The Labors of Hercules

I’ve largely put off considering the American Modernist poet Marianne Moore. Why? Largely a combination of difficulties in understanding her verse with an inability to appreciate her word-music. When I look at a Marianne Moore poem I’m usually struck by a combination of plain-spokenness with a knotted syntax that obscures the direction of her meaning.

Ordinarily I’m perfectly willing to put up with hard-to-understand-on-the-first-reading poetry—indeed I can like poetry that I can never quite grasp  as long as its language makes me gasp. But a Moore poem on the page, and in its first or even second reading often seems more like a set of notes for a poem or one of my own jumbled first drafts rather than an elusive song I’m driven to follow by the impetus of its structure.

But of course all of that is an impression based on limited exposure to her work. Late last year I put down a short list of works that would come into public domain in 2020, and one of those works from the last decade to be called “The Twenties” was Marianne Moore’s first book-length collection Observations.

This month I read Observations.  I was puzzled by many of the poems—that I expected—but what surprised me was how consistently the poems take a stance of protest, opposition and stubborn grievance. Don’t ask me to explicate each poem in Observations,  I’ll fail that test, and even if my understanding of the alliances of various Modernist has been refreshed and expanded by doing this Project, I can’t say completely who or whose poetic theories are being skewered, but Moore’s first collection can be read as a collection of dis tracks.

Marianne Moore 2

Marianne Moore has a few things to say about obstacles and those that put them up

 

Observations  contains Moore’s most famous poem Poetry,”  the one that begins “I too dislike it.” But as it sets out it’s ideas of proper poetry, it’s relatively gentle in chiding those that fail. Other poems in the collection are not so gentle.

Take the one I’m performing today: “The Labors of Hercules.”  The title helps us with a reference before we get to Moore’s discursive style. In Greek mythology these were a series of 12 tasks, each one next-to-impossible on its own, all of which the hero Hercules must complete as penance. Moore doesn’t seem to follow the scheme of these classical tasks.*  Instead she sets out the tasks that have been made next to impossible for her (or her like) to create their own variation of American Modernist art—and there’s a bunch of them.

Is the mule at the start of the poem then her own poetic muse, not conventionally beautiful and lyrical?  The rest of the obstacles/tasks seem more outer than inward. There’s a narrow-minded pianist too tied to the score** to improvise or compose in a new manner. A string of invective brings us some “Self-wrought Midasses of brains” with “Fourteen-carat ignorance” that she’ll disappoint. She sarcastically threatens to rebel and dress up as the specifically male and bearded representation of time and posterity.*** She disputes the theory (propounded by T. S. Eliot and some lions of New Criticism) that detachment from one’s particular personality is required for creative power. She runs into the “High priests of caste” and lashes them with some further, unmistakable invective. Next she says she’ll have to teach saints to atheists to succeed in her penance.

There’s a line I’m not sure of that follows: “Sick of the pig-sty, wild geese and wild men.” Moore might be saying she’s sick of reflexive poetic worship of a timeless nature, as she shared a Modernist interest in observing the man-made and mechanical as worthy of poetry. Myself, I like a poem that freshly opens the book of nature as much as the next person, but there are days when one more poem about majestic wild-geese or another Robert-Bly-has-helped-me-come-to-terms-with-my-masculinity**** wild man poem makes me gag.

The poem closes on a short litany negating a series of common prejudices and ethnic stereotypes. I will not tarry long here to note that several other Modernists of 100 years ago were not shy about displaying each of these bigotries. In the context of this poem, Moore is saying “and besides all of the other things I’ll need to overcome, I’m not going to score easy points with bigots.”

Andy Gill in action with the Gang of Four.

 

It’s my hope that my performance of “The Labors of Hercules”  helps as much as what I’ve written above to illuminate Moore’s poem. Musically I was thinking of Andy Gill, a guitarist who I admired greatly and who died this month. I didn’t mimic his distinctive sound or the can’t-not-dance groove of the group he founded, The Gang of Four—but a little of his attitude was informing me. The full text of Marianne Moore’s “The Labors of Hercules”  is linked here. The player to hear my performance should appear below, and all the Parlando Project audio pieces are also available on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Just look there for (or on other podcast sources) for The Parlando Project.

 

 

*At a recorded reading given decades after she wrote this poem, Moore says the taming  of the opening mules was one of Hercules’ tasks. Maybe she’s referring to the capturing of the “Mares of Diomedes” task in the classical myth?

**”Tadpole notes” made me think of immature notes that haven’t grown into those real toads for one’s imaginary garden, but it appears that Moore’s quoted image is more likely a reference to the shapes of notes in conventional notation with their bodies and tails.

***Moore’s politics are not something I know a lot about. Socialism of the William Morris sort is said to be an early influence, but she was an ardent woman’s suffragist 100 years ago when she still couldn’t vote as a matter of law. At the time that the female “song-bird” poets (Teasdale, Millay, Wylie, and others) were starting to be denigrated by high-church Modernists, Moore was one woman who was going to fight back with her own distinctive Modernism.

Anyway, the whole image here of her clipping on a fake beard and confronting the “high priests” can only make this reader think of the stoning scene in Life of Brian.

****Bly fan and reading this? My opinion on his work is complicated, and your opinions are more important than mine anyway.

Emerson’s Requiem

In the last hour of 2019 I was sitting on the couch with my son as we exchanged video clips we thought each other should see. I mentioned that Neil Innes had just died, that he was part of the Monty Python circle, and that before Python he had founded a musical group that helped inspire the Pythons called the Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band.

“I think I’ve heard of the Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band.”

“Search for ‘Canyons of Your Mind’”  I suggested. Sure enough, the magic of Internet searching brought up a video. “This is the most Sixties song ever” I promised.

Here’s the clip we watched.

Farcical fascicles found  “In the wardrobe of my soul, in the section labeled shirts.”

 

 

I wasn’t sure if I needed to provide context for it. As the performance shows they’re sending up every bit of performative anguish over absent love as well as the worship of musicians offering it. And the lyrics? They should have mortally wounded a certain kind of Sixties metaphor that was supposed to transcend our mundane world. In the middle of it Neil Innes plays a guitar solo that was likewise a pig cupid’s dart to the heart of every guitar hero moment. Anyone got the tab for that?

Son was not impressed. He had just shown me a Franz Ferdinand video chock-full of early 20th century Dada and Constructivist art moves: Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, Alexander Rodchenko visual riffs. In contrast, the Bonzo’s Dada lacked the same danceable drive and sleek black stage dress of the smart and sharp 21st century Glaswegian rock band.

Oh well. I hadn’t seen the Franz Ferdinand videos he showed me and I was glad I saw them. They made me think how we are still working out the Modernist revolution as we enter another decade that will be called “The Twenties.”

Early in the last week, I watched an episode of Apple TV+ Dickinson with my wife. In it Emily was crushing on Benjamin Newton over their mutual admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Dirge,”  “The one where he’s on a plain with all those ghosts” as TV’s Emily has it.

That made we want to go back and check out Emerson’s “Dirge.”  What might Dickinson have seen in it?

It is 19th century Goth, right full of death and lonely love for the dead. Emerson had suffered at least as much as his early 19th century peers in terms of early deaths in his circle, and his poem is quite similar to a poem Abraham Lincoln wrote around the same time that we’ve featured here. One of Emerson’s charms as an essayist was that his mind might take him anywhere while writing one, and the reader is afterward taken along for the ride. This one-thing-after-another move can also work in poetry, but when Emerson the poet does it, it generally doesn’t work for me. “Dirge”  suffers for that.

Here’s the text of “Dirge”  as Emerson published it. The TV show’s Dickinson latched right onto that arresting image, a rural plain full of ghosts, but Emerson buries the lede, putting another stanza before it. That stanza isn’t entirely bad, indeed its abandoned field with scanty corn could have conceivably informed Dickinson’s “Summer’s empty room” in her later poem we featured this December. I tried performing the poem in its entirety, but it was running nearly 8 minutes (longer than I like to use here) and so I then decided to cut to length by removing those stanzas that were Emersonian digressions. I’m not sure that’s the right way to go, though I think the listener might prefer my more single-threaded version. In some of the excised stanzas, Emerson made the poem’s setting distinctly his Concord hometown; and the mourned, missing folks: his siblings who died young. Specificity also works in poetry, but I’m not sure it strengthens this  poem.

One more thing before I offer you a chance to hear my resulting performance. An 1850s Emily Dickinson would have been reading this kind of gothic romanticism in its moment. The element, performative or not, of contemporary personal emotion in poems was part of the change of 19th century Romanticism. Her models: Emerson, Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and others used that mode. Even Whitman made common use of it. Here’s something I find striking: Dickinson generally didn’t. Her poems make little use of sentimentality. She will use emotional words in her poems rather than images meant to invoke feelings in the 20th century Imagist manner, but those emotional terms often seem examined, observed, set to the side.

I asked my son if what put him off the Bonzos was that they were desecrating his musical religion. *

“No, you could have just picked a better one.”

Acoustic guitar and a mix of synthesizer sounds for today’s musical performance of Emerson’s “Dirge.”  The player gadget to hear it is below.

 

 

 

 

*Pedantically one could draw a fairly direct line from the Bonzos to early Roxy Music to “Anarchy in the UK.”  But no more footnotes today! If I’m going to excise Emerson’s digressions, why should I give myself license?

Odds and Ends

I’ve not engaged much in re-blogging, but two pieces I’ve read this week really struck me: one for an idea and examples of how it might be executed, and the other for a sharply-written essay on a novel from the same early 20th century era that much of the poetry we use comes from.

The idea? A professor and poet Lesley Wheeler, who teaches a course in American poetry from 1900-1950, gave this assignment in lieu of the conventional essay: “create 8 pages of a little magazine from the period, including a cover, masthead, mission statement, table of contents, and a few ‘solicited’ submissions (mostly real poems from the period, but they were allowed to make up one or two plausible imaginary modernists, too, and write poems in those personas). They also had to write reflective essays explaining their literary and design choices and providing a bibliography of models and other sources they consulted.”

That’s a powerful idea. She shows examples of some of the responses to the assignment, and I’d love to see more of what the respondents chose to do. No one lives in history, even those old dead people were immediate. Here’s a link to her post.

The essay came from an unexpected source. I follow a blog Yip Abides  that features unusually framed urban-midwestern street photography, a genre that follows the photographic aesthetic of my late wife. He also likes to feature videos that have impressed him, often animation. Visual art and musically oriented blogs are a large portion of my follow list as my own portion of reading on literature is taken up almost entirely with things that directly apply to material for this project.

But this week, there was a post there about The Virginian, a novel I’ve never read, but one of that helped formulate a genre, “The Western,” that dominated popular entertainment in the mid-20th century much like a certain kind of SF/Fantasy dominated the last part of it and the beginning of our current century.

The blogger, Bob Roman, writing about The Virginian  ranges perceptively over the areas I’d want a writer to cover. What’s the connection between the cowboy “necktie party” and KKK style lynchings and murders?* How much does the American frontier underlie some particulars in contemporary libertarianism? And there’s more. Well worth reading, and here’s a link to it.

And before I leave to write another post on a new audio piece, a few miscellaneous follow-ups on things discussed earlier in the year.

How has Apple TV+’s Dickinson  turned out? This is one of the premiere offerings of the tech giants new video streaming service, and its over-heated pre-release trailer emphasized a conceptual strangeness that made many dismiss it as a deeply unserious piece of muddled youth pandering.

Sue Gilbert and Emily Dickinson rock out

Rebel Girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood. I got news for you: she is!”

 

I’ve now seen the first episode, and so far it seems to be what I’d hoped it was: a tongue in cheek re-contextualizing of Emily Dickinson’s life which both comments on her actual mid-19th century issues and our own times. Last year’s theatrical film Wild Nights with Emily  tried to do something like this and had its moments, but I thought the overall execution flawed. Wild Nights with Emily  and Dickinson  are both comedies, but it was as comedy that Wild Nights  failed, its portrayals of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Mable Loomis Todd were all too broad. True, they are peripheral characters in Wild Nights,  but that too was a choice. As best as I can tell from one episode Dickinson  doesn’t make those choices and is the better for it as a comedy. The characters of Dickinson’s world are more rounded portrayals.

The first episode was full of little footnote-quality accurate factoids about the Dickinson family—the creators apparently wanted to show they had done their research. Two choices Dickinson  appears to make could work or fail as the series continues: It may have trouble showing why Dickinson matters and it makes the choice to play Emily Dickinson as younger than she was.

At least in the first episode, Dickinson is represented as being recognized by some in her peer group as “a genius” and a few lines of one of her best known poems are repeated almost as often as the hook in a current pop song, but we so far get no sense of why her poems are crucial. This may change over more episodes of course, but it’s always hard to show what a writer does visually. If you do a biopic about a great performer you show an actor portraying them performing, if the simulation is good you’ve made your case. Watching someone write, or how that writing works inside the minds of readers, is not so easy to act.

The first episode seems to be set in 1852, when Dickinson was the age that actor Hailee Steinfeld who plays her is in real life, 22 years old. But this is before Dickinson wrote most of her poems. Chronology seems to be a difficult issue for filmmakers trying to portray Dickinson’s life, but if the show works, I’m willing to grant them license for being loose with that. More problematic is that they appear to be portraying Dickinson as a teenager rather than as a 20-something, much less the 30-something that apparently wrote much of the poetry. I’m aware that different times had different norms for childhood and youth, but were 22-year-olds acting more like 16-year-olds in 1852? I couldn’t help but think the history they were unintentionally demonstrating was the TV and Hollywood practice of having high-school age characters played by 20-something actors.

I’ve had to live through an era when Dickinson was thought of as an arid eccentric, frustrated spinster, and even as a corrective I’m not sure I want her now to be portrayed as only the hormone-saturated brain of our adolescences either. We’ll see how they deal with that as the show goes on.

The knowing comic anachronisms and indie soundtrack? Bring’em on! The Parlando Project obviously isn’t opposed to purposely doing that kind of thing.

In closing then another thing relating to a recent presentation of a Dickinson poem here. What might be behind that striking image of windblown snow starting to fill a field as “summer’s empty room” in Dickinson’s Snow  poem? Well, it was one of those poems she enclosed in letters (one of Dickinson’s contemporary uses for her writing). This one went to Susan Gilbert, the woman some modern scholars posit was her lover, and who was certainly one of the intelligent intimates that helped sustain Emily. I think that was an image of longing in the otherwise “winter wonderland” mise en scène of Dickinson’s poem.

An audio piece? As we approach winter solstice, here’s one of my favorite Dickinson presentations from this project, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.”  The player gadget is below.

 

 

 

 

*White-on-white lynchings and extra-judicial killings were a common trope in Western movies and TV shows of mid-century, while terrorism directed at Afro-Americans was almost never the subject of popular entertainment. Consciously or subconsciously, this could have been American culture trying to address that which it was loath to address.

Fall 2019 Parlando Top Ten, numbers 4-2

We’re now nearing the top of our look back at the most liked and listened to audio pieces this past fall. Yesterday we used words from a trio of women writers, and today starts off the same way. If you missed the original posts on my encounter with these texts and creating the music for them, I’m including a link to them in each of their notices in this Top Ten series, and those linked posts also will show or link to the full texts. The player gadget to hear the audio performances with original music is after each listing below.

4. Autumn by Emily Dickinson. We start off again with Emily Dickinson. I can’t help it, every time I go looking for some additional texts I run into a short Dickinson poem that fascinates, and that’s just the sort of thing I like to use here.

Oddly, this one isn’t the weird, sly, or mystical Dickinson. It’s just a light piece of occasional verse. In my original post I noted that Dickinson’s classmate and friend Helen Hunt Jackson could have written and published this sort of poem, and it’s the sort of verse that would have fit well in the newspapers and periodicals of the time.

Of course, her times weren’t placidly occasional as this poem seems to be—they were less so than even ours are. She grew up in a time that the U.S. political system was falling apart, unable to solve the social and economic addiction to chattel slavery based along racial lines. Her own father was a local principal in one political faction trying to grapple with this.*  The years of her greatest poetic output paralleled the bloody 4-year civil war that followed.

I can’t say for sure why Bob Dylan issued his Nashville Skyline  album in 1969—another war-torn time. In that LP Dylan dared to write the simplest, even corny, statements; and the singer who had snarled and howled his words at the height of his fame sung them in a tenor croon. Is there some truth—or at least momentary respite—in those sentiments? Opinions differ. Dickinson’s “happy autumn” poem reads like that to me. My suspicions are that it was a part of her capacious mind (no one can be fierce all the time), that she wanted to show (in this early poem) that she could do those expected kinds of verse, and that maybe it was a resting place for her (as it could be for us) from the changeable world that refuses to change.

 

Brancusi’s Golden Bird by Mina Loy. It was a blockbuster trade. The United States sent Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, both powerhouse Modernists with a reverence for old school classicism to the European side in return for a scrappy English up-and-comer Mina Loy and a future draft pick which turned into W. H. Auden.

Not quite as disastrously one-sided as the Babe Ruth for cash trade that happened 100 years ago a week from today, but then maybe the U. S. side thought that with William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens they were already primed to take on the post WWI poetic field.

And as I noted in my original post, this poem of Loy’s was published in the same issue of The Dial  that included a modest little contribution from Eliot: “The Waste Land.” You might have heard of that one.

It’s only lately that some have come to re-assess Loy. And talk about fierce, committed, and assertive writing by a woman—Loy could bring it. “Brancusi’s Golden Bird” is a high-energy hymn to Modernist art.

Mina Loy and Patti Smith

Separated at birth? Mina Loy and Patti Smith. Alas, Loy was more than a generation ahead of the electric guitar, a fault we’ve now remedied.

 

In the 21st century, Patti Smith, one of my heroes for demonstrating the uses of heroes, and a model for the value of guitars with poetry, has issued some below the radar explorations of various Modernist artists. Let her heart and mind go where it wants to go, but I do sometimes wonder if she’ll get around to Mina Loy, whose soul might resonate with hers.

 

Do Not Frighten the Garden by Frank Hudson. Yes, the Parlando Project continues to be about “Other People’s Stories.” That means it’s about how I react to others’ writing. There’s no lack of selfish pleasure in that. The thrill I get when I compose the right music for a text, or when I complete a translation of something from another language, or just perform a piece with some degree of satisfaction is more than enough.

And really, honoring other people’s work is important! If our poetry scene is only voices, however vivid and individual, speaking only their own words, then it risks being the silent forest for the trees.

In my defense, I offer that “Do Not Frighten the Garden,” is inspired by a phrase in one of poet Robert Okaji’s poems as I discussed in my original post on this. In all probability I wouldn’t have written my poem if I hadn’t read his poem. Writers in general are instructed to “Write what you know,” but like “Look before you leap” and “He who hesitates is lost,” opposites can be true. Particularly with the immediate lyric poem, there is another possible instruction: “Write what you didn’t even start to know until just now.”

And here’s my holiday wish to you, adventuresome reader and listener: that something we present here inspires you to see something differently or possible. Tomorrow we’ll be back with the reveal of the most popular piece this fall.

 

 

 

*I found out awhile back that Emily Dickinson’s father was a Whig and then Unionist Republican, which indicates that he was one of those that sought compromises that allowed slavery to continue while preserving the union. As far as I know, we have only small indications of Emily’s own views on these issues, but Amherst was not an all-white community, and while researching these things I found a link to a fascinating story of her father’s part in defending those who thwarted an attempted abduction into slavery of a local Afro-American woman.

Fall 2019 Parlando Top Ten, numbers 7-5

Continuing our review of the Top Ten most liked and listened to pieces this past season here at the Parlando Project, here are the next three.

My son likes to needle me by asking what old dead white men I’m presenting today on the blog. What could be my defense? I could respond that many of the poets whose texts I end up using were young when they wrote their poems—but he’s a teenager, and frankly the idea that Rilke wrote his poem “Autumn Day”  that seems to be about the restlessness at the onset of old age when Rilke was still in his 20s wouldn’t impress him. Someone in their 20s may not be ancient to him, but they aren’t exactly young in the way he is either.

And dead? That state is somewhat masked by literature. The writer, especially the poet, is always whispering in your ear. Perhaps we can tell by clues of language if they are ghosts or more present confidants, but they both whisper just the same. Will they lie pretty or tell the truth? Ghosts and the living do both. Are the living wiser, do they know all that the ghosts know and more besides? Only if they have listened to the ghosts.

Are they white today? Yes, plenty pale. I talked to my son this month about the arbitrariness of “Western Culture.” I asked him “Just how white was Socrates? Just how white was Homer?” This week the news announced some finds from a Mycenean grave dating from Homeric times, and the featured picture was a pendant engraved with an African goddess. Well, we don’t have Homer in the Top 10 today, though we do know—however misunderstood and thus transformed—that ancient Greek and Chinese poetry influenced our founding English language Modernists.

Hathor pendant from Pylos gravesite

An African goddess pendant found in an ancient grave in Greece.

 

And none of today’s trio are men today, which shouldn’t surprise long-time readers here.

7. Besides the autumn poets sing by Emily Dickinson. It’s remarkable how much Emily Dickinson, a woman born nearing 200 years ago can seem modern, maybe even more modern today than she seemed to her first readers at the turn of the 20th century. Back then she seemed the quaint and curious poetess, a little rough around the edges technique-wise, but bringing some charming homespun metaphors with just a bit of a gothic edge. Now we may read her as if she had time-traveled to read late 20th century European aestheticians and philosophers instead of Emerson.

I believe we’re more correct now. This old man has listened to the ghosts and they are often dunderheads regarding Dickinson. And besides, as I wrote in my original post about this piece, I think this poem is having some wicked fun with the old white male poets of her time.

As to the missing people of color, let me supply the answer to a clue in that original post. Though disguised by the acoustic music arrangement, I based the changes in my music for this around a cadence from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”

 

6. Song by Louise Bogan. Unlike Dickinson, I had nothing to reassess about Bogan when I first encountered her poetry while working on this project. Bogan’s song is as straightforward in its complexities and contradictions as Dickinson is sly. The stark emotional directness of Bogan’s poem challenged me as a singer. I decided to modify the text by using the classic Afro-American Blues line stanza form, repeating a line to add an opportunity for emphasis and shading.

I partially apologized for my voice needing to be the singer to get this song out as part of the Parlando Project in my original post. I try to not apologize for my musical limitations (doing so helps no one) but this is one of those pieces that I’ve composed for this project that I hope someone who is a better singer will take up.

 

 

5. November by Amy Lowell.  Speaking of the blues, this piece by the born rich and died much too young promoter of concise Imagist poetry Amy Lowell uses bottleneck* slide guitar, a playing method associated with blues musicians.

Which brings me to another side point: American music is American music substantially because it has had Afro-American music to anneal its soul. Strange that: the colonizers’ sin driven by not having enough healthy indigenous people to exploit brought forth upon this continent a new music which is its leading artistic glory. I can’t write a poem much less a sentence to properly express that.

As I wrote in my original post on this piece, I’m still coming to grips with Amy Lowell. I suspect those bohemians who disrespected her were right and wrong, but I have no idea of the proportions. This poem of hers is  quite good I think.

 

 

*I’d read about blues slide guitar, but I can still recall the first time I saw it played (in “The Sixties”) when a teenaged kid from the Twin Cities area named Don Williams removed from his authentic folk-scare Levi’s denim jacket pocket an actual severed bottle’s neck, tuned his guitar I think to open D, and played a John Fahey-ish rendition of Poor Boy (a long way from home).”  Reconstructing that moment, Don (like Amy Lowell) probably had access to material and cultural resources that I a poorer kid from a tiny town didn’t have—what a strange way for the blues to work!—but I remain grateful to this day for the introduction.

Three More Cinquains

Once more, let’s travel back to 1914.

For several months, as summer 1913 turns to ’14 through autumn and winter, a 35-year-old woman is creating the manuscript for her first book-length collection of poetry. Creating a book-length manuscript is always a challenging task, and regardless of whatever realistic expectations the author might have for its reception, hope is normally the fuel for this. First collections are like that, as a poet figures out how to introduce themselves to strangers.

But this woman, Adelaide Crapsey, is also producing her final collection of poetry, and she likely knows that. She’s not working in her study or at some granted writer’s retreat, but at a sanitarium* where she’s suffering through the last stages of tuberculosis which has spread to her brain. If 1914 is The Year that Imagism Broke, it’s also the year that she will die.

Saranac Lake Cottage Sanitarium circa 1918

There are many paths away from here. How long are any of them?” Du Fu

 

The book that she is working on will be published in 1915, and it will be the place where she’ll introduce her own poetic form, the cinquain. The cinquain is a short five-line verse form, primarily iambic, that uses an increasing series of syllables: two in the first line, four in the second, six in the third, eight in the fourth, and then back to two in the final line. Some have noted that the increase creates an expectation of growth or expanding sense, only to have the ending come up short and terse. I’m not the first to see this as a symbol of Crapsey’s life and art itself.

Still it’s remarkable that Crapsey chose such a small, tight form into which to pour her thoughts on illness and approaching death. Some might choose a short but loose form to conserve energy; others might turn rangey trying to get all their last expressions in. Crapsey seems to find in the form’s limits the borders within to hold her place.

Three More Cinquains from Crapsey

Here are the three cinquains I used today. Illness and the eventual passage of dying is something we all share. Crapsey used tiny poems to bear vivid witness.

 

In the early 20th century world of Modernist American poetry, her tragic story lent a degree of publicity to the posthumously published book, but it was a small fire which soon burnt out. As I mentioned last time, extremely short poems and the direct lyric impulse is not where Modernism headed after the 1920s—but in the long run, we can still access these poems the only way that poetry can be reached: by directly taking them inside us. These cinquains don’t ask for a large place.

For my performance of three more of Crapsey’s cinquains of 1913-1914 I composed music for strings which sounds acoustic even though there is some spare, bell-like Rhodes electric piano and a cello line that is treated with a strong resonant echo that I think adds some poignance. I don’t know where this melody and counterpoint came from, but as I tried and played some string lines on my MIDI guitar it came to me quickly, as if out of the air. You can hear it with the player below.

 

 

 

 

*Looking to see what I could find about a Saranac Lake sanitarium I found a fascinating story about a small upstate N. Y. town that welcomed tuberculosis patients for palliative therapy in the early 20th century. Other literary residents after Crapsey included novelists Allan Seager and Walter Percy. On first reading “sanitarium” I had visualized a large dreary hospital building, but the setting appears to be surprisingly humane. Coincidentally, the remaining buildings were sold a few weeks ago.

Two Cinquains from Adelaide Crapsey

Let’s imagine that it’s 1914, and on both sides of the Atlantic curious short poems with precisely chosen and concrete imagery are appearing here and there. This is Imagism, the premier movement of Modernism in English. Long-time readers here will know* that these small and unpresupposing poems came from several sources: the away-with-19th-century-Romanticism ideas of T. E. Hulme, the promotional verve of Ezra Pound who also set out classical East Asian poetry as an ideal, things apprehended from French poetry by the slum-born F. S. Flint, and the fresh eyes and forms of Americans Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

This new poetry was quite unlike the Tennysons and Longfellows that preceded it, but also it is by and large not Modernist poetry as we’ve come to know it later in that century or in our current one. It seems altogether simpler, pared down. It partakes of poetry’s timeless lyric impulse: the thought that a poem need not be long to be complex if it keeps itself true to the goal that the poem isn’t about ideas but the instantaneous experience of ideas. Nor is it a marathon course of those feelings and experiences, rendered on kaleidoscopic canvases.

To some this new kind of poetry is cheating. Where are the grand themes? If the poem doesn’t develop itself like an essay or history where is the effort or the worth of the effort? The poems often don’t seem to use heightened poetic language, and they may at first seem to have no metaphors—rather, the poem is the metaphor.  That these poems often eschewed rhyme or conventional meter added to the “anybody can do this” sense many had.

As I imply above, this is not the Modernism that eventually emerged triumphant. Yes, a Red Wheelbarrow” and A Station of the Metro  will be constantly anthologized, but Williams and Pound will become known for their longer more esoteric poems. Even if some WWI poets could use these compressed poetic methods to express horror while the fighting was going on, the post-war world wanted it all expanded on, and the thought that expansive sur-rationality was the appropriate response to world-wide mechanized violence came to the forefront. Art needed to be as big or bigger than the things it was opposed to.

Adelaide_Crapsey

“Reading” pictures is risky, but this photo of Crapsey just seems to say determination.

 

All this ferment brings us to Adelaide Crapsey, a woman who has been forgotten in all the fuss. First, look at that name. It sounds like a character in a satiric novel. It’s so pre-20th century that you can’t imagine Modernist verse having it attached to it (perhaps Hilda Doolittle was savvy in immediately accepting Pound’s rebranding of her as H. D.). Also, if there was such a thing as Middle School in her youth, can you imagine the trauma of carrying her family name?

In The Year Imagism Broke, 1914, Crapsey was not only writing Modernist verse in the initial Imagist sense, she had made a study of English prosody and had created her own form to put her concise poems into: the cinquain. Just as many of the short Imagist poems owed some of their tactics to classical East Asian poems, the cinquain sought to create an English language equivalent to the understanding of forms like the haiku.

Just as with Amy Lowell from earlier this month, I think it may be worthwhile to not let these two poems of Crapsey’s that I use today wash over you quickly, as if they are essays or narrative personal memoir in verse. Each word was chosen carefully, precisely, to evoke a moment you might choose to share inside of her experience.

two Cinquains from Adelaide Crapsey

Ten lines and two of Crapsey’s cinquains that seem to tell the story of this year’s late fall

 

Am I setting this method of shaping poetry out as the best or only way to approach verse? No, though I’ve come to believe that we may have lost something when we abandoned it for the new more impressive edifices of post 1920s Modernism.

Musically I was thinking of one of my musical heroes and models, Steve Tibbetts, but alas my deadlines, and my musical and production skills this week produced only a rough approximation of what Tibbetts can do. I really tried to rip him off here: a down-tuned acoustic 12-string with paired unison (not-octave) strings. Lots of time-based effects (like reverb, phasing, echo, and delay). Hand percussion leading off to heavier stick drumming. Feedback-loud electric guitar arriving from off-screen into the landscape.

Yesterday, my disappointment in what I had down was fairly complete. My electric guitar solo could be better, and it’s been too long since I’ve played at that volume. The 12-string wasn’t naked and exposed enough. Where’s the space I keep telling myself to leave in? I had no idea of how to duplicate Tibbetts’ characteristic delay and echo effects. My percussion tracks had nothing like the splendid variety that Tibbetts’ long-time collaborator Marc Anderson routinely achieves.

But my son reminds me that Kurt Cobain thought he was just ham-handedly ripping off the Pixies and still came up with something that was worthwhile, and the Steve Tibbetts’ thing is not something commonly heard—so 20% of Steve Tibbetts level might still be worth listening to for what it is, not what it wanted to be. So, here it is, available with the player below surrounding those two 1914 cinquains by Adelaide Crapsey describing our current November season.

 

 

 

 

*This is a reminder that since “poetry is the news that stays news” that the Parlando Project has nearly 400 examples of what we do that may be just as interesting to you as the current post. Using the search function or just diving in at random to the archives is worth considering.