Just last month I was writing here about how alternate Parlando voice Dave Moore and I used to perform pieces live and unrehearsed. Infirmities, personal matters, and a little thing called the Covid-19 epidemic meant we haven’t been able to do that for 18 months — but today we did that again.
Rusty? Yes. We’ve always been rough and ready, which means we persevered today because we love our common attempts at spontaneous performance, even though your ears will be spared most of them. Personally, I’m overjoyed to hear Dave’s keyboards mixing in with my guitars again. Perfect or imperfect is another, subsidiary, matter.
Here’s the very first piece we performed today, using for a text one of the sonnets I’ve written this year about infirmities. My sonnet, “Until Memory is Only Forgotten,” tells about an older woman with Alzheimer’s disease which has removed, and is removing, many of the layers of her memory, and who is traveling from the Memory Care Unit where she is presently living to visit siblings back in the farming community where she grew up.
Pictures of the Gone World. The young woman who raised blue ribbon dairy cows.
Long time readers here will know this Project normally features us presenting and performing texts by other authors, but since summer tends to bring in a smaller audience, I may be using more of our own texts when I can find time to present work here this season.
I chose to tell this woman’s story without following a time-line, because as with memory (even a degraded one) the scenes aren’t linear. Dave and I repeat some motifs in our playing, just as the subject of the poem sees different crops in the fields and can only see corn and speak again to her daughter-driver of that crop; yet in unmarred memory she recalls her Jersey dairy cows like the other Memory Care Unit resident who can still tout his Holsteins. Structurally this is a free-verse sonnet, though I think the old patterns of iambic pentameter remain rustling distantly in the fields.
Here’s the sonnet used as the text for today’s audio piece.
The player gadget to hear The LYL Band performance of “Until Memory is Only Forgotten” will appear below for some of you. If you don’t see it, you haven’t forgotten, you’re just reading this in a mode or reader that won’t show such things. That’s OK, this highlighted hyperlink will also play the performance.
Nostalgia may be cheap, but none-the-less, we feel it. Perhaps by “cheap,” we mean “common,” and if so, should artists always flee that, the common experience? Interrogating the common may verge on an obligation in many answers to that question. What is it in our mundane experience that we may share with others, that we can bring something else to?
Here’s an attempt I made a few years ago to do that, accompanied by some music I wrote and performed earlier this year. I think it’s an example of some principles and risks in this approach. What are they?
How common is your common? On one hand we often enjoy and seek out the exotic, and art can help us explore that too. I’ve spoken here before about how the exoticism of some of Keats attracted me as a teenager, and the strangeness of Surrealism and the gnomic statements of Wallace Stevens attracted me before I could understand all that they were on about. But just as well we may be attracted as readers and listeners to things that speak to our own parochial experiences. Why would we read or listen to work about ourselves? Are we hoping to learn something just beyond what we already know? Or is it, as it was once said about the readers of small-town newspapers, that they’re read by the townspeople to see what the editor missed?
In these ways you may be helped if your common is shared by a lot of people, who know they share that commonness, or it may be best if your experience is novel enough to not be very common at all, and where the attraction is that common human motivation: curiosity.
How important is your common? Some works spend a good deal of effort making the case that the reader or listener is wrong in not thinking that the common experience the creator is examining is important. Others have a lighter load to lift: those who’ve witnessed momentous events or taken part in widely recognized essential activities.
The degree of difficulty for the former is considerable. You may bore your reader or listener with making your case for the value of the seeming unimportant—or not make your case vividly enough and have them give up with a “who cares” shrug.
Why would one then choose to explore something generally considered unimportant? Well, a good deal of art doubts hierarchies of experience. Societies invest a lot in hierarchies, and artists like to overthrow them. Societies are often wrong, cruelly wrong sometimes, in those constructs. Artists aren’t always right in their alternatives, or completely right, but we are tempted by angels and devils to try.
Back in 1973 I hosted a visiting German artist in New York. The musical souvenir he was bringing home was a copy of Charlie Daniels’ “Uneasy Rider,” a novelty hit single about a long hair at a redneck bar.** German appreciation of American music was it’s own approximation. This picture: “Rules of the Game” is by Renée Robbins, taken in Iowa in 1977. The player in it seemed sort of Charlie Daniels-ish to me.
What do you bring to this common experience? Why does your expression, your examination of some common experience need to exist? As a matter of political and social persuasion, the second dozen or even the second hundred similar account of a similar experience and evaluation of it may add weight to the scales of attention or justice. An atrocity like George Floyd’s needless death gains some of its power and value not because it’s unique, but because it’s not. It’s not the first or the second, or the hundred and first. We ask, we view, in a way that it be considered as if it’s the first, as if it’s an only. We ask too, fervently, that it be considered as if it should be the last. But in the world of the arts, of chosen creation, we have a burden in making the same point over again worthwhile.
But of course, we do take up this challenge. How many poems, how many songs are about the flush of love and desire? How many works of art are about the absences of death? By some accounts, all of them that are any good. I think there’s a great middle range between love and death that is open too to artistic expression, the range of how we see, feel, hear experience between those two poles. It may seem trivial compared to the existential fact of death or the powerful urge of joined fertility—but great or small, your charge is to bring something else to this common experience large or small, call it beauty, call it a frame, call it music, call it a vibration that we can feel together.
Now, let me exit the high falutin and get down to today’s piece and see how I dealt with an element of my common in “Small Iowa Town, after World War Two.”
I had my own mondegreen moment listing to this today. I heard myself saying in line 23-24 “Seeing the storefronts in their row inhaling silently the adults…” instead of what I wrote above. I may keep the unintended revision.
First off, the subject matter is problematic. The experience I speak of here is shared by few even of my age cohort, and every day by fewer, as older generations pass on. Yet, it also has little appeal of exoticism. In my grandfather’s time and before this culture, the small rural American town, was common, and a considerable amount of art (much of it not high-art, and much that was aimed at the cultured market was critical) dealt with it. As I said in starting this post, a sentimental or wistful nostalgia is considered cheap and if it’s also not even considered common to the reader/listener, there’s no path to success.
I will note that I consider the experiences I recount in this piece as exotic. I’ve spent over half a century away from it, it seems strange/familiar to me now, an unusual construction. I make in my defense a common plea of the artist being accused of trafficking in cheap nostalgia: I’m really talking about how memory, change and experience work.
Is it important? I’m not sure. That I’m writing this generalized essay says that I doubt you will think it so. I plowed this field early in this project with one of the least popular pieces ever presented here: “Homeopathic Hometown,” and this may not fare any better. I plead the audacity of the artist that wants to tilt at hierarchies of importance.
Right now there’s a good deal of mistrust in America between the generalized* remaining rural citizens and it’s urban and suburban centers. Even though I’ve been away from small-town Iowa for so long, I can understand loss and aggrievement.
So, what can I, what did I, bring to this problematic subject to make it worthwhile? I tried to talk about the strangeness of the change, that part I find exotic, that far-away world that assumed permanence of a kind. I leaned on the slowly evolving music a good deal today. As in “Homeopathic Hometown” there’s a linkage that I feel viscerally between a certain kind of German music of the late 1960s through about 1990 or so, a melding of the then new synthesizer sounds with a particular European interpretation of progressive rock music, and my experience of these changed small towns. When I listen to the Bowie Berlin trilogy I get nostalgic not for a Berlin I’ve never known, but for a rural Iowa I think I know. It’s one of those odd links I can’t quite explain, but feel. Long rolling songs about long rolling hills and valleys. Small as a palpable absence. Grant Wood as a German Expressionist.
The player gadget to hear “Small Iowa Town, after World War Two” is below. It’s a bit longer than most things here, but I had to give it some time so the music could expand. Perhaps the music will work even if the words don’t succeed.
*Well, there’s a good deal of mistrust, period. And the residents of country and remaining small towns are not monolithic stereotypes. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now—and nobody likes to be reduced to a type—but generalizations of a divide and a mutual dislike and attribution of bad motives aren’t baseless.
**At the conclusion of the song, singer Daniels states that he wishes he’d taken his misbegotten car trip west on a route (across Iowa) through Omaha instead of through Mississippi.
In Minnesota there’s this thing, The State Fair, that’s hard to explain. Up to a couple-hundred thousand folks show up each day to it, for various hard to describe reasons. There are events, exhibitions, livestock judging, sales booths, musical acts, lots of fried and sweetened food that can be eaten by hand. You could describe it as an overgrown county fair, and as with those, there’s a midway with clanking and spinning rides and games of chance.
Rural and farm folks come to it from around the state, but it’s held in the Twin Cities, a thoroughly urban place, and most of the attendees that fill much of the fairgrounds are from The Cities. Some like me would be once rural folks, or children of rural folks. A place like the Twin Cities is full of those, people remembering that place not present in location or time, À la recherche du temps perdu, “In search of lost time.”
I came to the Twin Cities in the 70s, not directly from the small-town Iowa of my youth, but from New York, where there are fewer intimate thoughts of farmlands. Shortly after arriving, a woman I was in love with told me there was this guy on the local classical music radio station, who was no longer playing Liszt and lieder, but rather other stuff—Beach Boys, folk music, whatever. And she said: he tells stories about this small town he’s made up.
I stopped her there. I admired her smarts, the things she knew, but I know how those stories go I said: We’re ignorant and out-of-touch, those rude mechanicals. As the urban-cool Bart says in Blazing Saddles when introducing the Waco Kid to the little town: “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.”
“No, he’s different. If you listen, you’ll see.”
He had a 6-9 morning show. We listened together. He’d spin humorous stories of invented events and institutions between records. Some of it was sort of like Jean Shepherd’s shtick, still playing in New York on WOR radio when I left, but as she had said his take on small town life was different. His stories then often had a delicate balance between young Twin Cities residents, some of them college students with literary aspirations such as myself, and their hometown folks. He was generationally close to the former, but he often had them play their pretentions toward great changes for humor against the set in their ways but caring older generation back at the hometown. From my seat then between those two worlds, this was a high-wire act, and he stayed out of falling into the netting or sawdust.
He was also forming up a weekend radio show, that graveyard of radio without the reliable drive-time slots. He’d perform them live anywhere locally there was room for the hundred or so attendees. He modeled it on the radio country music variety show, something that still existed in my youth, but except for the Grand Ole Opry had died out. But instead of country music acts, most of which would have little interest to a metropolitan public radio audience then, he stocked his traveling stage with young musicians that played the West Bank bars and coffee houses around the Twin Cities. Some of these players played trad jazz or blues, some were folkie singer-songwriters, some were from the more museo-wings like Leo Kottke or bluegrass revisionists, others from a variety of old-time-music revivals. In recent decades everyone knows what to call this mixed-bag: Americana. But in the 70s no one did. This weekend show, Prairie Home Companion, sort of helped make that category up.
A man I knew once charged with programming a radio network liked to say regarding the success that show eventually had: “Prairie Home Companion is a lousy idea for a show—except for a show with Garrison Keillor.” A lot of folks doubted that thought, and while some attempts to do “something like, only….” have had decent runs, no one else ever made it work to the degree Keillor did.
There seems to have been a reason that the younger, moved to the cities generation in his stories often had writerly ambitions, because Keillor continuously worked a side career as an author of short stories, poems, novels, columns and opinion pieces. The thing that connected that side and the radio show was “The News from Lake Wobegon,” a varying length monologue that came near the end of each show.
This wasn’t standup, it was storytelling. Unlike the comic and parodistic skit elements that became an increasing part of the show over its run, it wasn’t read direct from a script radio-drama-style, but told, and written entirely by the host. This was the small town and its history he’d made up in its most concentrated and alive form. It had that live performance immediacy. Occasionally there’d be short dead air pauses, some intended. There’d be things repeated, some as intended refrains. Moods and directions would be mixed, sometimes turning within the course of a sentence as it does in ordinary recounting. Is he thinking, and that thought interrupting his story?
Sometimes it was a rousing tale, a good-hearted shaggy dog story on some foible. Other times along with the humor was sentiment, mood pieces buffered inside rueful rural characters. Occasionally, framed through some youthful ambition, there’d be poetic asides and lines such as the passage I bring to your attention today.
Even with the framing, it was a very pure thing, and like most things of that sort, some loved it and others found it somewhere between meh and tiresome. Keillor had a slow, even-voiced recitative, a sighing oboe that could reassuredly uncoil some from a basket while leaving others sleeping inside.
Say it with me, long-time readers: “All Artists Fail.” I last posted 5 minutes of wailing electric guitar arpeggios over my fresh translation of a hundred-year-old French avant garde poem. I’m not going to throw shade based on either some idea of universal criteria for art or a proper recipe for entertainment.
I remember hearing a version that included the passage I perform today. Did I hear it live on the radio on a Saturday night decades ago? Did I hear it later, on a distributed recording? I can’t say for sure, but as this ending summer was beginning, I was on the northern shores of Lake Superior. The cabin I was in, when some spitting rain opened the pores and raised white hairs on the smooth surface of the lake, had a couple of books. One was a book length collection of pieces from the radio show re-cast as linked short-stories and published after Keillor’s first retirement from live performance in the 1980s.* Reading them was a good afternoon, but only this single small passage was drenched in déjà vu.
Still raining, still dreaming. Keillor reframed monologues from the show he’d ended into a book for my rainy afternoon years later.
The ‘80s jacket author photo surprised me. Neither the bearded ‘70s guy with the light suit nor the older man I remembered.
The State Fair in Minnesota means the end of summer, a lost time that can be returned to and can’t be returned to. Here are a few sentences that a man once wrote and spoke on the radio. I’ll speak them today. Gave them a title of convenience and the music I composed on my naïve piano and then performed with a small orchestra setting using three woodwinds, a flute, and a few strings. My thought is that Keillor’s words could sound different to you when not performed by him, illuminated differently in the Parlando Project manner. The player is below.
So how did the Spoon River Anthology get created and published in 1914, such an early date in the emergence of Modernist verse? Let me see if I can summarize what I know so far. In the early part of the 20th century Edgar Lee Masters was a busy lawyer practicing in Chicago. The most oft-remarked part of that career was that for a time Masters was partnered with the famed Clarence Darrow known for his progressive views and participation in numerous famous cases of the era.
I’ve quickly scoured a great deal of information this month on Masters, learning more each day, but it’s clear that for some time before 1914 Masters wanted dearly to become a writer of some kind, with a “trunk” of prose, plays and poetry, and a fair amount of rejection letters. It’s possible that, in his time, he might have been categorized by writers and cultural figures as a type that still exists, which for lack of a better name I’ll call a “wanna-be.”
Like all stereotypes, the wanna-be is unfair to some tagged with it, while seeming to be a useful short-hand among those who apply it. Authors from book tours only need to start a story with another about the businessman who buttonholes the author to say that they too have a novel, often partly written or even “just an idea, but…” and the fellow author will nod and immediately fill in the stereotypical details. Modern authors maybe divided into commercial, academic and bohemian enclaves, but all three can bemoan someone from outside those realms who thinks they are a writer, while giving signs that their real-life choices, risks, experience, and focus lie elsewhere.
Masters was certainly not the kind of wanna-be who claimed he had a novel in him, or “I once wrote poetry when I was young.” Despite what he described as a busy legal practice, he was writing—good bad or indifferent, he was taking his swings.
Here’s another stereotype label that could be applied to Masters in his time: “womanizer*” which is someone who engages in endless, usually short-term, love affairs: a cycle of attraction, infatuation, discovery of imperfection or the newness wears off, and then repeat. For a time prior to writing Spoon River, Masters was in a two-year extra-marital relationship with a Chicago woman Tennessee Mitchell.** Mitchell was a musician who taught piano, broke a glass ceiling for women as piano-tuners (lady brains can’t handle the complex tempering of all those notes you know), and who ran a salon where patrons, artists, and radicals mingled.
One question I had when I wondered how Masters could write a thoroughly Modernist work of poetry so early in the movement was did he cross paths with Chicago’s Poetry magazine and Carl Sandburg, then living and working in Chicago. In the case of the later, he certainly did. He struck up an acquaintance with his fellow Midwestern Modernist,*** and they took walks together and presumably talked about poetry as Masters was writing Spoon River. Masters referred to Sandburg in letters from this time as the “Swede Bard,” which even just between friends sounds dismissive and nativist, but this does point out something that shouldn’t be forgotten about Sandburg: he was the child of an immigrant. Masters didn’t have to “prove” his American legitimacy when he cast a critical eye on parts of its culture. Sandburg, though different in his politics from Masters, could be just as critical, but he was casting his critique from a different standing.
And Poetry magazine, a critical American organ in the dissemination of Modernism? Masters seems to have been stymied there. At one point he was having another of his affairs with a woman described in places as an editor at Poetry,*** but I so far haven’t seen that he was published in Poetry prior to Spoon River.
Instead the Spoon River Anthology owes its major inspiration and initial publication to a man down the Mississippi from south-western Illinois, William Reedy, the editor of Reedy’s Mirror in St. Louis, who like Harriet Monroe’s Poetry was ready and willing to publish American poets who were unabashedly American and willing to forge American verse in new modes, as Whitman and Dickinson had shown was possible in the previous century.
Inspiration? Well, for someone promoting American verse, Reedy’s prime move was to send Masters a copy of a recent translation by a British scholar from classical Greek late in 1912: Epigrams from the Greek Anthology.
A gift that helped start American Modernist poetry. Ironic, or Ionic?
Masters had an idea that stories from his southwest Illinois youth were good material, but he didn’t know how to present them. Even in 1913 he was thinking of shaping them into a play.**** As 1914 began, Masters, still being goaded by Reedy to drop his often florid and European-modeled verse and do something American, started writing the Spoon River epitaphs, accepting the incongruity of a classical Greek style of summing up a life being used for American Midwestern townfolk as having a certain satiric flavor. Masters sent a batch of them to Reedy, and as Masters himself recounted this, they were submitted in something of a mood of: you want American, well I’ll give you American and I’ll bet you won’t think it’s poetic.
Reedy published them, praised them. Throughout 1914 this process continued: Masters writing feverishly on the weekends while continuing a busy legal practice and sending off batches to Reedy and his Mirror of new Spoon River epitaphs to be published. Does Masters feel validated? Has he found his voice? There may be some ambivalence on his part at first. He has them published using a pen name Webster Ford. Some of that may be to protect his law career (lawyers who tell secrets about lives aren’t exactly sought out by clientele.) Part of it may be because he’s unsure. It’s even possible that “Webster Ford” may have been a way to escape his lawyer-who-thinks-he’s-a-poet issues with Chicago literary figures.
Ezra Pound, off in England, but considering himself the world-wide talent scout for all things Modernist, fires off a letter to Harriet Monroe. Pound is no stranger to urgency in speech, but he’s in full florid ALL CAPS shouting mode:
“GET SOME OF WEBSTER FORD’S STUFF FOR ‘POETRY’…Please observe above instruction as soon as possible.”
By the end of 1914, Masters drops the Webster Ford mask and puts his own name on the poems, and he’s looking to have Spoon River Anthology published in book-length form. He’s on his way, even if he’ll soon enough loose it.
For today’s Spoon River piece, here’s a companion to “Cooney Potter,” “Fiddler Jones,” showing the dialectical contrasts Masters likes to weave into his collection. With its invocation of music it was an immediate favorite with me. Besides the contrasts in values and outcomes that Masters uses, there are families’ and relationship stories throughout the book, but it’s unclear to me if Fiddler Jones is related to other Jones-surnamed characters in Spoon River.***** Jones is a common name, used as synonym for “anyone” idiomatically. But it’s also Welsh in origin, and there is a Jones family of specifically Welsh ancestry in Spoon River.
Reading “Fiddler Jones” I thought the character might be Afro-American. There’s one stated Afro-American character in Spoon River, and I wasn’t sure of the exact ethnic makeup of the region of Masters youth, but like finding out about the Afro-American community in Emily Dickinson’s region, assuming all-white is false default. As so often when I come to something like this, the Internet is my friend. It’s actually easy to search census demographic records for the two towns of Masters’ youth, and they were around 1% African American by those records. Of course, Masters’ book isn’t a documentary or demographic treatise, but that means there are 30-35 Afro-Americans living in Spoon River’s models in the later 19th century.
Strings link things: African styles mixed with Celtic styles in America.
From my musicological interests, the idea that that fiddler could have Celtic or Afro-American roots is apt, but in doing my music for today’s performance of “Fiddler Jones” I didn’t really follow traditional fiddle styles. I don’t play violin, and the solo violin line featured in today’s piece was played on guitar with a MIDI pickup using a lot of string vibrato and little of the short, rhythmic chops that might drive a field of dancers. Wondering what’s the dance tune they step off too mentioned in the poem? This blog has a good guess. The lyrics to that tune also end, as does Spoon River’s in the grave; and as Fiddler Jones does, with no regrets.
In composing the small orchestra accompaniment, I made sure to feature the bassoon and piccolos that bedevil Fiddler Jones in his mind as he tries to plow. I found myself rather enchanted as Fiddler Jones was, and as a result today’s piece is a bit longer than most here, but I hope you’ll find the spell as moving as I did. Player’s below.
*Particularly, but not exclusively, among arts and bohemians, even in Masters time there would also be women who were not called “mananizers” for some reason, and bisexuality and same-sex relationships too. The power relationships in such relationships would be too complex to discuss in a footnote: some exploitative, some less so, some respectful, some carnal, some duplicitous, some honest, and so on. So far, in my rapid overview of Masters he doesn’t seem particularly exploitative, and Spoon River shows he’s listening to women.
**Click this link and read about Tennessee Mitchell! After the end of her affair with Masters she eventually married another wanna-be-but-actually-could writer, an advertising man and entrepreneur Sherwood Anderson who went on to write Spoon River’s prose-in-law: Winesburg Ohio in 1919.
***At this point, do we need to broach the question of if Edgar Lee Masters was trying to sleep his way to the top of Modernist poetry?
****More irony, the brief poetic monologs in Spoon River so revealing of key details of entire lives in flat descriptive dialog became a staple of audition readings for actors since they so readily allow an actor to show keen presentation of character in a few lines.
*****We’ll meet one of those other Jones in Spoon River soon. You may think, small town, must be related, but in the 19th century Midwest residents are largely internal migrants from the previously settled regions of the U.S. and so, even later, it’s not certain. In my 20th century hometown, smaller than Spoon River, 20% of my class had the last name Johnson and were not related. As you might imagine, I thought the running joke in Blazing Saddles that every white townsperson is named “Johnson” was particularly funny.
Readers here know I have an affinity for the lesser-known, the forgotten, the underpraised participants in the Modernist movement. In any historical or literary period, there have to be some that are overlooked. Why? Geographic, gender, racial prejudice? Bad luck or spotty publishing history? Yes, all those can play a role.
But today’s case is a weird one. He’s a white guy and not obscure, his breakthrough masterpiece sold well the year it was published and then for decades afterward. The early American Modernists praised it, recognized it as a Modernist work. There’s circumstantial evidence that it could have even influenced them when they produced their now esteemed breakthrough masterpieces.
Yet, it’s largely left out of the cannon today, and as such it’s also left out of the short histories of the emergence of English language Modernist poetry. One way to focus that story is to point to the publication in 1922 of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as the moment in which everyone had to stop and take notice of this new poetry.
Let me roughly state some things that were remarkable about this landmark work.
It was episodic. A longer poem, it was made up of shorter poems, retaining the compression of short lyrics while telling a larger, multivalent story. Characters drifted in and out.
It was written in free verse. It didn’t rhyme, it didn’t use a strict and unvarying meter, while still making use of the other tactics of poetry. Since this was still somewhat novel, the sound and form could take off from and seem to readers like a non-rhyming translation of poetry from a foreign language, even an old language like Latin, Greek, or Hebrew.
It’s highly skeptical and iconoclastic about modern society. War and business was corrupt, humanity shortsighted. Dialog was often in deadpan with an emphasis on the first syllable, as if spoken by ghosts.
There’s an anachronistic, satiric element to some of the talk too. Everyday people of the current era may speak at times in the form of older literature, and we’re meant to note this as strangely halfway between a sense that time has not changed humankind and it’s eternal problems, and a sense that modern folk are not really as noble as the classical fore bearers.
Though written by a man, women’s voices and a woman’s viewpoint are prominently given a place in the work.
Love and sex was not a balm in this world. In fact, partners are invariably at odds, yet often still yoked together somewhere between torment and ennui. So degraded is the sexual politics and power in this account, that rape is a crucial trope, with references to Ovid’s mythic tale of Tereus rape of Philomela serving as a talisman.
Endurance is still celebrated; one must suffer but keep on, even if it be in vain. Music, yes even popular or folk tunes, may help make this more bearable.
Oh, I may have confused you! I’m not speaking about Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” I’m talking about this popular yet now misplaced Modernist breakthrough: The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. I’m going to talk more about it and present a few pieces from it in the Parlando Project manner, but before we end today with a piece from Spoon River, here’s something that never was impressed on me as I learned about American literature, and in particular Modernist English poetry: “The Spoon River Anthology” was largely written in 1913-1914 and published in 1915. Eliot was writing “Prufrock” then, but it had not been published. Pound was making his transition from poetry as we presented here in our “Before they were Modernists” series into Imagism, with the first publications his new style in the U.S. in 1913. My personal favorite, Carl Sandburg was starting to write in this new compressed style with a cache of poems published in Poetry magazine in 1914. Others, Alfred Kreymborg and William Carlos Williams’ East-Coast-based and more avant garde journal of new verse is yet to come, it began in the middle of 1915. Franz Ferdinand is an obscure central-European duke who has yet to lend a name to a successful Scottish post-punk band.
It’s been a quiet week in Spoon River, not so many rapes, murders, and early deaths as usual: Edgar Lee Masters
How much of this new verse style had Edgar Lee Masters read and how much of his style was he independently inventing and discovering from the 19th century’s Whitman (or Stephen Crane) and even older classical sources? Given that both Masters and Sandburg were present in Chicago and developing a similar sound for their free verse (while differing in sensibility) at the same time, it’s possible that there was a cross-influence there. One thing this timeline makes clear: The Spoon River Anthology was not some later attempt to popularize or adopt the revolution of Modernist English language poetry to tell a Midwestern story, it’s created roughly at year zero.
The Spoon River Anthology presents itself as a series of epitaphs for dead residents of Midwestern town like the one Masters grew up in, some short enough to be carved on a burial monument, others bending the form a bit into short monologs spoken by the dead. The lifetimes of the speaking dead vary and overlap but appear to be from two to three decades before the American Civil war until the early 20th century.
For an initial subject I’ll take one of the sons of the initial settlers,* who tells us he got 40 farm acres as his inheritance, and who sums his life and aims up in a few lines. His name was Cooney Potter.
The player to hear my performance of his Spoon River tale is below. For those of you that have waited for me to drop the synths, we’re back to acoustic instruments today: guitar, piano and tambura.
*Well, hmm, yes there were those other folks, the ones who lived there before. Even though the Black Hawk War of 1832 between some indigenous peoples and these settlers and their government was fought in the Midwest during the times of this settlement, I don’t recall it or the Native Americans being addressed in Spoon River, though the 1861-1865 American Civil war fought by two factions of the settler government is significantly mentioned.
I’d planned to move on from Carl Sandburg, but I couldn’t lose my train of thought.
This weekend I got a book I’d ordered, “Christmas on the Farm” by illustrator and writer Bob Artley. Why such a book in the dog days of summer? Well, three weeks ago I attended a memorial service for an uncle of mine, Lew Hudson, who’d been a friend and co-worker of Artley decades back at the Worthington Daily Globe newspaper, and I noted that Lew had written a preface for this book.
Artley’s book has charm aplenty. It’s a memoir of his winter childhood on a family farm in the 1920s. I decided I would use the stories in his book to try to locate the farm of his childhood. And thanks to our modern Internet-hosted maps I did, by following an illustration and accounts in the book that the farm was between Coulter and Hampton, north of the road to those towns, north of the railroad (it looks like it’s a rails to trails bike path now), and north of two farms on either side of Spring Creek. In personal memories we travel in time, but modern tech makes virtual travel in space objectively accessible.
It’s not exactly next door to the Iowa farm town where I grew up (60 miles away) but the countryside would be close. And the 30 years difference between his time and mine? Not so much to me these days.
That got me thinking about little Midwest towns, and I saw this short Sandburg poem in my notes from summer reading and I decided to work it up.
Last post I mentioned my theory that Sandburg’s Whitmanesque mode, those broad catalogs of observations in his longer poems, have caused him to be remembered as a 20th century imitator of Walt; and that did him no good, as the High Modernists were only grudging acknowledgers of Whitman’s breakthrough style. When long Sandburg poems overshadow the short ones, what he thoroughly intended to be Imagist poems are instead seen as slight, one-dimensional miniatures, not charged moments in time.
“Neponset, the village, clings to the Burlington railway main line”
So, let’s look and listen to “Pods” as if it could be what Sandburg intended it to be. Yes, its core is a natural, real, and present image, not written as a simile, just yoked together by poet’s observation. The village of Neponset is like a peapod on its railroad line, one of many, too easily cast as having no concernable uniqueness (the cliché is “as alike as peas in a pod”). Given that it’s written before commercial air travel, the passing passenger train is there to reinforce that Neponset is “flyover country.*” Notice that the poem avoids almost all adjectives and sentiments, so we should notice the one striking one it does use: those passing, unstopping trains are “Terrible.” How so?
Well, they’re loud, big, massive, and they shake the peapods on the vine, they even shake the town “slightly.” Are those trains modernity and time passing Neponset by? They and their sleepers in their cars might think that so. Yet, peapods will not mind, they will continue their cycle—so why not the like thing, the village? After all, the poem in its sparse word-count (39 words) wants to connect with a repeat of “slightly” and linked tremors that the earth (planet or ground? No matter, essence either way) is also shaken. The “movers and shakers” are really only shakers here, their moving is no different that the pea vine’s revolving cycle of seed to seed. The sleepers in the train are too peas in a pod.
Naw pard, ain’t thinking of going off on vacation. Gotta roundup those peas and drive’em to LeSeur.
Musically, this one has lots of synths, though now that I’ve reminded myself how to play electric bass again, I used that instrument to form the vine of this tune. There are two electric guitars on this track, but their signals are so modified that even I find it hard to pick them out from the keyboard synth parts. Vocally, I decided to let the last few lines, our passing trains, our unaware sleepers podded in their Pullman cars, repeat their cycles. Here’s the text of Sandburg’s poem, and the player to hear the performance of it is below.
*Why does Sandburg want us to know the limited (a train that makes stops at only the large cities) is going to “the Rockies and the Sierras?” Why not Chicago or Los Angeles or San Francisco, or even (as in another Sandburg limited train poem) Omaha? I wasn’t sure. Unlike the Midwest’s rolling hills, these are places of majestic natural heights invisible to Illinois townsfolk. Are these Mount Olympian ideals? I know that train companies were promoting trips to these scenic areas as vacation destinations, so our passengers may be more carefree in their travels than those remaining in the rural town. This could also be Sandburg the journalist fact-checking Sandburg the poet? The Burlington Route didn’t have through service to the West Coast, and Chicago (where this limited would have originated) is only 120 miles from the little village of Neponset, and so not exotically far away.
No time or money for a train ride to the mountains? Early 20th century VR: the stereoscopic viewer!
I spend an invisible part of the iceberg in this project looking around for material that I think might work combined with music. One thing invariably happens when you look broadly at something: you find connections that you didn’t expect you’d find.
Here’s something I’ve noticed this fall: around 1875 or so, in a small, little-thought-of area of the U.S., a bunch of people were born who went on to leave a mark on our nation’s culture, even if only one of them retains any fame now in the 21st Century (and even that exception is undervalued in my estimation).
Geographically the area I speak of is the region where the Mississippi and Rock rivers meet in the Midwest, which had transitioned from what had been an important point for the Native-American tribes at the beginning of the 19th century and before, to an area that supported settler towns which grew up around river-based commerce and industry. “Transitioned” of course is a passive word for a slow-motion invasion and conquest by the European Immigrant-Americans, which included the short Black Hawk war of 1832 that left a great many Native-American names, but fewer Native-Americans, in the area. Eventually states were created here bearing those native names: Iowa and Illinois.
Who’s in the cohort from this area and time?
My relative*, Susan Glaspell, born in Davenport Iowa in 1876. Glaspell and her husband (George Cram Cooke, also born in Davenport, 1873) eventually midwifed the birth of Modernist American drama in Provincetown Massachusetts and New York City.
Carl Sandburg was born 1878 in Galesburg Illinois. Sandburg was a big noise in the first half of the 20th Century, and I maintain he is now the forgotten Modernist, and a man who strived to weave several important American threads.
Arthur Davison Ficke (born 1883 in Davenport) a now lesser-known, but fascinating figure that I’ve yet to grapple with. Like Ezra Pound, he was drawn to Japanese art, and like his post WWI hot-crush, Edna St. Vincent Millay, he attempted to utilize older forms such as the sonnet in an increasingly Modernist age. As part of this friction, he and his friends Witter Bynner and Marjorie Allen Seiffert (born 1885 in Moline across the river from Davenport) concocted the Spectrist movement, parodying the -ics and-ists schools that were forming in Modernism. Oddly, the parodist seems to have been captured by his game, and Ficke later reconsidered Modernist poetic tactics.
Muriel Strode born 1875 in rural Bernadotte Township Illinois. I haven’t quite gotten a grip on her yet (though she was sometimes styled as “The Female Walt Whitman”), but she wrote a number of books early in the 20th Century combining a sort-of-Kahlil-Gibran-like popular non-denominational spirituality with Nietzschean self-improvement. She’s the most little-known here by far. So little is known about her that one can’t really use biography to help sort out what she’s getting at.
There was even a younger generation that called Davenport it’s hometown. Floyd Dell (born 1887) the editor of The Masses which in the early 20th century linked Modernism with left-wing politics until the red scare of 1917 closed it down, and Bix Beiderbecke (born 1903), the live-fast-die-young jazz composer and cornetist.
They’d make one hell of a roundtable. From the upper left: Susan Glaspell, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Davison Ficke, Floyd Dell, Muriel Strode, and Bix Beiderbecke.
But since we last time touched on Dorothy Parker, let’s present a piece I slightly modified from a poem by Don Marquis, born 1878 in the tiny settlement of Walnut Illinois, but educated in Galesburg. Don Marquis is usually filed (like Parker) as a humorist, but like Parker he worked in various genres including collaboration with the Krazy Kat cartoonist George Herriman. Unlike some of the others here, it appears that Don Marquis’ most consistent connection to Modernism was to satirize it. Today’s audio piece, which I call “The Young Intellectual**” pricked the romantic presumptions the young Modern of his time might suffer from. I updated part of one verse (the original next to last line was “I’ll start a Pale Brown Magazine”) when I performed it, an update I choose just so we can more easily feel offended or amused by his humor now. The player to hear the LYL Band performing this is below.
*My Great-grandfather lived on the Iowa side of these river-towns and worked in war-industry factories there. My father’s mother and her sister also grew up in the Davenport area. Alas, many of them died before I was old enough to ask questions, and one thing I regret about my youth is that I didn’t query those that were around.
**I’m not sure I qualify as an intellectual, but I’m sure I’m not young—so, Marquis can’t be talking about me now, can he. Like Ficke, Marquis also parodied Modernist verse, rather broadly from the examples I’ve read in his Hermione and Her Little Group of Thinkers from 1916. Marquis’ greatest success was a series of later newspaper columns that became a series of books about “archy and mehitabel” ostensibly created and typed by a cockroach hopping on the typewriter keys in Marquis’ office. Archy, the cockroach/author, is also something of a free-verse poet, and Archy’s poems are a much subtler expression.
Marq Daddy? He looks like an urban swell here, but the country he comes from they call the Midwest
Have you ever noticed how little poetry deals with the world of everyday work, with the employments that occupy such a large portion of our lives? Some of this is due to the positioning of art as an escape from all that humdrum and haplessness. We go to poetry, or to music, partly to divert ourselves from it. It promises us the respite of beauty, or at the least a music to shake ourselves down from the defeats and stress of it.
On the poets’ part, some of that may be because poetry is almost never their “day gig”—and that other regular bills-paying job is, at some level, an embarrassment. After all, Lord Byron didn’t have that waitress job, Edna St. Vincent Millay didn’t have to sweat getting the reports done by EOD, and Homer didn’t have to stay awake wondering if he should raise a stink about how his co-workers are dumping too much of their work-load on him. Poets, if they are to make it to the level possible in our modern culture, can at best aspire to the level of college teaching with sabbaticals and a modicum of grants. That necessary rent-paying day gig is an admission that they are marginalized as artists.
Carl Sandburg seems unaffected by that embarrassment, one of the reasons to treasure him in his years as a pioneering Modernist. Since he was politically aligned as a socialist, some kind of workers-solidarity stance might be obligatory. Luckily, the early-20th Century Sandburg rarely reads that way, and his life demonstrates reasons why this is so. He was born of working-class immigrants, and all through his Imagist years, while he was focused on becoming a poet, he remained working class through and through.
You may not share Sandburg’s politics (any more than I share Ezra Pound’s), but even through the superficial changes in the decades since he wrote them, you can find in Sandburg poems a real, felt, understanding of day to day work for pay. His first three poetry volumes are filled with this understanding. Today’s piece, “Sunset from Omaha Hotel Window,” from his Pulitzer Prize winning collection “Cornhuskers” is suffused with this.
Much of Sandburg’s 1918 “Cornhuskers” seems to be reflections published some 20 years later of his experiences while still a teenager in the 1890s when he hoboed out west from his native Illinois, working day labor and various farm jobs. Some of its idiom is unclear to me. I am not sure what is simply obsolete vernacular and what is figurative language invented by the poet.
He: You know my boss says I’m in line to be a supervisor if I just keep at it.
She: It says here “An image is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”
“Sunset from Omaha Hotel Window” tells you right off it’s allegiance to Imagism. It’s titled like a painting or an art photograph, and while Imagism wasn’t dogmatic about visual images, the visual arts were undergoing their own revolution influencing Modernist poetry; and as a practical matter, visual images have a directness that lend themselves to Imagism’s rejection of abstract and tired poetic tropes. And the poem’s first lines start, like many an Imagist poem, with colors and objects: a sunset over the Missouri river valley separating Omaha from Iowa. But then a line that’s a bit allusive: “The long sand changes.” My first thought was “like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” That maybe what Sandburg was intending, but I don’t know if it’s some obsolete saying or something Sandburg invented. Sandbanks formed on a river channel are sometimes given this name, and that may be part of the meaning, and the wandering Missouri river has formed and erased many of them.
Later we meet up with two more lines like that: “Time knocks in another brass nail. Another yellow plunger shoots in the dark.” The first is partially clear, as the driving of a nail is a job of work with a sharply defined end. But why brass? It’s something akin to the still extant idiom “getting down to brass tacks” which is clearly understood to mean “getting down to the real, basic, concrete issues,” but the brass-tacks image that idiom presents, and its origin, is a mystery. The second part, the yellow plunger, I understand even less. I thought: meteor? Some meteors have discernable colors. The sun? He says in the dark, and his sunset is red from the first lines. As I sang it I just thought: shooting star, but I would welcome any ideas.
Still, the meaning of the poem is not hard to discern for any working person. As an Imagist, Sandburg doesn’t have to say what he’s feeling—weary, sad, cheated, worried, broke, lonely, unappreciated, angry—he just presents the scene. In my arrangement of this piece, I added repeats of Sandburg’s refrain “Today is a goner and today is not worth haggling over.” Time passes, work is done, and the issues of work, however numerous, enduring, undimmed, and uncontrolled by us are as stars—they are distant and present for a moment in Sandburg’s poem.
To hear the LYL Band’s performance of Sandburg’s “Sunset from Omaha Hotel Window” use the player below.
Isn’t it odd how you know, and yet don’t know things, even in this world of instant communications and webs world-wide. Yesterday I started work on a new Parlando Project piece, and this morning I returned from a brisk ride to breakfast on a cool sunny April day to write about this piece whose words were written by Sara Teasdale.
I would have said that I was introduced to Teasdale from an LP record by one of my musical influences, Tom Rapp. I figured I’d link to something about him…
…and there I learned, that he had died more than two months ago.
So, I’ll link to this, his performance, Parlando Project-like, of Shakespeare’s song “Full Fathom Five” from The Tempest combined with Teasdale’s “I Shall Not Care.”
Even though that’s an example of the Parlando Project principle: “Other Peoples’ Stories,” that is to say, it is words Rapp didn’t write, it conveys something of the impact Tom Rapp can have if one is open and receptive to his presentation. He didn’t need to use Teasdale’s words or Shakespeare’s, because Rapp is one of the best singer-songwriters you likely don’t know about.
Let me not inflict too much biography on you. Rapp is another child of the Midwest, born on the Dakota plains, raised some in Minnesota. While still a grade-schooler, he bested a teenager from Hibbing— kid named Bobby Zimmerman —in a talent contest in Minnesota. That Zimmerman kid moved to New York and changed his name to Dylan. Rapp ended up in Florida in the middle 1960s and formed a band with other kids in his high school. He named the band from a phrase from the Sermon on the Mount: Pearls Before Swine. Their first LP from 1967, with a cover taken from Hieronymus Bosch painting was the only one with any appreciable sales, and Rapp issued a handful of albums afterward to ever declining audiences. Why?
As you’ve heard me proclaim here “All artists fail.” Even the most successful, have multitudes remaining who couldn’t care less what they have done; and unique ones do not get any advantage. Rapp wrote fewer songs about romantic love, and his best songs did not offer any easy comforting. And he’s as far from get-down, party until you forget as any musician who ever lived. Rapp is a writer of look, and then look deeper, and remember.
Unique can mean mostly that the audience is not shouting for more like him or her. Yet, I’m sure there are in this troubled world a great many who could find solace, as I did, in Tom Rapp.
You can be the 82nd person to listen to this since 2014.
When I found that link to the LP cut of the song he made from Shakespeare and Teasdale on YouTube, I saw that it had exactly 80 views since it was uploaded four years ago. Let that sink in for a minute. 80 views. The clumsiest unboxing video for some appliance will easily garner more. There have been a few successful “songwriters you should have heard” stories this century, where decades-old work becomes better known—Nick Drake or Rodriquez come to mind—but to succeed in finding an audience, such things require luck, and we’ll only allow a few to win when we re-spin Fortuna’s wheel. Pearls before swine indeed.
Yesterday’s post ran so long that I needed to improve it by removing some things that weren’t relevant to the story of Robert Hayden choosing a school of literary criticism to place not just his work, but his life, in context. But I love the minutiae I find when I’m researching these pieces. So here are some outtakes from yesterday’s post about Hayden’s sonnet praising Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Douglass was not the name he went by as a slave. As with most enslaved persons, to the degree he needed a last name, the name used was from one of the families that had owned his. After his escape from slavery, it was suggested that a name change might help shield him from slave catchers that would kidnap and re-enslave Afro-Americans. He took the name “Douglass” from an immensely popular Scottish historical romance by Walter Scott, “The Lady of the Lake,” where one of the main characters had that family name.
Sir Walter Scott was a huge cultural force in the 19th Century. His stories set in an idealized past of clans and medieval knights kicked off a revival of all kinds of Highlands Scottish culture. Alas, in another case of artists that cannot be held responsible for their fans, one far-flung example of Scott’s influence was his popularity in the American slave-holding south.
There you go, a renowned abolitionist and an infamous symbol of violent racism, both took their names from Sir Walter Scott.
I mentioned Hayden’s disagreements with those associated with the Black Arts Movement and some kinds of Black Nationalist politics in his later life during the 60s and 70s, still too large a subject, and one on which I lack authority. But since I was alive in that time, such things cause me to remember things.
To an under-recognized degree, mainly white radical movements in the mid-20th Century, admired, totemized and sought to copy those contemporary Afro-American movements. When I entered college myself in the 60s, my Irish-American Chicago-born roommate, a college football playing offensive-lineman with his knees already scarred from injuries playing for Lane Tech, kept a photo of John Carlos and Tommie Smith with their black fists raised on the Olympic podium. Within a year or two, that gesture would become a diversely popular gesture of radical protest.
Fred Hampton, the Chicago-based Black Panther killed in a highly questionable police raid was part of our conversations, a newspaper photogravure of his bedroom door scarred with dozens of bullet holes (all inward facing, the caption pointed out) was studied like a record album cover.
For some young serious musicians, Afro-American originated jazz and free-jazz were still examples of the highest forms of contemporary music-making. Some white musicians and artists sought to emulate the independence and syndicalist self-organization that Black Arts associated musicians had developed.
How did Afro-Futurist Jazz appear with hard-rockin’ punks the MC5?
Poster by Gary Grimshaw for a concert promoted by John Sinclair
For a moment, for a young white man in any area outside of a few urban enclaves to grow long hair was to a degree both real, and “that’s crazy, it’s not the same!” to become a voluntary Black person. Younger readers, let that sit in for a moment. Isn’t that a ludicrous thought?
I was there. Yes, surely there was much ignorance there, staggering naiveté. The term cultural appropriation hadn’t been invented yet, but surely this would be a cause to invent it. Yes, that comparison, that metaphor, was partly false, partly true.
Fifty years ago, in the Detroit area—where Robert Hayden was born and would spend much of his life—a white poet, arts-cooperative guru, and jazz-critic John Sinclair lead a small group to declare themselves the “White Panther Party,” issuing a manifesto that echoed the Black Panther party. Other than provocation, their chief asset was they had a rock band, which was better than the mimeograph most other movements could boast.
And so it was, that when I read of Robert Hayden, the poor Black kid, who struggled to attend Wayne State University during the Great Depression of the 1930s, a Black man who couldn’t volunteer, who’d have his own battles between the universal and the particular—when I read the name of that school where he went to learn poetry, a short, near-blind, unathletic kid, I thought of this performance by that rock band, the MC5, at Wayne State’s athletic field in 1970.
“Kick Out the Jams” is about irresistible musicians, but note, the crowd is 80% male.