The Wild Swans at Coole

Let us for a moment consider length in English language poetry. Despite the customary inclusion of one or two very short poems in most American poetry anthologies (“The Red Wheelbarrow   or “In A Station of the Metro”  typically), one can easily derive from them an accumulated mainstream judgement that poems shorter than a sonnet’s 14 lines are judged slighter expressions of less merit.

Similarly, in music, for all the glories of the mid-20th Century’s two minute and forty second 45 RPM single, serious composed music demonstrates greater regard for pieces of at least middling length, and the 20 to 70-minute symphony is still regarded with reverence. And so on with improvised music practice, which seem to find the five-minute mark as a minimum. Even the later 20th Century movement that got called “Minimalism” worked the idea of fewer motifs considered at greater length.

And so it is when we consider swans, the largest waterfowl, in words. Our last post and audio piece used Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Wild Swans,”   a fine poem, but if one looks at the accumulated attention gathered in the roughly 100 years since each was written, Millay’s “Wild Swans”  is overshadowed by William Butler Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole.”

Yeats’ poem is worthy of this attention, and he does pack a lot into his mid-length 30-line poem, written by a late middle-aged poet as his colonized country has experienced a failed revolution and his world has seen the shocking mechanized slaughter of the original World War. All that violence is subtext—not once is it mentioned—and as we read or listen to it now, that violence may no longer be apparent, though the background of disappointment remains.

Millay presents the swans as something she cannot comprehend as they fly over her, with her disappointment, her heart at present “a house without air.” Yeats on the other hand presents an almost OCD-level attention with the swimming swans at the beginning of his poem. He has apparently been counting them on each visit for 19 years. He’s going to count them again. And then they fly off in clamor before he can finish his count even though he reports an exact number.

The specificity of those two numbers is curious. Is the 19 years of visits to Coole in Ireland a mere biographical fact? Are the “nine-and-fifty swans” he’s counted an actual census he took regularly? I do not know. Given that Yeats had a long interest in occultism, there may be some occult significance in one or both of those numbers. They are both large numbers for the things they measure: anything one has done for 19 years has a resonance for that long a duration, and given how magnificent the sight of a few swans gliding on the water are, the idea of 59 of them viewed together is an image of overwhelming swan-ishness.

What strikes me most about the two numbers subliminal effect is that both end in 9, and so, seem to be almost at an ending. As the poem develops, Yeats returns to that effect.

These details, written in Yeats typical lyrical fluency, accumulate throughout the poem. The lake and sky repeating each other. 59 swans. The “bell-beat” weight of their wings as they heavily swing them into flight, equally straining, equally coalescing into aerial rings. Their companionable swimming on the cold water “lover by lover”—ah, there’s that 59 again, an odd number—at least one swan has no mate.

But he doesn’t say that. The poem is all its music, the image after image, the beauty after beauty mixed with the undercurrent of impossibility of its permanency. The world will change, the poet or the swans will not return.

19 years of repetition does not mean 19 years of repetition to come. 59 swans is all but too much beauty, but one swan is without a partner.

Davis Coltrane Yeats Millay

John Coltrane: “Sometimes when I’m playing there are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at. There’s never any end.”

Miles Davis: “Try taking the f’ing horn out of your mouth”

 

So, do the 30 lines of Yeats mean it’s a greater poem than the 8 lines of Millay, an objective judgement causing its greater fame?

Why do I have to choose? If Yeats had written 60 or 6,000 lines would “The Wild Swans at Coole”  be better? If Millay had written 80 lines, would her “Wild Swans”  have shown greater skill? We can derive from how anthologists, poetry critics and audiences respond what their preferences are, even those they never articulate explicitly, but in the end it is the longer poems that make the short poems concise and the short poems that make the longer poems seem overwhelming.

How many times have I listened toKind of Blue?”  Does Miles Davis need to play more notes? Does John Coltrane need to play fewer? Looking at these two poems about swans, they illuminate each other.

The gadget below will play my performance of Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole.”

 

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Autumn

100 years ago, a WWI German artillery shell ended the life of T. E. Hulme, the man who sparked off what we now know as modern English poetry. I was going to say “invented,” but that’s a dodgy word in art as much as in science. Hulme borrowed ideas from several places, and adapted poetic tactics the French and some Americans had already made use of. But we can still say he started things off because he collected the tinder and cordwood in the Poet’s Club in London in the first years of the 20th Century, and the spark was applied by suggesting that everything he thought poets were doing since, well, just about the Renaissance, was wrongheaded. Too flowery. Too ornamented. Too “romantic,” an error he believed made them think of mankind as exalted and godlike.

Hulme, interested in visual art as much as he was in literature, thought the new literary direction should be visual. Cold hard images, direct and vivid, not abstract, were to be the new order, but these images could even be homey and simple (as long as they retained that vividness), not the sort of thing that signaled high culture in the British poems of the past couple of centuries. He was very certain of this, and he either made a convincing case in person or provided the theoretical underpinnings through first or second-order influence to the soon to be mighty modernists: Pound, Eliot, Yeats, H.D., and Frost.

Bust of Hulme
Bust of T. E. Hulme by Jacob Epstein, another member of the early 20th Century artistic “American Invasion” to England

Hulme illustrated his ideas with short poems. I’m not altogether sure how seriously he took these writings, but I find they have three attractive attributes. First, for all the bluster and pugnaciousness that he propounded his theories, the poems are very unassuming. In subject, they often seem to follow one of the principles I try to follow in the Parlando Project: “Other people’s stories.” Second, they are short, and I am attracted to the variety of expression that can succeed in short poetry. And lastly, they are the first. They have that charm, the same charm I might apprehend looking at a Chuck Statler music video, an Apple I or MITS Altair personal computer, an early horseless carriage, or the pictograms on a cave wall. The other beginners looked at this, and said “why not?” Ezra Pound related to Hulme’s ideas in formulating “Imagism.” T. S. Eliot either saw or was reinforced in his ideas for a new classicism in poetry in Hulme’s work.

What would be striking about today’s piece, Hulme’s “Autumn,”  in 1908 when it was published?

It’s “free verse.” No rhyme, no regular metrical scheme. Besides some French poets, American Walt Whitman had done this, but this was still rare, and rarer still in England. The last part of Hulme’s “Autumn”  is still musical however, essentially iambic, and sound echoes, if not rhyme, are present in “wistful stars with white faces.”

Hulme’s two substantial images in “Autumn”  are extraordinarily unpretentious, particularly the first one: “the ruddy moon” at sunset leaning “over a hedge/Like a red-faced farmer.” Compare this to Shelley’s “To the Moon” where the moon is “of climbing heaven” and is addressed as “Thou chosen sister of the Spirit” or Wordsworth’s “With How Sad Steps, O Moon” which is “running among the clouds a Wood-nymph’s race”—and these are examples from good poems of the 19th Century, not the more forgettable lot.

Over at the Interesting Literature blog, where I discovered Hulme, it is pointed out that Hulme, who was from a rural district, also had a ruddy complexion. Perhaps Hulme is looking at himself when he sees the ruddy moon, or his hometown in the moon, but we don’t need to know this subtext to sense the nostalgic comfort in this scene. Except for “cold” near the beginning, which is a sensation as well as an emotion, the only other emotion that is “told” rather than “shown” in the poem is the adjective “wistful” applied to the stars.

Did Hulme toss this off, just to say “Look! You can write a poem like this.” I don’t know, but that’s beside the point. As a person myself who has emigrated from a small rural town, Hulme’s “Autumn”  works as well or better than a grander poem in a more florid manner.

What would Hulme have done if he hadn’t insisted in serving his country in WWI, or if that shell had landed on some other poor soul? That, no one can tell.

Ascenseur pour l'échafaud cover

Like Pound, Eliot,  H. D., Frost, and Epstein, Miles Davis was another American making new art abroad.

 

For today’s performance, I was struck by rehearing a portion of Miles Davis’ soundtrack to “Ascenseur pour l’échafaud”  earlier this week when a piece of it, “L’ Assassinat de Carala,”  appeared unexpectedly in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “Vietnam”  documentary series.. Performed by Davis with a mostly French pickup band over a couple of days during a short stay in France, it’s something of a radically simple first of it’s own, as Davis essays a spare style with less harmonic movement, a style that he was soon to use with a company of more experienced and exceptional improvisers in his epochal “Kind of Blue” recording. Other than Davis’ own trumpet, the featured instrument on “Ascenseur pour l’échafaud”  is Pierre Michelot’s bass. In my music for “Autumn”  I made more use of the drums as well as the bass, as the only “trumpet” I could use was a synthesized approximation of the timbre of the real thing. There’s another first here: the first drum solo on a Parlando Project piece. To hear T. E. Hulme’s “Autumn”  as I performed it, use the gadget below.