

 

 

London between rain showers

Last night I saw the London production of “The Girl from the North Country.”  The play’s production illustrates well how context can change a work of art.

I traveled 4,000 miles to see a play in London written by an Irishman integrating work by a Jewish iron-ranger with a British cast portraying a multi-racial rooming house in what was once Minnesota’s second largest city in the 1930s. The Irish playwright is Conor McPherson and the integrated work was 20-some songs by Bob Dylan.

How much went wrong in such an enterprise? I suppose plenty. I could see seams, but it seamed not to matter much. The core idea, of placing Dylan’s songs in the context of the 1930s worked well. Songs you believed needed to be set in the beatnik early 60s or the cultural turmoil of the around 10 years we don’t name as a decade after that, or  against the Reagan/Thatcher or Christian fundamentalist revival and so on, lived inside different lives anachronistically.

Is it a Dylan musical? Not really. Minutes taken out of context could look like that somewhat new form, the Jukebox Musical, but the dramatic material is darker and more substantial than the kind of utilitarian connective material in a Jukebox Musical’s book. This is play with music, not music connected by play. The songs are all sung by the actors, and the musicians are all on stage, sometimes mingling in tableau. In one brilliant little piece of business, a drum set placed upstage has various actors in the cast sitting at it and banging out simple but effective Basement Tapes backing.

In the best moments, the songs (or portions of songs, few are sung in anything close to their entirety) function like an ancient Greek chorus, or at least as I read those classic Greek plays in English translation. The play (or book if you must) reminded me of Eugene O’Neill, someone I have not read or seen in performance  in decades. Poetic dialog was uttered often, but character context kept this from being overly artificial (it’s a very unusual cast of  characters).

The parts are well sung, and the all-acoustic band with period-correct instruments does well. Same with the acting, which ranged from excellent to good, in a performance that demands a lot from it’s cast. As an evening of theater my wife and I thought it was transcendent, as theater should be. At the end of the performance, about a third of the audience jumped up in standing ovation, followed slowly by another portion, perhaps a third again. As we walked out we heard the reaction of some of that sitting third, disappointed at what has been a very well-reviewed production. I have no idea what the London-usual is for ovations, but in the Twin Cities, everyone stands almost all the time.

My wife doubts it will ever have a U.S. production. She thinks the material is too dark to appeal to audiences seeking uplift for their expensive theater tickets. I’d add that the play’s plot is very indirect with lots and lots of dead ends and shaggy dog story elements. If one is open to that (as I am) this doesn’t hurt anything, but some will miss the comfort of standard story through-lines. By chance I saw “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri”  on the plane trip over, and its Irish screenwriter, Martin McDonagh, also setting his story in America, has a similar shaggy storyline, and asks for similar emotional commitment for unexpected sharp plot turns. McDonagh’s screenplay however, treats  most of its characters, most of the time, as morons. This is not a metaphorical epithet. I found it puzzling and ultimately disrespectful for no good effect that so many in “Three Billboards”  were played as being so dumb.

By contrast, in “Girl from the North Country” McPherson has two characters who frankly have mental disabilities, and yet even they are offered more discernment and respect from their author creator in his play.

You do not have to be a Dylan fan to enjoy this play, but you do have to accept a tale that starts with all in trouble  and finishes with things worse for almost all, and with a singing of “Forever Young” that could cause you to never hear the song the same way again.

 Keats Pharmacy crop

Actual storefront in Hampstead. A sour joke:
vaccination against consumption was not available to apothecary/surgeon John Keats

Today we paired my wife’s love of nature with my love of Keats by visiting the Keats House near Hampstead Heath. Keats House is the duplex that was Keats last rental home, and the place where he wrote many of his best poems. There are few real Keats artifacts, but the house contains some of them and replicas of others. Seeing Keats marked-up Milton books, covered with underlined passages and marginalia in Keats own cramped hand was one highlight. I’m no expert on early 19th Century English living standards, but the  living quarters seemed surprisingly middle class adjusted for the time considering what I knew of Keats struggles with money.

My wife caught a break in the grey gloom and rain showers to spend some time roaming the heath while I nursed a cup of tea and started some blog posts and people watching. I have no Bob Dylan to share today, but here’s a version of John Keats “In the Drear-Nighted December” performed by the LYL Band.

Dunbar

Here’s a piece using an outwardly modest poem by a modest poet, Anne Spencer. It spoke so quietly to me, that at first I overlooked it when I was reading James Weldon Johnson’s seminal “The Book of American Negro Poetry”  anthology, which included it. Just a few weeks later I saw a small story online about her exemplary life as a behind-the-scenes civil-rights activist, which mentioned that she was also a poet.

From it’s title we know she is following one of the Parlando Project mottos: “Other Peoples’ Stories.” When the poem utters its refrain “Chatterton, Shelley, Keats, and I…” that “I” is to be understood as Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was at that time a decade dead at the age of 33, but who was still the most famous Afro-American poet.

Long-time readers here have already met up with Dunbar, and Shelley and Keats require little introduction to those acquainted with English verse. That first name, Chatterton may draw a blank however.

Thomas Chatterton was the most famous failure in 19th Century English literature. A poor boy with pluck he had tricked his way into a modicum of fame by pretending to be the discoverer of a tranche of medieval poetry by a Thomas Rowley. To keep the pot boiling and to engage in the roiling politics of the day, he wrote journalism and opinion pieces under more than one pseudonym, as well as further literary works. The gig economy of his time was not kind to Chatterton. At the height of his career, he would earn about $9 in current dollars for his longer articles. In contrast, writers of our last post’s Burma Shave’s jiggles were paid over $800 in today’s money.

So how does Chatterton make it onto Anne Spencer’s words for Dunbar?

Chatterton was doing all this as a teenager. Fatherless, broke, starving, seemingly at the end of his resources, he took a fatal dose of arsenic and died in his garret. He wasn’t yet 18.

Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis

Morbid it might be, but “The Death of Chatterton” was a popular and often reproduced 19th Century painting
Given its time, social media was not blamed for his death, but political and class prejudice was.

 

A few decades later, the British Romantics grab on to Chatterton’s case as the perfect example of rejection of the beautiful by the unperceiving. Keats, who was himself tagged as a low-born pretender writing “Cockney poetry” in “uncouth language,” wrote a sonnet to Chatterton. The too-little-appreciated-in-his-short-life Percy Bysshe Shelley, exiled from his culture for radical political and social views, writes “Adonais,”  the now famous ode on the death of Keats at age 25. In it, Chatterton is met on a heavenly throne “Rose pale, his solemn agony had not yet faded from him” as he greets the now dead Keats/Adonais.

Note here the unperceiving in each case has something to do with politics and class prejudice.

And now we return to Anne Spencer. At age 11, the legend has it she was barely literate, six years later she was the valedictorian of her graduating class. Two years later she married and settled in Lynchburg Virginia. Eventually she wrote while raising children and working as a school librarian. In 1918, she helped found the local chapter of the NAACP. Her home became a waystop for numerous notable Afro-Americans traveling in Virginia (“Jim Crow” laws would have segregated public accommodations). James Weldon Johnson (one of the founders of the NAACP) was one of those visitors, and finding that Anne wrote poetry, he helped her work get first published in 1920.

whites only smaller

Two “Whites Only” signs from the Diane and Alan Page collection.
Homes like Spencer’s were important facilitators for Black American travel.

 

Spencer was nearly 40 years old before that first publication. Clearly not the live fast/die young sort. In 1922 when Johnson published the first ever anthology of Afro-American verse, Spencer was included, along with the obvious choice of Dunbar himself. Concluding his introduction to that collection, Johnson said of Spencer’s verse that she was “The most modern and least obvious in her methods.”

“Dunbar”  demonstrates that. Shelley’s “Adonais”  is hundreds of lines. Spencer’s “Dunbar”  is five. Shelley will tell it, repeating and restating his theme in stanza by stanza of glorious English Romantic verse. Spencer’s “Dunbar”  sits quietly, in the midst of this history of poets who died young, whose voices were muffled by prejudice before they were stilled by death. It’s just one chorus. She groups them, tells us Paul Laurence Dunbar found himself with them, a statement of quiet, powerful, assertion.

Perhaps you need to know this history to appreciate the power of that, that “Chatterton, Shelley, Keats, and I” isn’t some arbitrary listing, a line that happens in a small poem talking about a poet—but it’s good to know history, it’s good to have a Black History month, it’s good to know that Keats and Shelley, who now are hallowed in our textbooks, weren’t greeted as worthy poets by their times. It’s good to know that one woman around a hundred years ago in segregated Virginia, quietly but eloquently wrote, and steadfastly worked, to assert a different world.

To hear my performance of Anne Spencer’s “Dunbar,”  use the player below.

 

Ozymandias

I came upon Percy Bysshe Shelley and this poem like many have, a teenager with a school poetry anthology on my desk. It is a good teaching poem, what with its readily accessible irony—and so, “Ozymandias”  came to me, nestled with poems by Keats and Byron, within the handy “The Romantics” chapter.

Stepping outside the poetry, even briefly, into biography, I found them a glamourous bunch of young men to my teenaged heart. The original “live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse” crew. Political and sexual revolutionaries, aesthetes with groupies. Should I study them, or seek to be them? Well the former was on offer, the latter harder to obtain for someone of my looks and stature.

Oxford-University_Shelley_Memorial

One Romantic depiction of Shelley’s drowned corpse, which looks better than some of us do alive.

 

In the 1960s Byron, Keats and Shelley were the rock stars in my textbooks. To the generation before the coming of the 20th Century Modernists, they seemed that too, even if “rock star” wasn’t yet a metaphor in the shops. So, Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to be Byron, Keats and Shelley too. In America, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Paul Laurence Dunbar showed that you didn’t have to be male or white to feel that urge. Even unique figures like Rabindranath Tagore were touched by their model.

Well, despite the notoriety, the tangled amorous relationships, and the requirement of a tragic early death—yes, in spite of this—in the end the romantic, idealist stance doesn’t remove the poet from the mundane tasks of writing poetry any more than drugs and sex remove from a rock star the need to come up with, well, some music once in a while.

Such is the case here of “Ozymandias.”  Did this poem strike Shelley’s poetic soul in a flash of hashish inspiration while adventuring in the Middle East? Well, no. If we were to continue the musical analogies, it instead came from a silent, slow-motion, written-poetry equivalent of a Battle of the Bands, a Rap Battle, or a songwriter’s Song Pull, a friendly contest undertaken with another poet, Shelley’s contemporary Horace Smith. They both were working off the same short passage from 1st Century BC Greek historian Diodorus, which gives both of them the plot. Here’s Smith’s “Ozymandias:”

Horace Smiths Ozymandias

Horace Smith’s version of “Ozymandias.” Not found in schoolbooks.

 

After they finished their competing works, I wonder how Smith felt. If one goes to poetry for meaning, these two poems make near the same point. Imagery-wise, Shelley’s choice and portrayal of the broken statue on a barren desert does have better selection of detail. And Smith, trying to make his rhyme, has one particularly awkward line, the one ending “holding the Wolf in chace” (“chace” is an Old-French word that was once used in English to mean hunt). But where Shelley kills it here, is his word-music. If you look at Shelley’s manuscript of “Ozymandias”  you can see some of how he worked on these things, so they wouldn’t be “lifeless things.”

Art is not a competition. Criteria are slippery things, and what works in one poem, fails in another. Even day to day, within our own singular selves, what we seek from, or need from, art differs—but Smith’s “Ozymandias”  was rightfully eclipsed by Shelley’s.

In my music and performance of “Ozymandias”  I went counter to other presentations I’ve heard. The poem’s lyricism and the later 19th Century acceptance of Shelley as a portrayer of ideal beauty has masked the Shelley that was a political radical and iconoclast. As a result, many read it lightly, bringing out its sonic beauty or its pathos. I don’t know how Shelley, the radical, would want it read, but I’ve always felt that the traveler who’s telling this tale knows all too well, in non-historic terms, about living under a hand that mocked them with a sneer of cold command.

Therefore, I emulated the spirit of another English iconoclast, Kevin Coyne, for this piece. I love the probably apocryphal story of Coyne being approached about replacing Jim Morrison in The Doors, that rock star/poet hybrid. In Coyne’s telling, he turned them down because he “didn’t like the leather trousers.”  To hear my sans culottes performance of “Ozymandias,”  with more disgust at tyranny and less pathos at time’s ravages, use the player below.

 

In The Drear-Nighted December

200 years ago this month a 21 year old surgical resident decided to give up his studies to become a doctor and to instead concentrate on the writing of poetry. An interesting decision. He had already rolled up a considerable education debt, and while it’s possible that poetry’s earnings potential might have been greater in 1816 than today, greater than zero is not a high bar.

So how prudent was our young not-to-be surgeon? He had tried his hand at poetry and had published a couple of poems in magazines before his decision. Hmm. Not a great prospectus you might think. In a rough translation for our time, it’s as if the young student had ditched his studies and loan debt for a shot at touring as an indie-rocker, even though he’s only played in his dorm room and doesn’t have a band.

His friends thought he had promise. In the forthcoming year, and with their help, he would find a publisher for his first volume of poems, but his work was mostly unnoticed, and where noticed, the reviews were at best mixed. One reviewer had rich fun with this impudence:

“The spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity…. It is a better and easier thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; go back to the shop, Mr. John, back to `plasters, pills and ointment boxes.'”

Another reviewer offered this judgement

“We regret that a young man of vivid imagination and fine talents should have fallen into so bad hands as to have been flattered into the resolution to publish verses, of which a few years hence he will be glad to escape from the remembrance.”

We know how this turns out, more times than not: the young fool will be unable to sustain a long career in the arts—and yes, that was the case here. The young surgeon turned poet was to have a career of less than 5 years—but that was because of his early death at age 25. Yup, he dies two years too young to make the 27 club. Our surgeon turned poet was John Keats.

Besides talent, and desire that was the equivalent of foolishness, Keats worked very hard reading poetry, thinking about it, and writing it in those less than five years, producing some of the best lyric poetry in English.

In my own twenties, this encouraged and discouraged me. On one hand, it said I could write and read fearlessly as a young poet in the first half of my twenties; and on the other, as I measured what I had accomplished, I often admonished myself: John Keats died at 25.

Almost exactly one year after he broke from medicine for poetry, John Keats wrote the words for this piece In the Drear-Nighted December. He wrote it after struggling for much of the year to write his first long piece, Endymion, a neo-classical epic in heroic couplets that he never thought he got right.

This is something many writers experience. You struggle mightily to create something. Something big, something impressive. You bring all your craft to it, but it doesn’t quite work. You finish it, or otherwise set it aside, and in the aftermath out pops another smaller-seeming thing that is much more perfect. It’s like the muse says to you “You don’t control me and direct this, and here’s the proof.”

What has Keats done here? First off, those words cannot be read and not sung. This kind of silent melody is not easy to do in English, yet here is the young Keats doing it brilliantly. His images? I’m deep in a minus 17 degree F. Minnesota afternoon as I write this this. His trees with their “sleety whistle,” those branches glued with ice, once flowing water frozen like mineral crystals—I know these things, but Keats has said them well to remind me that we both know.

Keatslifemask

John Keats encased in Carbonite by Jabba the Bad Reviews

And then his sublime last verse, so beautiful I could not help but repeat it. In two verses Keats has setup an nice lyric that doesn’t stray far from convention. To paraphrase: “Hey, look at nature in winter. Doesn’t look like it does in spring or summer at all. Even though we conscious beings know (more than dumb water and trees) that these trees will bud and the brook water will flow again, nature doesn’t care.” Now the third verse: “How smart are we compared to non-conscious nature? We will ‘writhe’ in pain as things are taken from us (and though unspoken: since the image has been of a repeating natural cycle, this will happen again and again). This is not a poem that says “Suffering? Don’t worry, spring will come again.” This is poem that says suffering will come again, as surely as winter. “The feel and not to feel it, when there is none to heal it.” What a line: “The feel and not to feel it!”

A good song for winter solstice, so to hear the LYL Band perform In the Drear-Nighted December, click the play button the player gadget that will appear below.