Everyday Alchemy

I don’t have much to say yet about Genevieve Taggard, who wrote the words I perform today. Unlike (for example) Jean Toomer she’s not one of those writers who are only names to me, because until this month I’d never heard of her. I came upon Taggard reading John Dizikes’ Love Songs,  a lively group biography of nine women in the poetic milieu of New York City during the first part of the 20th Century. I’m only halfway through the book, and he’s starting to tell about Taggard.

Genevieve Taggard

Genevieve Taggard

 

I’m told that, like Millay and Teasdale, Taggard began writing with a nuanced eye about love, that subject that combines not just desire and it’s thwarting, but also easily branches into the nature of relationships between people. I have so far read only two or three of Taggard’s poems from this era, but overviews of her career mention that after the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism, she was one of the writers who moved to direct political engagement on the leftist side, which in the ‘30s in the U.S. most often meant alignment with the Communists.

Taggard died fairly young in 1948, and her career never reached any heights to fall from. As it was, the second half of that century that I share with her was not very kind to many of those who made that move. For some their Red past was overlooked if they themselves acted as if they had overlooked it too. Some recanted their former beliefs, and of course there are reasons one might do that.*

Why would this harm an American artist like Taggard who didn’t live until the rise of an anti-Stalinist and non-Soviet Union aligned New Left? This was the era of the New Criticism, which took the stance that politics was an inferior non-Parnassian and transitory arena compared to art, and besides many of the New Critics “private” political views were conservative. Poor Taggard. Writing about love was considered a minor poet’s subject, the sort of thing non-serious women were prone to do, but leaving that and engaging in party-line political action wouldn’t gain anything from New Criticism either.

None of Taggard’s work is in print and I may never get around to finding, much less reading, her politically engaged work, so I can’t really speak to its quality.**

I figure I’ve just lost half my readers now, and I’m unsure why I brought this up, other than when I read “Everyday Alchemy”  at the end of a chapter in Dizikes’ book, I was transfixed. Is this a political poem or a love poem? This is a poem that is both heartfelt and sharp in its analysis. Like much great art it’s balanced on razor’s edge, one half clear-eyed on the unfairness of the emotional burdens placed on women by men, and one-half equally sure that society gives poor and working-class men no other peace. In eleven lines Taggard speaks volumes on this. It’s nearly 100 years old, yet has it outdated? As poetry it works well too, ringing word-sounds via consonance and assonance, fragmented phrasing in a relentless dance. This is what it sounds like when doves cry.

Everyday Alchemy

If you’d like to read along while you listen, here’s the text of Taggard’s poem.

 

When I say a love poem can be as complicated, as analytical as any, “Everyday Alchemy”  would be a great example. I’m told the 1930’s Taggard considered most of her early poetry about love as a mistaken focus after she moved on to her later political stuff. However, observers note that this poem, published in her first love-poem book For Eager Lovers, was reprinted again in her reputedly socialist realist volume Calling Western Union  in 1936. This poem works both ways.

Here’s my performance of this remarkable poem, available with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

 

*This is a complex story, and I’m skipping over so much history and passion here, but it’s one of those things that is impossible to summarize adequately in a couple of sentences.

**I am seeking to get a hold of her 1930 biography The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson  via my local library system however.

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He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Here’s a romantic poem by William Butler Yeats, in both senses of that word. “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”  is Romantic in the literary and artistic sense in that it seeks to reconcile personal emotional experience with some sublime otherness through imagination, and it’s romantic in the sense that the poem takes a courting stance, that it’s an expression of love for another.

Yeats is one of those “bridge” poets who did substantial work in both the 19th and the 20th centuries. Always fiercely lyrical, he was able to recast his poetry so it continued to be read into the Modernist era. This poem, though written in the 19th century—and proving it by using an entirely antique word “Enwrought” to start off its second line—remains in circulation as some lovers still recall its ending.

It’s a short poem, only eight lines, so it can’t waste time.*  The first four lines are devoted to a nicely rendered image of the sky and a richly embroidered cloth, the sort of thing that would indicate high fashion when it was written. Of course, this is self-consciously an image on the poet’s part, he acknowledges that he’s made it as poets make images, as a new way to apprehend reality.

Oliver Tearle, over at the always Interesting Literature  blog, points out that prime English Modernist T. E. Hulme made his own version of this sky/cloth image only a few years after Yeats when he wrote his “The Embankment.”  Hulme saw himself as setting out to overthrow Romanticism, and I’d suppose it’s possible that he could even have been thinking of Yeats’ poem as he created his different one. Considering the two poems together makes for an interesting contrast.**

After those first four lines, Yeats goes on to reference something that was once a widely-known tale—just as untrue, but just as commonly known as Washington copping to chopping down the cherry tree. In the English mythical tale, Walter Raleigh, acting as a paradigm of Elizabethan courtly love and devotion was said to have taken off his expensive cloak and laid it over a muddy spot on the road so that Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t soil her royal footwear. And so it is that Yeats says he’d make this beautiful image and then allow his beloved to trod all over it.

Yeats monument at Drumcliff

Yeats’ poem enwrought by sculptor Jackie McKenna in Drumcliff Ireland. Photo by Eric Jones.

 

There’s also something more here than just self-abasement or Yeats’ confidence in his brand of detergent: by saying he could put the plane of the heavens underneath his beloved, he’s also saying his poetry could take her to Heaven. But blink and you’d miss that implication.

Yes, the closing three lines are the poem’s best remembered, still quoted by those who have put themselves in the danger of love, or the danger of love refused. Romantic and romantic, and like most anything by Yeats, it just sounds so good! I performed it with acoustic guitar, electric bass, and a bevy of woozy keyboards, and you can hear it with the gadget I have spread below under your feet (or finger or mouse). Click softly.

 

 

 

 

 

*Here’s the text of the poem for those who like to read along. When the poem was originally published, Yeats used a persona as the poem’s speaker. Aedh was a kind of John-Keats-besotted nebbish character from what I read, and in doing so, Yeats is hedging his bets on the poem’s Romanticism, kind of a “I’m just asking for a friend” deal. When he included the poem in later collections, he dropped the persona.

**Here’s Tearle’s run-down of how Yeats’ does it in this poem, which also has links to his post about Hulme’s “The Embankment.” To hear my performance of Hulme’s “The Embankment,” you can click here. Beside producing one of the best daily literature blogs, I owe Dr. Tearle for introducing me to the work of T. E. Hulme, the pioneering Modernist poet and theorist who I’ve often featured here.

Sara Teasdale’s I Am Not Yours or the Love Song of Ernst Filsinger

Sara Teasdale wrote some of the saddest love poems I’ve ever read.

Less-well remembered than she should be, for a time about 100 years ago Teasdale was the most popular and esteemed love poet in America. In 1918 she won the Pulitzer prize for a new collection of her poetry, labeled right there on the cover with the title “Love Songs.”

Harriet Monroe, the founder and editor of Poetry,  the indispensable American poetry journal of the day, said of Teasdale “She was as delicate as a lily, but under the white-petaled perfume one felt in her presence an impassioned intensity of feeling which her brief lyrics were then beginning to express.”

So, what did Teasdale know about love? More and less than you might expect. Born in 1884 in a wealthy and religiously conservative St. Louis family, she was protected and sheltered* until she was nearly 30 when her poetry career took her away from St. Louis to New York and Chicago.

As her poetry expresses, she dearly wanted to fall deeply in love, but she also wanted the independence to write, and though she moved in bohemian circles during a time of great social change, she’d internalized some of her family’s conservative values.

Romantic stories revel in love triangles, but Sara Teasdale, the woman who’d get the Pulitzer Prize as a love poet was about to deal with a love rhombus. She was crushing on a young poet she admired, John Hall Wheelock. She told Wheelock he was “The greatest living poet.” He wasn’t, though he was flattered. Wheelock, like Teasdale’s family, was a bit of a blue-blood, and he respected Teasdale’s poetic talents, but he was not interested in marrying her.

Then there was Vachel Lindsay, a literary phenom of the time, who had vagabonded about the U.S. trading his poems for meals and then bootstrapped that into touring the country’s speaking halls giving flamboyant readings of his chanted poetry. Lindsay, unlike Wheelock, wanted to marry Teasdale, and he plied his troth by dedicating books of his poetry to her**, but the reserved and sheltered Teasdale was both intimidated by his bluster and worried about his ability to provide the kind of stable home that would allow her to continue writing.

Who’s the fourth rhombus side? A St. Louis businessman, Ernst Filsinger. Like the other two, Filsinger appreciated Teasdale’s poetry, and like Lindsay he wanted to marry her. Problem solved? Well, Teasdale wanted to be deeply, mutually in love, and she wasn’t sure she loved Filsinger that much.

Sara Teasdale's Love Rhombus

Tuning up for her Pulitzer-winning “Love Songs” Teasdale was tempering her intonation with three men.

 

Wheelock says that Teasdale asked him to decide who she should marry. “You know Vachel. I want you to meet Ernst. And I want you to tell me what to do. Which of these two good men should I marry? Should I marry Vachel Lindsay, who’s a genius and whose poetry I love? Or should I marry this fine, tall, dark, good-looking businessman who seems to care for my poetry?”

Wheelock may not have been the greatest living poet in 1914, but he seems a sensible sort of guy.*** He says he told Teasdale she  must make the choice. She replied that no, he had to tell her which to marry, that she wouldn’t blame him if anything went wrong. OK, he said, he didn’t see her being happy with Lindsay “I don’t think you are one who could live in the kitchen doing all the housework and scrubbing the floors.”

She married Filsinger.

The next year she published the poem I used for today’s piece “I Am Not Yours”  in a collection titled Rivers to the Sea,  whose title came from a poem by Wheelock. “I Am Not Yours”  also appears in her  Love Songs  collection that won the Pulitzer.

It’s possible to read this poem quickly and read it as a crush poem, a supple lyric about being madly in love with someone, where the title and opening phrase is poised rhetorically in the moment before love’s inevitable consummation will occur, as a poem written by someone who realizes her autonomy, but is willing to submit it to overwhelming passion. Teasdale’s poetry was not just prize-winning, it was popular in its time. Someone might read this poem at a wedding. It’s likely that Teasdale, who wrote this the same month as she married, wrote it thinking of hers.

Go ahead, listen to it now. Here’s the player gadget.

 

 

So how did things turn out for the Sara Teasdale love rhombus?

Wheelock lived until 1973. In his memoir of his life in publishing he said that the best way to edit poets is to not edit them. “If a person needs to have his poems edited, then he’s not a poet, because poets are perfectionists, and by the time they get through with all their agonizing work on a poem, either they’ve ruined it by revising too much or it’s the way it should be.” He’d tried to apply that principle to Teasdale’s marriage choice.

Vachel Lindsay may have been too odd and flawed to ever last long, but the Eliot and Pound wing of cultured expatriate High Modernism crushed him by the late 20s, and the mid-century New Criticism could barely bother with the effort to find the grievous lapses in good taste in his “higher vaudeville.” In 1931, depressed by his inability to keep his debts at bay as his touring revenue dried up, he drank Lysol and killed himself.

At first Sara Teasdale’s marriage seemed to work. Filsinger allowed her to concentrate on her writing, but she eventually felt the loss of not being lost in passion. In 1929, while Filsinger was overseas on a business trip, she headed west to a state with easier divorce laws and informed him by telegram. By the Thirties, Teasdale’s lyricism and complex emotional content fell out of favor with High Modernism/the New Criticism too.**** The poet who had won the Pulitzer Prize for a book called Love Songs  felt unloved and forgotten. A little over a year after Lindsay’s death, she took an overdose of prescription meds and died in a filled bathtub.

And Ernst Filsinger? No one cares for the biographies of businessmen much after they die. We are not likely to sing the book he authored Exporting to Latin America  to music decades later. His obituary claimed he gave the first transatlantic after-dinner speech by radio in 1929, speaking from Berlin to the National Foreign Trade Council sitting in Baltimore. Who now notes what he said? He died in China in 1937. In his memoir, Wheelock says he heard Filsinger too committed suicide, but I have no confirmation of that. Is it possible that he, Prufrock-like, heard the mermaids singing, but pointedly, personally knew they had, at least once, sang for him?

Even if we largely ignore it, we store away beautiful things like prize-winning lyric poetry, so we can read and hear what Sara Teasdale wrote the month she married. Listen again to “I Am Not Yours”  or read it here. Looking to be the I that is I, but longing to get lost in love and knowing she was not, speaking of her light, a mere candle lit at noon, and asking for it to be plunged, put out.

As you read this, I tell you again that the first duty of an artist is to survive

Love poetry if it’s any good is as varied and complex as love is, as life is. Sara Teasdale wrote some of the saddest love poems I’ve ever read.

 

 

 

*Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Teasdale also had some kind of long-standing (and hard to diagnose via remote historical methods) illnesses. This only increased the family’s protectiveness.

**Another admiring poet who dedicated work to Teasdale was Witter Bynner. Bynner was gay.

***Wheelock eventually had a long career in publishing, and he prided himself with befriending, scouting and signing poets from Louise Bogan and Conrad Aiken to May Swenson and James Dickey. His memoir is The Last Romantic: A Poet Among Publishers.

****Teasdale was born in St. Louis only four years before T. S. Eliot, even if she seems like she was born to a different generation, one both before and after Eliot. Their families, though Midwestern at their birth, shared similar New England backgrounds, and Teasdale attended a private St. Louis prep school founded by Eliot’s parents, and that was located next door to Eliot’s home until he was 16. One wonders if the two young poets were aware of each other as children, but Eliot left town at 17, Teasdale’s sheltered upbringing reduced the chances of social interaction, and Teasdale’s family were staunch Baptists while the Eliots were Unitarian.

Oh, and by the way, that Prufrock of Eliot’s first great poem? Prufrock was the name of another St. Louis businessman. If Eliot considered other name options from his St. Louis youth, Filsinger was less iambic as a name. Teasdale could have sounded its own connotations, but it wouldn’t fit with measuring with coffee spoons.

Love’s Greatest Hits

“If music be the food of love, then play on…” So said Shakespeare and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. Here at the Parlando Project we explore music and words (mostly poetry) crushing on each other, and some of our most listened-to audio pieces feature aspects of love. So, for Valentine’s Day here’s a countdown of our most popular pieces that feature love.

As it happens this “Top 10” also does a good job of showing the variety of music and ways we integrate the words with the music. I often think I spend the majority of the posts here talking about the words we use, but love, like music, often prefers “to speak without having anything to say,” the thing that music does.

10. Vegetable Swallow words by Tristan Tzara. When I translated this Dada poem I wasn’t expecting it to form the recognizable poem of desire that appeared. Musically I set this to something that is unorthodox rock. The keyboard parts don’t really work the way rock keyboards usually work, but the second half features an electric guitar solo that while it’s not rock, meets it at least half-way.

 

9. Love is Enough words by William Morris. More plainspoken than Tzara about the value of love in a world that doesn’t seem to want to contain it. Here the LYL Band is in garage band mode, with the usual keening combo organ of that Sixties’ genre along with two guitars, bass and drums.

 

8. The Heart of the Woman words by William Butler Yeats. One of the limitations I need to deal with in this project is that I’m not a very good singer, so it was particularly audacious here for me to perform Yeats’ poem of tender devotion acapella. One of the things I love about traditional folk music field recordings is that they often capture singers who are not perfect in pitch or in other qualities that make one say “what a singer!” That quality brings a different reflection on humanity and the words being sung.

 

7. Sonnet 130 My Mistresses Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun words by William Shakespeare. I loved the episode of Upstart Crow  where everyone and Shakespeare’s wife takes the bard to task for this too honest love poem that deconstructs every phony and limiting idea of beauty in his era’s poetry. Bonus Black History Month points to the possibility that the poem’s famous “Dark Lady” might have African ancestors. Musically, we leave rock’n’roll behind for 12-string acoustic guitar, bass, recorder and a string quartet.

 

6. Rosemary words by Edna St. Vincent Millay. One of my personal favorite musical performances from the more than 300 I’ve presented here in the last three years. I was trying to recreate the sound of the acoustic band The Pentangle, and I’m still shocked and pleased at how close I could get. Millay’s poem has a new broom sweeping out the old, failed love to make ready for a new one.

 

5. Sonnet 43 What Lips My Lips Have Kissed words by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Our first repeat appearance by a poet in this list, and there’s a tinge of romantic regret in this one, but also there’s some satisfaction in a life of romantic independence. A massively underrated poem! Another small string group arrangement here with some spare piano, but also electric bass and drums.

 

Allegory of Music by Laurent de La Hyre

Actual photo of my anima recording another Parlando Project piece. “Yeah, it needs more theorbo.”

 

4. Let Us Live and Love words by Thomas Campion. Another variation on the carpe diem poem that starts as Campion’s Elizabethan English translation of Roman poet Catullus, and then branches off to his own take. The music here is blues: acoustic guitar and slide guitar with harmonica. I don’t play bottleneck slide guitar much with the Parlando Project, but listeners for some reason seem to like the pieces where I do.

 

3. Tender Buttons words by Gertrude Stein. Another one where I outright tried to cop the style of another band, this time Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. I remain surprised at the number of listens this one has accumulated, and even when I posted this I wondered how many are out there that appreciate both Gertrude Stein and Captain Beefheart. More than I expected you brave souls!

Even more than the Tristan Tzara poem, this one abstracts desire and love; but particularly in its closing section, that’s what I read was there expressed in Stein’s cubist language. It’s possible that, though the language is different, Stein is making something of the same point as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 does, that desire starts at skin deep and cares little how it’s attired or to what it’s compared to. Beefheart did much the same thing lyrically as Stein—but also musically, reassembling shards of blues music and visual emotions.

 

2. Sonnet 18 Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day words by William Shakespeare. More rock band instrumentation used in a different way than usual. The tolling piano sure ain’t doing no boogie-woogie, for this poem is yet another carpe diem argument, presented only slightly differently. As always in carpe diem, “we’re all going to die” is the unlikely come-on, and Shakespeare isn’t making the “mistake” of his Sonnet 130, opening this one by saying his beloved is better than, rather than lesser than, a common poetic trope; but as the poem continues he makes the ego-drenched claim that he’s the better love partner because he’ll put you in a poem that’ll make you immortal.

How’d that work out for the love object? Lots of conjecture as to who might be the “fair youth” or the “dark lady” in those sonnets (or if Shakespeare is, well, capable of just making the whole thing up) but in fact, we’re more concerned with Shakespeare than his romantic partners. We treasure the valentines, not the fleshy and independent lovers that they may have been addressed to, and we hold them while their erstwhile subjects are dust without names.

Doesn’t seem fair does it? Maybe for Valentine’s today the best thing is to skip the questions of appropriate metaphor and honor that partner, and to return to poetry and song tomorrow?

I can’t be serious, can I? This project needs more listeners and readers!

 

1. Love and Money words by Dave Moore. Can this be? An original song by Dave, who has contributed words, music, vocals, inspiration and keyboards to this project from the start is more popular than Shakespeare? How could this be?

Could it be the elemental and essential nature of the pairing in the title and the rest of the lyrics? I was considering some slavery stories as I first considered Dave’s lyrics, that added some weight for me, but Dave’s words are free-floating as far as time and place. So, I’m not going to knock the words, but maybe it’s the funky way his electric clavinet and the rest of the LYL Band jells on this one.

 

 

Happy Valentine’s Day to every reader and listener here!

How Do I Love Thee

Here’s the plot of a story. It’s a difficult one to tell without it sounding like a romance novel—yet as best as history knows, it’s what happened.

There was this woman who grew up in a rich family whose wealth came from exploiting slave labor in colonial Jamaica. Shortly after she reaches adulthood the family fortunes take a severe blow as Britain outlaws slavery. The men of the family might think this the work of do-gooders with their onerous regulations ruining their business, but our woman aligns with the do-gooders, holding for the abolition of slavery and writing poems for that cause. In fact, she’s a very prolific writer, and has been writing since she was near Hilda Conklin’s age. In 1840 when William Wordsworth dies, she’s even considered a British poet laureate candidate. Well no, that didn’t happen. Woman and all I suppose.

Now let’s add some more difficulties for our heroine. She’s got a long-standing opiate addiction based on a hard to diagnose and painful chronic illness. And there’s some domestic tyranny to go with all this. Her father has forbidden his children from marrying.

That stipulation seems odd. There’s one theory, one that our heroine had some belief in: she may have been creole, that is, mixed-race.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning crop

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who believed she had “African blood”

 

None the less, as a woman of letters, her writing was free, and circulated widely. Her poetry found an admirer in another poet, Robert Browning, though he was at that point less successful than our heroine. They began to correspond and fell in love. Eventually there was a dramatic elopement. Her family condemned her and disowned her, but the love match seems to have sustained her for the rest of her life.

Other than her thought that she might have an African ancestor mixed in with the atrocity of slavery*, this story, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s story, was once very well-known.

As romantic as the Elizabeth Barrett Browning/Robert Browning story was considered in its day, I can’t help but think how a supermarket tabloid or Internet gossip site would treat this today. I can see the blurb:

“Unable to shake drugs, Liz escapes abusive home with stranger!”

 

Shortly after her marriage, she wrote a series of sonnets to the love of her life. In 1850 the love sonnets were published as Sonnets from the Portuguese**,  and today’s piece is the most well-known of them. Indeed, it’s likely the most loved Victorian love poem, and no matter the excess of old-fashioned sounding “Thees” in it, it’s still hanging around as one of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” as we approach Valentine’s Day.

Clasped_Hands_of_Robert_and_Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning_By Harriet Hosmer

Sculpture of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning’s clasped hands

 

Even if you feel too modern for it, or are concerned that the level of devotion expressed in it doesn’t seem consistent with a healthy independent self-image*** one should still be grateful for Elizabeth Barrett Browning, if only because she and the Bronte sisters were the chief models for Emily Dickinson.

To hear my performance of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee,”  use the player below.

 

 

 

*This theory is not universally accepted, and as far as I know was first suggested in 1995 by Julia Markus in her book Dared and Done  about the marriage. As I read of this, I was struck by the coincidence of having just presented Jean Toomer’s striking Modernist love poem, written by another writer with ambivalence about his mixed-race ancestry.

**The collection’s title was first chosen because there were Victorian-era worries that the book, with its somewhat scandalous subject of a woman expressing agency in love, might need to be presented as a translation of an anonymous foreign author. It also referred to Robert Browning’s pet name for Elizabeth, “My little Portuguese,” likely based on her darker coloration.

***By the way, I do not recommend footnotes for any of you who may send someone a Valentine-poem.

Her Lips are Copper Wire

Today’s piece brings the Parlando Project to 300 published audio pieces since we officially launched in August 2016. Is that a small or large number? Both. Certainly, a great deal of effort has gone into it, including effort to not use the same kind of poem throughout, and to vary the music that meets up with the words; but I can viscerally feel the smallness of that number when I come upon another poem, yet another author, I was not aware of, and I am struck by that encounter.

John Keats’ sonnet said this was like seeing an unknown Pacific Ocean for the first time. Emily Dickinson famously said it was that “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I still get those moments. This project has presented a good number of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits;” and like my last post, even there I’m often surprised at how unfamiliar those “well-known” poems can be when looked at anew. But I so enjoy this when I’m working with a poem I don’t know, one I’ve never seen, one that seems as new as it is new to me.

John Keats’ sonnet said this was like seeing an unknown Pacific Ocean for the first time. Emily Dickinson famously said it was that “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I still get those moments.

And so it was last month when I first saw Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire.”  This is not a poem that sneaks up on you, it starts right-out with its audacious title, and then every stanza of it draws you deeper in, until you reach the end and the poem’s tongue is in your mouth, and you are, like it, incandescent.

I knew the name Jean Toomer, but only as a name. I’d filed him away in the mental-drawer “Harlem Renaissance,” and that’s a place that’s difficult to go to with this project because most of the work of this between-the-world-wars blossoming of Afro-American culture is not yet in the public domain. Still, I was drawn in, I had to start looking.

Huzzah! this is another of the works from the year 1923, now freed for other artists to respond to. I then spent some time this month getting at least a shallow grasp of Toomer’s life and outlook, enough effort to say that there’s a great deal more there to apprehend. Toomer himself had an ambiguous relationship with being classified as part of the Harlem Renaissance, or even with being an Afro-American artist, and he may have gone even beyond Robert Hayden’s insistence that he was an artist who was Afro-American, not an Afro-American artist. Modern scholarship has unearthed paperwork where he was classed as white, possibly by his own doing.

Like most Afro-Americans, Toomer was mixed-race. He was light-skinned enough to “pass.” His first wife was white, and after he was widowed, so was his second—and least we forget, many U. S. states held those marriages as a criminal act in his time. And since the first duty of an artist is to survive, I’m not going to rush to second-guess his motives from my ignorance. And after all, a lighter skin tone didn’t immunize Toomer from racism—no American, whatever their ethnic background or genetic mix can escape it.

Jean_Toomer_ca._1920s.jpg

American writer Jean Toomer. The typewriter is manual, the poem is electric.

 

For now, let me leave the artist’s life, and those great and momentous social issues, and return to his work.

How does this poem capture you, stop you in your tracks? It starts out in an intermittent state. Is the opening stanza paraphrasing a lover’s soft conversation about lights along a street, or is it a metaphor that the lights in fog have been diffused to be in a synthesic vision like the sound of whispers? I think it’s both. We’re already moving down the dual and parallel lines of a circuit. And the sound! Whisper itself is an onomatopoeic word, the long O sounds of globes and posts sound a misty near-rhyme, and the next line’s march of short E sounds sways away.

Then Toomer adds another strain to the music and duality, the touch of the breath of the close whisperer. We’ve fallen in closer.

The “telephone the power-house” stanza seems to me to be like unto a blues interjection that I love in classic pre-war blues recordings, were the singer tells the audience, breaking aside from his melodic form, something that he wants his audience to know that he’s wise to, before returning to the melody.

And then we return to the ghosts of electricity,* softly howling or humming, in the bones of her face, and the circuit is completed, closed, and we’re there in mouth’s embrace.

What a love poem! I suppose one can step back from that and note that the lover is objectified, that there is a loss of power in that. But the poem’s very conceit seems to answer that objection, with its jolt of that closed and illuminated circuit. In Toomer’s poem, like in Paul Eluard’s great Surrealist love poem, in the end we may be seeking the state where we may speak without having a thing to say.

What a poem for the 300th audio piece here, for Black History Month, and for the month of Valentine’s Day! And so, to hear my performance and musical combination of Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire,”  use the player below.

 

 

*Bob Dylan couldn’t anachronistically have influenced Jean Toomer any more than he could have done so for T. S. Eliot. But it is possible that Dylan might have known Toomer’s poem when he wrote “Visions of Johanna.”   Michael North believes it possible that Toomer may have got his metaphor from early Imagist Richard Aldington, since Toomer had noted Aldington’s statement that a successful poem elicits “a sudden shock of illumination.”

Residents of crackling-dry winter Minnesota may wonder if Toomer could have had a more direct inspiration. As my wife and I say to each other when our lips touch and a static charge jumps the gap with a cupid-tiny bow-string snap: “Still got that spark.”

To His Coy Mistress

I can’t remember exactly when I first encountered Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,”  but it was far enough back that I earnestly identified with the poem’s narrator and his desires to find or convince a romantic partner.

That poem I read then is not the poem I read today, but even back in my misty youth I probably appreciated the wit of it along with the point of its argument. When I took a quick look at how “To His Coy Mistress”  is currently viewed, I see that appreciation for the poem’s wit and artifice has increased in the past few decades. It may not be possible to determine just how invested Marvell was in convincing the lady in question versus showing off his poetic chops, or even how sincere he was in his variation on the classic “carpe diem” argument that if you don’t go to bed with me, now!,  that you (currently comely love object) clearly  don’t realize that you’ll be a rotting corpse soon.

How romantic that! Here’s a box of candy too—by the way, do you know that such foods high in sugar and fat will likely lead to cardiovascular and other diseases—not to mention tooth decay and gum disease? No? Well, let me tell you….

I’m not sure how often throughout history that real and actionable knickers came flying off at this idea—but poets love it. If love, death, and beauty are the  poetic stuff, any chance to mix all three is impossible to resist.

I normally feel I have to come up with some supposition to perform one of these pieces, and what I decided here was that as a polemic, Marvell’s poetic swain means it. Which doesn’t mean he isn’t going to have some fun talking about it. Even my teenager/reader could smile at that exaggeration of the delay of traveling to India to look for jewels first,*   but did I appreciate then the auction-like absurdity bidding up the hotness of his sweetie? Do I hear a hundred years? Two-thousand! Do I hear a-three…a-three…a-three—thirty-thousand,  sold!!

Andrew Marvell and Mick Ronson-two chaps from Hull

Random blokes from Hull: Andrew Marvell and Mick Ronson. Ronson looks like he just saw the cartoon below; Marvell, like he just burped.

 

But I think he’s serious with the unforgettable and oddly accented “At my back I always hear/Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.” And deflowering worms and cremated dusty lust may be over the top, but he’s not beneath crypt-keeper humor in this.

Carp Breathalyzers!

Carpe Diem! I think this is taken from a Dick Guindon cartoon. There are those who think that Dick Guindon was one of the greatest one-panel newspaper cartoonists ever. We call some of them Minnesotans.

 

As the poem rushes to its conclusion, I think some of the urgency passes beyond the bar of exaggeration for humorous effect. The poem’s last two couplets, which I think sincere, are as strong in my estimation as the more famous and remembered ones earlier in the poem.

For all of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”  “poetry’s greatest hits” status, isn’t it odd that we don’t remember what I think are the poem’s four strongest lines, the ones that the poem ends with? Is it all about the chase and not what happens when we catch?

Here’s the player to hear my performance of Marvell’s poem with the LYL Band:

 

 

 

*It wasn’t until this month as I worked on this that I found out what the poem’s companion to the Indian Ganges trip,  “by the tide of Humber,” was on about. Turns out that the Humber is an estuary/river near Hull in northeastern England. It happens to be where Andrew Marvell was from, as well as (a few centuries later) Mick Ronson, the guitarist/arranger for David Bowie.