Self-Pity

Like Thomas Hardy or James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence is another writer remembered more as a novelist than a poet, though he published multiple books of poetry in a variety of forms in the early 20th Century.

He’s hard to place in the various “schools” of poetry of his time. He was published in Imagist anthologies, but he is also sometimes grouped with the Georgian Poets who eschewed free verse, though he often wrote free verse. He sometimes wrote compressed epigrams like the one I present today. “Self-Pity”  looks like a Modernist short poem on the page, but it doesn’t aim to work like most of those poems on the reader or listener.

DH Lawrence  by Bynner

1923 photo of D. H. Lawrence by Witter Bynner

 

Oh “Self-Pity”  uses all the devices of poetry, save for rhyme. It’s loosely iambic with anapestic moments in meter, though the line lengths are uneven. This is consistent with much free verse, which still wants the beats of the words to be felt, without lock-step marching drills. It has a vivid image (the frozen, falling bird). It has a repetition (“sorry for itself”).

Why then does it seem different from other Modernist poems? Contrast Lawrence’s “Self-Pity”  to two other contemporary-to-it very short poems: William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow  and Carl Sandburg’s Fog”.  “The Red Wheelbarrow”  puzzles readers to this day about its message, other than it wants the wheelbarrow to be clearly real. I think it’s about the beauty and dignity of work and its tools, but perhaps I’m wrong. You may not draw any meaning at all when you first hear or read “The Red Wheelbarrow.” “Fog”  attracts immediately with its metaphor of silent fog and haunches-poised cat. It may seem to you at first a show of how metaphor cleverly works. “Wow, fog and a cat, I never thought of them together. Cool.” It’s only if you hold the poem longer in your mind and heart that you may ask why the fog/cat is at the harbor, that it’s not a pampered pet, but a feral or work animal.

“Self-pity”  is more directive. Many who hear or read it will get the point the first time. Yes, that frozen dropping bird is a vivid image, but it doesn’t lead off the poem, it comes after half-way, and it’s meant to work not as something the poet saw, but as an imagined image to illustrate his point.

Which way is the right way to go about it? That’s for you the reader/listener/writer/performer to decide. The Internet tells us some folks find the direct and pointed message of “Self-Pity”  helpful to them. I myself could stand to be reminded of it sometimes. Literary poetry of the 20th Century gradually made the decision to go with the non-directive imagery way, not with the more frankly didactic aims of Lawrence’s poem. Current writers and readers will get to re-decide this issue for our maturing, teen-aged, century.

“Self-Pity” was used in a Hollywood depiction of military training.  I imagine a Pythonesque skit where John Cleese or Graham Chapman submits other poetry to raw recruits. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked!” “Suppose an opponent comes at you armed with plums. So sweet. So cold. What would you do?” or “You are a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

 

 

What do I think? After all, this is the Internet. I must  have an opinion!

I’m eclectic. I don’t want poetry, or any art, to always work in the same way, to stop surprising me. If I could send myself back and offer advice to Lawrence on his poem, I’d tell him to spend more time on that bird before he tells us what the bird means. By not giving me the sense that a real human stood cold or bundled up or on the warm side of a window and watched that instant, that small bird, ruffling their feathers to hold what warmth was still there before the perch became its last, the poem loses potential power for me.

Thomas Hardy may have imagined his winter darkling thrush entirely as a useful image, but I feel that encounter with his bird. I’m convinced Rilke actually looked at an amputated and archaic torso of Apollo and wanted to see its present state fully before he delivered his reaction. I think Lawrence wanted to make a point, and that bird was a useful slide in his deck.

But that may be sentimentality on my part, and too much of that can be stifling and predictable. And perhaps the poem would loose some of it’s epigrammatic power. How often we see by opposition.

Musically, I spent a good deal of time on the drums/percussion for this track, trying to pull out the vibe of “Self-Pity’s”  meter. With the rest of the music I tried to balance my reaction to Lawrence’s resolution while transmitting the assertion of the epigram itself. To hear it, use the player below.

 

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The Emperor of Ice Cream

I was reminded of this poem, and Wallace Stevens in general, while writing about the 20 most anthologized modern American poems recently. It’s odd that I needed to be reminded of Stevens. His poems were always present in the anthologies of my school years, back in the last century, along with Frost (who I disliked when I was young), William Carlos Williams (who I didn’t understand), and Eliot (who I liked for his verbal music without much understanding). There must have been something about Stevens that attracted me, as when I recall the poems I wrote in my youth, they more often looked and sounded like Stevens than those others. There’s a wit of a very contrarian kind that’s all over Stevens’ work, so I’m sure that was a big part of it, but I think it was also Stevens’ verbal music that pulled me in, and unlike Eliot’s, I (subconsciously) imitated Stevens.

I later read that Stevens walked to his famously conventional job as an insurance executive every day, and composed his poems in his head as he walked. This makes sense, as I did the same thing, with the two-footed meter of walking informing the rhythm from the soles of the feet up, rather than from the head down. Another thing about writing while walking: the music of that rhythm carries you into a more hypnotic and subconscious space were lines that sound good and fit to the beat are carried and held into memory more than carefully considered phrases that one would compose at the keyboard or with thoughtful pen in hand—and that same flow can knit together the unlike before thought can reject it.

If you take Stevens’ particular perverse wit, and meld it with composition of poems while walking, you have the recipe for a Wallace Stevens poem like this one.

The title of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”  has that impish quality. It seems to be light-hearted. Who’s his consort, the Dairy Queen? Is his uncle the King of Burgers? Did he know Prince? Queen Be? Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Gelato. And the poem starts off as if we are in a variation of the nursery rhyme “Old King Cole, he was a merry old soul” by calling for the strongest man to crank the ice cream maker.

A digression: do 21st Century people even know what an ice-cream maker is? It’s a bucket, no larger than one used to mop the floor, filled with ice that surrounds a smaller metal canister with a hand-crank-driven paddle screwed into the top. Salt is poured onto the ice, melting it so that it can get the canister colder than zero centigrade, as the crank is turned to churn the mixture of sugar and cream. As the process continues, the contents of the canister thickens and the force needed to turn the paddle increases. Even with a strong man cranking, the resulting ice cream will be softer than the concrete brick of modern ice cream, as that is a creature of refrigeration unknown in Stevens’ youth; but the cool, rich, sweet taste would also be all the rarer then too.

Ice Cream Maker Ad

“Call the roller of big cigars, the muscular one” churning that 2 gallon one would take a mighty man

 

So back to the poem. We have the strong cigar-maker man churning, amidst young, common, unmarried women and boys bringing flowers. The resulting ice cream demonstrates Stevens comically expanded vocabulary, it’s “concupiscent,” lustfully good!  Freud may have famously insisted that “a cigar is sometimes just a cigar,” but a multitude of Blues metaphors contemporary to Stevens would agree, this is a lusty scene.

And the title reappears. Pleasure, broadly drawn, is the ruler of all!

So far Stevens has only been perverse in the weird “Old King Cole”  language of the revelry, capped off with a word that most of us can’t even pronounce, much less spell or define.

Bang! Into the next stanza. I had always thought “dresser of deal” was flowery poetic diction for “we need to deal with” the situation in this next scene, but it’s more of Stevens’ vocabulary quiz. “Deal” is an archaic term for cheap pine wood. The exquisite detail of the missing drawer pulls, so much like the shabby second-hand dressers of the bedrooms of my pre-IKEA youth, yields to the fullness of the scene: it’s a room with a dead body.

Digression again: my son bursts into the room where I am writing this. He has just heard a robocall barking “If you or your loved one is over 65, they have a 1 in 3 chance of falling. Don’t let that fall be their last. Press 1 to…” He’s laughing, and continues “…hear about our warning-thingy scam…”

I follow on with my additions “…and press 2 if you want him to die anyway since he’s not allowing you any screen time today….and 3 if you are hard-of-hearing and WOULD LIKE US TO REPEAT THIS MESSAGE LOUDER.”

Back to the solemn dead body, cold and dumb, being covered with a sheet from the dresser of deal that is poignantly too short to cover the feet. Stevens leaves the light on, we need to see this clearly. And the title returns, now a refrain, and in this new context, the ruler of all offers only fleeting pleasures that one strives for, passes through, and melts away. The poem ends.

Stevens arrives at the insurance company offices. He strolls in past the receptionist, arrives at his office. Warren G. Harding is President. He asks his secretary to take this dictation. Obedient to her accustomed role, she folds back the steno pad, pencil in hand. Did she care for his poetry that she transcribed? That would be immaterial, she has only to listen.

Wallace Stevens Walking

Strolling Wallace Stevens in the 1920s. Cane in one hand, thesaurus in the other?

 

Two scenes. Two passing stations on a walk perhaps, or a flight of memories as lines emerge along steps. Only one more perversity to note, a puzzling line that looks like a typo: “Let be be finale of seem.” Let the steps the author is taking when he wrote this be our guide. One stride: “Let be”, then a double-time step: “be finale,” another step: “of seem.” I had never figured this line out, but someone on the Internet named Daniel E. Burke pointed me to this letter Stevens wrote in 1939. If Stevens had caught a crack in the sidewalk causing a hitch in his step, the line might have been more clearly composed as “Let being  be the finale of seem,” but the Hartford sidewalks were too-well maintained, and Stevens never cared to be understood anyway, only listened to.

 

I had meant to write more about the music I composed for this one, but I’ve run way too long again. I wanted prominent drums to represent the flow of time, a cello to represent the melancholy death thread and a jaunty acoustic guitar part representing the swiving partiers of the first part. Assessing the performance I first thought I should redo or remix it to keep the cello and the guitar to their respective stanzas, but then I rethought that too. Shouldn’t they both be present in each scene to give the flavor of Stevens’ perverse combination? To hear my performance of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”  use the player below.

 

 

What is Poetry and What Is It Good For?

People blog about these allied topics elsewhere, and there seems to be a bloomlet of books answering the same questions. I’ve lived a fairly good number of years, writing, reading, and listening to what I consider poetry, and I can’t say that I’ve thought of this for a long time.

There are inductive and deductive artists: ones who think of, or latch onto, a useful theory, and produce art from it; and those that, if they think of theory at all, derive it from what they have already created. I’m in that later, and I think larger, group.

The concentrated amount of work I’m doing with the Parlando Project means I am working a lot with poetry, and making constant choices. To give me focus in this process I did take on a few principles for Parlando, but  having handled this much poetry in the past year means that I can’t help but observe my choices and what those choices say about what I believe about poetry.

Poetry is musical speech.

Simply, poetry is musical speech. And good poetry not only sings with its words, it sings twice, as its thoughts flow like the logic of music. Do that and I think it’s poetry. Fail to do that (or rather, if I fail to hear that) and it may be a perfectly good something else, but it’s not poetry.

Hold it, some of you may be saying to your screen, what about free verse? What about those decidedly non-rhythmic pieces that are published as poetry, and are widely considered as such? Let’s take Ezra Pound’s famous short imagist poem “In a Station of the Metro” as an example of that:
 
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.”

No meter, no rhyme, is that musical speech? To me, yes, it is. I hear this music, as I hear the music in other poems, as a musician, but you could hear it too, even if you are only a listener of music. Music does not need to be a drill team march or four-square polka or sound the bass drum of some dance music that expects regular, repeating beats. The top melodic lines of much music vary in rhythm constantly, and musical speech should have the same freedom, as Pound himself declared in his famous short list of Imagist rules.

Monet St Lazare Station

They say the best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees!
I want Monet! Monet!  That’s what I want!

I could read other poems, ones that do follow conventional accentuated syllabic meters, and not hear much music in it. If I turn on a metronome or a simple drum machine pattern, I may hear rhythm, but I don’t necessarily hear music.

Yes, this sense of musical speech is subjective, particularly for a poem sitting mute on the page.

And what about the second music that good poetry will also sing, the musical logic of thought? I’m not even sure that “thought” is the right word, as it’s more at apprehension or experience, but as a listener or reader those subjective transferred experiences are felt as thoughts are and engender my own thoughts in response. When Emily Dickinson looks at a bird in her path, or Meng Haoran awakens after a stormy night, or when Ezra Pound comes to the subway stop and sees this throng of urban humanity as a transitory and eternal natural grouping I get to share my understanding of their understanding, if I have the patience and openness to seek to do so.

Music is not how to get from one note to the other as quickly and predictably as possible, rather it is how to pleasantly surprise, or even confound, you in those journeys between related notes.

Any of those experiences could alternatively be a chapter in a memoir, or a scientific observer’s log entry, or a character’s chapter in a novel. Some experience or apprehension of experience is transferred in those ways too—that’s what all art does—but in poetry, the transfer happens in the context of musical expression. This can work, like a meditation chant, a hypnotist’s spell, or any experience where the normal stops and starts of thought are interfered with. And the flow of the order of the data has an internal meaningful structure in good poetry, as a melody or a chord progression has in music, which is not necessarily the flow that works the most efficiently. Music is not how to get from one note to the other as quickly and predictably as possible, rather it is how to pleasantly surprise, or even confound, you in those journeys between related notes.

Consider an image, a set of relationships set out in a poem to be related at once to each other, as chord is in music.

Consider an image, a set of relationships set out in a poem to be related at once to each other, as chord is in music. And the relationship between one image and the next is like a cadence or sequence of chords in a musical composition.

When one thinks of poetry, as I now do, as a musical thing, and not a literary thing, then the presentation of it as we do in the Parlando Project, should make sense to you. Not that it must make sense first, it can simply be experienced.

All this implies some of what is the worth in poetry; and to be honest, some also of what is problematic in poetry, but I’ll leave a further discussion of those things to another post.