H. D.’s “The Pool” for National Poetry Month

Ever wanted to visit an old school flame? Maybe not even for romance, just to catch up on what they’re doing, or to let them know what you’ve been up to? Well, in 1911 24-year-old Hilda Doolittle visited London to meet up with Ezra Pound who she knew from the University of Pennsylvania.

Pound was up to something alright. Along with a small group of men including F. S. Flint and T. E. Hulme, he was planning to tear down and repave English language poetry. No more stentorian Victorian third-generation copies of Romantic verse. No. No extra words. No dusty ornaments. Metaphors as decoration? No. Instead: direct treatment of the thing! Incongruous emotional language in tired verse? No. Strict rhythms and forced rhymes? No.

The group were poets, not just theorists, and they were trying to create yes poems to those no ideals.

Hilda showed Ezra some poems and asked what he thought of them. Pound was cat on mouse with that sort of offer, because there was no larger reserve of literary opinions in London at that time than Pounds’.

He liked them. He said Doolittle was already doing what they were formulating. And then with his characteristic audacity, he took his blue pencil to the bottom of Doolittle’s poems and wrote “HD, Imagiste.”

Branding!

Oh, and Pound was the overseas conduit for new poetry to Harriet Monroe’s Chicago-based Poetry magazine. Off he sent some of Doolittle’s poems with her new pen name applied.

Doolittle never liked her family name anyway. She kept the shortened name but dropped the French addition.

“The Pool”  is one of the most anthologized of H. D.’s early short Imagist poems. One can think of it as a just as short, just as spare, contrast to William Carlos Williams’* “The Red Wheelbarrow.”  “The Red Wheelbarrow”  wants us to clearly see something mundane as meaningful, as beautiful. “The Pool”  wants us to impressionistically see something mysterious obscured by water, never framed sharply. WCW seems comforted by and comfortable with the wheelbarrow and chickens. H.D. seems at least a little taken aback by what she sees in the pool, as does what she sees there (it “trembles.”) That it’s the subject of a poem tells us she’s fascinated by it, but we’re not sure she likes what she’s seeing. WCW’s rainwater on the wheelbarrow seems like magnifying-glass raindrops. H.D.’s pool water applies an obscuring filter.


What’s in the pool? Is it some alien-looking sea creature? See below for another possibility. And here’s a third.

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Is this poem a riddle to be solved? If you like, it can be. One reading has it that what she sees is her own reflection, and the strings of the net she dips into the reflection make it “banded.” She can’t catch her reflection or fully understand herself, so the ending without naming the thing in the pool “reflects” that.

We’re still celebrating National Poetry Month, so three ways again to hear my musical setting and performance of H. D.’s “The Pool”  today. There’s a graphical player below for some, and a brand-new lyric video above. Just want the audio, but don’t see a player?  This highlighted link will open a new tab with its own audio player.

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*It just so happens that there was a young medical student at that university too: William Carlos Williams. Yes, they all knew each other in college. And they continued to spar with each other afterward.

Night, and I Traveling for National Poetry Month

A little contrast here in poetic fame from Shakespeare to a poet who’s equally unknown under each of his names: Joseph Campbell/Seosamh MacCathmhaoil. Most of his poetry was published under that first name, not the Gaelic version, and so I’ll use it today, even though I’m always obligated to say “No, not that Power of Myth guy.”  Over the years this project has promoted the idea that Campbell deserves wider recognition. Here’s a brief version of that case.

Belfast born, Campbell was active in the Irish cultural revival at the beginning of the 20th century, and like Yeats, he seems to have crossed paths with the London-based Modernist poets circle of T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, and Ezra Pound in the years before WWI. His involvement with the militant wing of Irish revolutionaries also grew during this time.*  After Irish independence he lived in America for more than a decade, while continuing to promote Irish culture; but he seems to have stopped publishing his poetry after the establishment of the Irish Republic. Late in his life he returned to Ireland and died there in 1944 where his ghost continues the task of becoming largely forgotten — at best a footnote, and often not even that.

Well, most poets are forgotten, even in a country like Ireland that does a better job of revering them than most, but here are some things that attracted me to Campbell: he worked effectively in the folk-song part of the Irish cultural revival, collecting, writing, and adapting song lyrics.** And his take on page poetry included both that folk song tradition — and uniquely among his Irish generation — a handful of very early poems in the pioneering English-language Modernist style that would be called Imagism.

In fact, I’ll put today’s piece up against any of the more famous short Imagist poems widely anthologized, I think it’s a masterpiece of the form.


Here’s the lyric video of the performance.

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I find “Night, and I Traveling”  a hugely affecting example of direct presentation of a thing and a charged moment in time. Like Imagist poetry in general it does expect the reader to pay attention, as the poet did, and to supply from within themselves the emotional charge the presentation represents.

Campbell was a country walker in Ireland, and the door he observes while walking in the night is likely of a small rural dwelling, plausibly little more than a hut. The door is open. Perhaps the peat fire inside has gathered smoke. Perhaps the occupant is expecting someone to return. Let us also remember, this is more-than-a-hundred-year-old rural night. The ambient light he’s sees in the dark has a landscape context of moonlight at best. There’s a gleam of some porcelain dinnerware inside, perhaps the most valued possession in the hut, perhaps a dowry or wedding item. The poet hears the only occupant, a woman, singing, in the ambiguous, but I think rich phrase, “as if to a child.” Note this single simile in the poem. He could have written “to a child.” He did not, leaving the implication that I take: that there is no child — the child is dead or gone. Campbell passes on “into the darkness” and the poem ends.

Seven lines, and this poem slays me. How much is packed in there to an attentive reader: the poverty of the colonized Irish, the depopulation of those who needed to leave to survive, their meager treasure (part of which is song), the closely-held personal losses.

Yes, poetry such as this requires your attention to work. I ask for your attention to this poem and to Joseph Cambell.

There’s three ways to hear my performance of “Night, and I Traveling.”   There’s an audio player below for many of you, and this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab with an alternative audio player is provided if you don’t see that. As part of our National Poetry Month observation, there’s a new lyric video above for those who’d like to see the words while the performance plays.

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*This revolutionary involvement seems to have been the proximate cause of Campbell’s literary career stalling. In the aftermath of Irish Independence, the Irish Civil war broke out between factions of the new Irish state. Campbell ended up on the losing side and was imprisoned for a while. Despite my admiration for Campbell’s poetry, I’m not an expert on his life or the political issues of the Irish Civil war. But these events seemed to traumatize the writer, and it’s not hard to imagine that politics and associations from a sectarian war might have caused him to be written off by some in Ireland.

**Sort of like Eleanor Farjeon from earlier in this April’s National Poetry Month series, Campbell may be “best-known” in the quasi-anonymous role of the lyricist of a song, “My Lagan Love.”   Campbell’s lyrics in this song include a more elaborated variation of a woman’s lonesome singing heard through a doorway with a “bogwood fire” and the singer ending the song “From out the dark of night.”

In a popular post last fall, I also revealed that Campbell likely originated making the subject of the song “Reynardine”   a supernatural creature.

Her Lips are Copper Wire for National Poetry Month

Even with its most popular and well-known poems, poetry works, works its impact, one reader, one listener, at a time.

Doing this project leads me to read a lot of poems. I’ll go through whole collections, entire anthologies, looking for things that I suspect I can create music for. That sense, “This could work with music” is hard to quantify. I’ve noticed repetition and refrain will often cause a second look. Longer poems will need to presently suggest selections as I’m seeking sub-5-minute pieces. Yes, graceful lines that sing on the page for whatever reason will suggest music. An image or an incident vividly depicted that grabs me will ask me to stop and consider it. Oh, I don’t really know, can’t say for sure, how I select things for this. I’m happy with it being a mystery, and I hope you, reader/listener are too.

Sometimes that attraction is strong though. The moment I finished my first reading of Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire”  I knew I had to write music for it and do my best to realize it in performance. Perhaps I can’t say why that is. Little matter. The pull, the attraction, was undeniable.

This Surrealist love poem, like E. E. Cummings poem from last time, was written before the first Surrealist Manifesto, and is proof Americans could use English in this mode early in the Modernist era. Long time readers here will know I sometimes like to mesh in Blues and Jazz flavors with my music,* but Toomer, an early Afro-American Modernist, seemed to have already suggested that with this poem, so that I didn’t have to underline the point. I suppose it just strongly communicated the wonder of desire to me.

Cane cover

This poem was placed into Toomer’s Modernist masterpiece, the book-length mixed-form “Cane.”

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It’s National Poetry Month, the reason I’m going through early Parlando Project pieces to present a more rapid posting schedule here this April. NPM tries to increase interest in poetry, but it’s hard to get a read on how significantly it achieves that. Arrayed against it is every poem someone didn’t “get” for whatever reason. Every poem that says only “Care about what I’m saying, even though you won’t understand,” poems without the bridge to “Here’s how you connect to this.” Every poem that bores us keeps us from poetry, and we are so easily bored. How many poems does it take to put up a wall against poetry, and will putting a poster on that wall dissolve the wall?

Is this the fault of the poets, their poetry? Is that the fault of us, the readers/listeners? Are there social structures that surpass us in enforcing this distance from the art?  That’s a mystery. I don’t know the answer. But I know that once in awhile I come upon a poem like “Her Lips are Copper Wire,”  and like another Surrealist love poet Paul Éluard I’m left compelled “to speak without having anything to say” — anything to say other than the words of this poem. That limerent pleasure is likely why you’re here, reading this, and listening to the performance of Toomer’s poem. Thanks to that mystery and you.

No lyric video today, but you can hear my performance of Jean Toomer’s poem with a player gadget below. Don’t see that? Well, this highlighted link will also do the job.

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*I’ll bring that musical influence to any text, breaking out Delta slide for T. S. Eliot, turning German Dada verse and Robert Frost into blues stanzas — and anachronistically seeing Emily Dickinson as a scratchy blues 78 record, or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at a beatnik Jazz café.

Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.) for National Poetry Month

It’s Easter and time to close my short Edward Thomas series for National Poetry Month with a short elegy written by a poet both less and more known than Thomas in the United States.

But before I get to that, let me fill in a few spaces in the Edward Thomas story. I ran into Thomas while researching Robert Frost’s stay in England before WWI. During this time three things happened that are part of our story: Frost published his first poetry collection in London (no one in American publishing was interested in Frost then). Frost was praised by Ezra Pound as an authentic new poetic voice and he finally gains attention in America. A man who made and kept few friends, Frost made one with Edward Thomas. Accounts have it that it was Frost himself who told Thomas that he was a poet who could and should write poetry, starting off the around two-year binge of poetry writing that comprises Thomas’ legacy today.

Thomas’ poetry, metrical and rhymed like Frost’s, has, like the best of early Frost, a sense of the direct object that the Imagists (promoted by Pound) were all about. Read quickly and with casual attention this poetry can seem cold or slight. Who cares about the red wheelbarrow, or that it’s quiet in an English village when the train stops except for a spreading universe of birdsong, or that there’s an abandoned woodpile in a frozen bog? Where’s the breast beating, the high-flown similes, the decoration of gods and abstracts?

In the face of World War I, a war the old gods and abstracts seemed to cause and will onward — to the result of turning “young men to dung” as Thomas said last time — all that seemed beside the point. Thomas knew that, and knew that. He was philosophically a pacifist, an internationalist. None-the-less in 1915, in his late 30s and the sole breadwinner for his family,* he enlisted in the Artists Rifles. He had one other offer: Frost had asked Thomas and Thomas’ family to join him in America.

There’s this other famous point in the Frost-Thomas connection: what may be Frost’s most beloved poem, “The Road Not Taken”  was written about his friend Thomas and their walks about in England. Frost meant to gently chide his friend’s intense observation and concern for choices on smallest evidence, though many who love the poem today take it as the motto for the importance of life choices. Some misremember Frost poem as “The Road Less Travelled By,”  when in the text the poem’s speaker says the two roads were ‘really about the same.”  Thomas’ two roads in the matter of the war were not “really about the same.”

Thomas chose to sign up with the Artists Rifles. You may think, “What an odd name? What’s up with that?” Well, it was what it sounds like. It was founded about 50 years earlier by some painters who wanted to start their own volunteer military unit. It saw action in some of the British colonialist battles before WWI, and in-between it was sort of a shooting club, a weekend-warrior kind of thing. Sound like an old-school-tie/old-boys club? I guess it was. Even during WWI it was invitation-only from existing members. So what happened with it during WWI? It produced junior officers, the kind of lieutenants and scouts that would account for the unit having some of the highest casualty rates in the war. So, there you have it: an exclusive club where the winnowing greeter is waving you in to the trenches and a mechanized manure-spreader of a war.

Busts of Mars and Minerva are featured in the unit’s insignia. “Artists Rifles” sounds kin to Sex Pistols or Guns & Roses, doesn’t it?

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While still in England and in training with his unit, Thomas was able to mix with his circle of friends. He shipped out to France in 1917. He was killed a few weeks later, during what he thought was a lull in the battle. A late shell or sniper got him. He’d written about 100 poems, none of them published at the time of his death. His friends, other poets, wrote elegies. I know of at least three. Here’s a link to a post on another admirable blog, Fourteen Lines, which includes two of those elegies to Thomas.

One of them is by Robert Frost. Re-reading it again I think, Frost must have been so grief stricken that he’d forgotten to be Robert Frost. It’s filled with the kind of fustian crap, romanticism, and poetic diction that Frost the rhyming Modernist was all about throwing off. I tend to forget the poems that don’t give me strong pleasures, so maybe I’m overlooking something, but this elegy may be the worst poem Robert Frost ever wrote. By the time I got to “You went to meet the shell’s embrace of fire” I was through with Frost’s attempt.

Oh, if he could have concentrated on the concrete, the palpable. He may not have known it, but the records of the British military recorded the meagre personal effects found on Thomas’ body: a small notebook/journal, a watch, a compass, a copy of Shakespeare poems…and “Mountain Interval,”  one of Frost’s poetry collections now published in an expanding career in the United States.

So, to end the story of Edward Thomas, who found himself as a poet in middle age writing about how England changed as war arrived, only to die in that war, I chose to perform the second one in Fourteen Lines’ post “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)”  by Eleanor Farjeon. Farjeon, like yesterday’s Edna Clarke Hall, was a young woman enamored of Thomas** who like Frost and Hall enjoyed walks with Thomas in the countryside. While few Americans are familiar with any of Thomas’ poems,*** Farjeon wrote the lyrics to the hymn song “Morning Has Broken”  which became famous on the back of a Yusef Cat Stevens 1971 performance, and as I write this it may be being sung in an Easter service in my country. So, many Americans know a Farjeon poem, but since Yusef Cat Stevens was known as a songwriter, most probably think he  wrote the words.

Farjeon’s elegy for Thomas doesn’t’ make the mistakes Frost made. It begins as particular and offhand as Frank O’Hara’s masterpiece elegy “The Day Lady Died.”   I don’t know if it’s intended, but after yesterday’s poem of Thomas’ “Gone, Gone Again”   Farjeon picks up with Thomas’ love for apples, speaking of a package of English apples she’d sent to him at the front and of the budding apple trees in the orchard around her. Like “Morning Has Broken,” “Easter Monday”  starts in Eden, and where can we go from there?

The oblique grief of her last line? What can I say…

I may or may not do a lyric video for this one, but you can hear my performance of Eleanor Farjeon’s “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)”  two ways now. There’s a graphical player below for some, and for those without the ability to see that, this highlighted link.

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*It hadn’t occurred to me, but some have pointed out that a steady paycheck, even if soldier’s pay, may have been one of Thomas’ motivations. His freelance writing work was always running to catch up with the bills.

**Thomas’ wife was open to these relationships, and was friends with Hall and Farjeon before and after Edward’s death. As I said last time, Edward Thomas’ emotional and love life would make a fascinating TV series.

***In England, Thomas is better-known. “Adlestrop”  often ranks in best-loved poem surveys there.

Soul Selector Blues for National Poetry Month

Just suppose that back in the 1920s someone wanted to record a Blues song based on Emily Dickinson’s “A Soul selects her own Society,”  and so they waxed a 78 rpm platter at Paramount records “New York Recording Laboratories,” located back then in, well, Wisconsin.*

If they did, it might sound a little like this.

We offer this sort of nonsense as part of our celebration of National Poetry Month. Then again, maybe it’s not nonsense. Dickinson’s poem does fit into “Old Weird America” and its music shockingly well. Why’s that?

As best as can be determined, Dickinson wrote “A Soul selects her own Society”  during her highly-productive mid-19th century, but for a variety of reasons, this poem, like almost all the other poems that she wrote, wasn’t published until near the end of that century. Somewhat “regularized,” Dickinson’s poetry was bound then into book-length collections that sold well for poetry by an otherwise unknown author, partly due to the myth of her eccentric later-life used as hype for the verse, and because some of her poetry was disarmingly informal and approachable — at least on the surface.

Literary poetry gradually began to take notice of her. I presented Sandburg’s audacious mention of her in 1914 as an “Imagist” earlier this month, and over the course of the 20th century her work has eventually been judged as important as Whitman’s in presaging 20th century Modernism. Now, I daresay that if one was to survey living poets in 21st century America for what 19th century American poet they read, admire, and use as an influence, Dickinson would beat out Whitman — and those two would leave the rest of the field far arrears.

What else happened around the beginning of the 20th century, but took serious critics and culture a while to notice? Afro-American secular music — Blues and Jazz — which would come to significantly define American music internationally and become the dominant strain of our country’s music ever since. Americans were highly important in English language poetic Modernism.** Afro-Americans had their Modernist revolution to offer too, and a great deal was musical in this era.***

So, in another way, this unlikely pairing of Dickinson and Blues isn’t as odd as it seems.

Paramount’s “race records” ads scattered in this video, like other white-owned firms marketing to Black listeners, ran often in Black publications like the Chicago Defender. Outside of these ads, the Defender of the ‘20s largely ignored Blues as problematic. From examples I’ve seen the Paramount ads were less stereotyped than other “race records” companies’. Paramount did hire a Black consultant, Mayo Williams, who may be partly responsible for that.

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Three ways to hear this performance of speculative fiction: a graphical player is below for a portion of you, but if your way of reading this blog doesn’t show that, this highlighted link will also do the job.  And the new lyric videos we’re doing this month is the third way to hear “Soul Selector Blues.”   Oh — it’s not your speakers or computer — it’s supposed to sound like a Paramount 78 RPM record!

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*Port Washington Wisconsin to be exact. I’m not entirely sure why Paramount Records wanted to make it sound like it was in New York, perhaps for prestige, and despite the name they had no connection with the motion picture company Paramount either. What was a record company doing in Wisconsin anyway? Well, they made furniture (the upper Midwest was a timber source) and that led them to make cabinets for the new entertainment device, the phonograph. And if they made phonographs, why not seek another income stream from the “software,” the disks to be played on them?

If you choose to view today’s lyric video you’ll see a sampling of how they marketed to Black Americans variously (I can hear the meeting: “Who really knows what they like and will buy…”). High culture to gut-bucket, spirituals to sexual rebels (Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me” is about exactly what the illustration on its Paramount ad might lead you to think it was about). They had a pitch for your money and ears.

**Curiously, almost exactly 50 years before the “English Invasion” brought British rock’n’roll bands to the U.S., a small but influential group of Americans were over in England evangelizing poetic Modernism. Were The Beatles payback for Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot?

***Even literary minded Afro-American writers, critics, and poets weren’t necessarily ahead of the curve in seeing Jazz music and Blues lyrics as an authentic Modernist revitalization of tired-out existing tropes at first. Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg were exceptions a century ago in seeing this.

On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli for National Poetry Month

Though an often-puzzling poem, Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  is tightly written. I’m not talking about some raw stat like its number of lines, but that the language itself works in its sentences and small phrases directly and without much waste. That’s not a Modernist-only tactic, but early Modernism did make it a goal.

And a large amount of that vividness came not just from the sharpness of the experiences of grief, depression, and failure that Eliot had experienced, but from revision and re-writing, a process famously aided by Ezra Pound suggestions — most often excisions.

Back in this blog’s first year or so I decided to try an exercise based on those Modernist principles. I took this poem, or rather a fragment, written by British poet Rupert Brooke* while he was steaming on his way to the same disastrous Gallipoli landing in World War I that killed Eliot’s friend Verdenal.

My goal wasn’t just to do what Brooke himself might have done if he’d had time to polish up further drafts of his fragment, but to do what Ezra Pound would have done with his blue pencil. Even though I started with a 19-line fragment, I removed over a hundred words, including many that seemed uselessly archaic and flavorlessly formal. This wasn’t just a Readers Digest-style abridgment, I worked to remove the crud and bring forth the images as an Imagist would have.

Here’s the lyric video.

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I maybe favoring myself, but I thought the result increased the power of the remainders considerably,** and once I composed and performed the eventual musical setting, I titled my adaptation“On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli.”   It remains one of my favorite pieces that I’ve presented here for the past six years, and it easily became one of my candidates for this National Poetry Month series where I’m re-releasing some of the earlier pieces from this project along with new lyric videos. You can hear it three ways. The graphical player is below for some, but if you don’t see that, this highlighted link will also play it.  And you’ve seen the thumbnail picture above that will play the lyric video.

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*Brooke was — let’s not put too fine a point on it — a very good-looking young man, with full access to the class-bound academic and social circles of early 20th century Britain. Yeats called him “the handsomest young man in England.” He was considered promising as a poet, or certainly something, even before the war. Frances Cornford, a concise poet who counted Charles Darwin and William Wordsworth as her ancestors, wrote of Brooke “A young Apollo, golden-haired/Stands dreaming on the verge of strife/Magnificently unprepared/For the long littleness of life.”

So, when Byronically larger-than-life Brooke saw WWI’s outbreak, he saw a way to join in something big and heroic. He wrote an instantly famous sonnet about the honor of dying for one’s country in battle. That poem was read by the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday — and then less than a month later Brooke was dead. Back in 1915, an editor/fate blue-penciled this: Brooke never reached the doomed landing at Gallipoli. He was bitten by an insect which led to a generalized infection, which killed him three days before the battle.

**Perhaps I shouldn’t have left this for a footnote: you might want to try a similar exercise on some other person’s poem or two yourself, and then try what you learn on your own work. Yes, one can add lines and words in a revision, but what this exercise usually does is show how much you can add in power by excision.

Langston Hughes’ Poem

Today’s piece, “Poem”  from Langston Hughes 1926 poetry collection, The Weary Blues, is one of the shortest poems in that book. Here’s a link to the text, all of it, if you’d like to read along. Those who’ve followed this Project as it has looked at early English language Modernist verse may recall that very short poems, even poems that seem bereft of obvious metaphor, were something that many of those early Modernists liked to present. Such tiny poems are pointed darts at the pomposity and long-windedness of the poetry they were seeking to replace.

The sense I get from today’s example is that by using the generic if exalted name of “Poem”  as the title, when what follows is so spare and simply stated, is meant to draw attention to the provocation that this is worth consideration as a complete lyric.

It may be me and my current situation, but when I read “Poem”  I immediately thought it was a memorial poem, a five-line-with-one-refrained-line statement of the essence of loss intended to put itself up against something like the book-length “In Memoriam A.H.H.”  by Alfred Tennyson. I still find nothing in the text that forbids that reading.

But death isn’t the only loss in life. Some, particularly those looking for obscured clues to Langston Hughes’ erotic orientation see this a coded statement of a romantic or erotic breakup with a “He.” Like Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence and Tennyson’s long poem, the poem has a dedication to a set of initials: “F. S.” in “Poem’s”  case. Some articles one can find in a web search identify this dedicatee as Ferdinand Smith, who was in the merchant marine — as was young Hughes before he published The Weary Blues.  Hughes did know Smith, but I haven’t seen a full explanation of how this putative identification was made. Oddly, if this poem of complete separation was written about Smith, Hughes and Smith kept in touch until Smith’s death in 1961. In Real Life there was no utter break between the two — but that’s biographical information, nothing in the text forbids the abandoned love reading either.

Frederick Smith

Frederick Smith, who’s been identified by some as the  mysterious F.S.

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And then too the poet Hughes of The Weary Blues  and elsewhere is very broad in his use of the pronoun I. Not only does Hughes not identify F. S. and what exactly was the nature of the love relationship, Hughes is fully capable of using “I” as a collective or representational singular. Think of Hughes most famous early poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers”  — its litany of I’s is not a Quantum Leap  confession that this certain 20th century poet worked on the Pyramids or rafted the Mississippi with Abe Lincoln.

But “Poem”  does feel like a personal expression, even if Hughes may frustrate us if we prefer poems as memoir filled with explicit self-expression. Yet maybe this is of little importance to the essence the poem wants to express. Grief from loss of a lover who leaves and lives, or loss of a friend who has died — does the heart assay any difference?

Musically today I demonstrated fidelity of a different kind, playing a cheap 40-year-old 12-string guitar that I bought shortly after coming to Minnesota, and a bass that once belonged to Dean Seal, who played in the LYL Band in the early 80s. I have newer better* instruments, but it seemed like a good way to reset and get back to making some new Parlando Project musical pieces after February presented other matters that needed to be done.

You can hear my performance of Langston Hughes’ “Poem”  with the player gadget below — or if you don’t see that, with this highlighted link.

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*My newer guitars are better in that they don’t have parts that won’t exactly work anymore or intonation issues I need to work around, but besides old-times-sake I think there’s some character remaining in these funky instruments sound.

To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s

It’s Black History Month, and I’m planning on presenting a series focusing on Langston Hughes’ first poetry collection: The Weary Blues — but before we get to today’s new Hughes’ piece, let me briefly set down a few reasons for why Langston Hughes.

This project presents early Modernist poets most often. From the American predecessors of Modernism (Whitman, Dickinson) we often jump to those of the 1905-1926 era who sought in various ways to “make it new.” While I continue to read and have interest in post-1926 work, less of that can be reused freely for this project. This reduces the Afro-American sources free to use, as the beginnings of the Harlem Renaissance have moved into Public Domain slowly, year by year, since this project began in 2016. My earlier Hughes’ pieces, even if they were eventually included in The Weary Blues,  were published earlier and so had already moved into PD. It’s only on January 2022 that the whole book’s contents moved to public domain.

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Our February focus: Langston Hughes’ first book.

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A second reason: look at the title of Hughes’ first book, it includes “Blues.”  As we celebrate Afro-American contributions and experience this month there’s an important parallel here. Americans, some of whom set up shop in England and France before WWI, are hugely important in establishing the Modernist break with the shopworn 19th century writing styles. At the same time, Afro-Americans were crucial in doing the same job for music. As I tried to briefly explain last Black History Month, a great deal of the American Black intelligentsia was caught flat-footed by this musical revolution happening around and by them.*

Let’s cut them some slack on that: cultural change is hard to understand while it’s happening, and the quick white adaptation of Afro-American musical ideas in The Jazz Age of the previous Twenties reflected back to the Black community some rough or even derogatory approximations of what was really going on.

Hughes was a young man when he wrote today’s poem. He’d crossed paths with Black intellectuals by then, but he wasn’t fully one of them. His father had cut a bargain for him to go to Columbia to become a professional. Langston skipped out, worked as a cook and at other restaurant jobs; and took to sea working on merchant ships. Hughes came quickly to an understanding of this new music, it’s complexities and its reflections.

Lastly, here’s one of the things I’ve come to understand about the beginning of Modernist poetry in English: there were substantial elements there that sought to strip back poetry, to simplify it to its essence, to make it immediate to an open heart and mind without pre-requisites. This mode was eventually superseded by a more academic and allusive poetry to the degree that some of the best of this early poetic Modernism was set aside or down-rated as simplistic and insufficient.

Over the years you’ve heard me sing the praises of Carl Sandburg, who seems to have been eventually excused away as cornball. But Sandburg was still vital to the young Langston Hughes in the 1920s, and Hughes took Sandburg’s Midwestern American Modernism and applied it to his own heritage and experience. The mainstream of Afro-American poetry retained more of the vitality and working-class connection that Sandburg expressed. Thank you, Afro-Americans.

Let’s move onto the poem I used as today’s text for the performance you’ll be able to hear below. “To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s”  is not one of Hughes’ best-known works, though it deserves more attention. Here’s a link to the text. You could skim through it on the page and see the Blues connection, even if it’s not a Blues stanza as printed — though it could be refitted as one — but more importantly, it’s got a Blues sensibility. My reading of the poem says there may be a little playing going on, a little con and double consciousness which the whole of the work will show up. This will let the hip listener say on hearing it “Yeah, you and I know what that’s like.” That’s Blues sensibility.

I think the poem is a dialog. Nan of the title is performing at a club, and she’s expressing some eroticism in her performance. I think the poem’s other voice is hitting on Nan. The opening stanza is that other voice, the un-named man, who’s starts out teasingly acknowledging that he’s getting what she’s putting down.

The second stanza could be either voice. I performed it neutral, even as if it might be a narrator, a third voice. Note the loaded word “jungle” in it, one of the “primitive” adjectives used to describe this new Afro-American art. Primitive isn’t totally a derogatory or diminutive to the Modernists, who remember wanted to remove the cruft of a worn-out culture and get back to an essence; but in the context of a white-supremacist-soaked society it could surely slide over to being that. Black artists with intact self-respect did use labels such as “Jungle” in the 1920s, so it’s not simply an external white appellation, but it sure sounds like they’re partially reflecting with the white culture when they do. Pause at the last line: I hear Hughes’ “And the moon was white” with intent.

The third stanza is the man cheering on the singer/performer Nan, and I think also he’s suggesting that if “lovin’” is her object, he’s ready.

Fourth? Yes, the two get together. I perform this as Nan’s voice. Note Nan’s use of the diminutive “boy” for the man in this part of our dialog. He may have been acting the player in his earlier stanzas, but I think this is an intentional reveal that the male character is less than a fully actualized man. The white moon image returns, and their moments of Black joy contrast against it. One could write a moving essay on this poems white moon image, but I’ve already gone long.**  You write it.

The poem concludes by refraining the entire first stanza. I perform in the man’s voice, now sour-grapes-ing the couples’ night. Who put one over on the other in this one-night? Maybe some of both, and maybe external social forces are part of the fate-mix too. Hughes chose to dedicate the poem to Nan, so I suspect his sympathies lie more with her. Another question: is Langston Hughes the unnamed male voice? Hughes’ sexuality is mysterious, and while that’s possible, my estimate is that he’s observing, not writing a poem as memoir here.

I performed “To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s”  with my own one-man-band providing the trio accompaniment, and I hope your speakers can handle the bass part. Some of you will see a graphical player gadget below, but other ways of reading this blog won’t show it, so here too is a highlighted hyperlink  to play it.

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*Last years Black History Month book was 1925’s The New Negro , which included an essay worrying about the dilution of Black uplift and culture from the diversion of frivolous Jazz. Read my post on that essay here.

**As with Sandburg’s short poems, with Langston Hughes here it may help to imagine that you are translating this from Tang dynasty Chinese. The plain English words here could mislead us to think this a mere rote moon/June thing and that Hughes had nothing complex to say.

Bond and Free

Looking for texts to feature here this month, I came upon this odd Robert Frost poem “Bond and Free”  and I could easily see how I could perform it Parlando style. Performance unavoidably involves choices, even if it can precede fuller understanding. Let me talk some about those choices I made and what understanding I’ve come to have about this poem. If you want to have the full text available while I discuss it, it can be found here.

What seemed odd about this poem? Well, I associate Frost with specific and palpable imagery. If one has any sense of the rural landscape of the 20th century, as I do, I can often place myself directly on the stage with the speaker in a Frost poem and examine the set decoration. Critical overviews of Frost’s era will sometimes want to clearly distinguish his work from the Modernists, mistaking the devices of rhyme and meter as the essentials of his work. This ignores that he’s so often working in his early short poems with the same direct observation, avoidance of worn-out tropes, and fresh, lyrically present moments as the Imagists.

This poem with it’s capitalized “Thought” and “Love” is not like that. In some ways it’s like Emily Dickinson in her more philosophical or legalistic abstract mode. To the degree that this poem has a landscape, a stage set, the one on which this poem plays is cosmic.

Frost’s poem begins “Love has earth to which she clings.” Any accustomed Frost reader would expect that garden or farming matters will follow. We first read Love here as implying a plant’s roots, but what follows has a topography viewed from aerial heights. From there the valleys of a hilly country are, as they can practically be in Frost’s time, wall after wall that separates people and their towns from each other. That third word “earth” as the poem progressed could well be capitalized too, for it’ll turn out to be more at the planet Earth, not mere soil. The first stanza ends by introducing Love’s contrasting principle in this poem — Thought, as in Free Thought. Right away we see Thought is flying above it all, in the mode of Icarus or Daedalus.

The poem’s speaker (I’ll call them Frost, for as there’s no sense that Frost is setting up some special other voice from his own) follows Thought as the second stanza views Earth’s earth from above as a landscape with marks of human effort on the ground visible as a printed page. “Nice enough” it seems to have Free Thought thinking, but “Thought has shaken his ankles free.”

It’s now a good time to take note of the poem’s title: “Bond and Free.”   Frost is writing this about 50 years after African-American emancipation. Like Emily Dickinson (who wrote most of her poetry during the Civil War) Frost almost never mentions slavery, the issues of racism, or the widespread theories of racial differences or superiorities in his poetry.*  Leg shackles could be applied to prisoners of course, but like the broken shackles that are hard to view at the feet of the Statue of Liberty, in the American context I think slavery is an intended connotation here. Essays on cultural appropriation could be written from this. Not here, but it’s possible. I could suppose someone could see a BSDM reading. While I know a blog post titled “Robert Frost and Sexual Kink” would be surefire clickbait, I’ll resist. It’s also plausible that he was connecting “bond” in the sense of “marriage bond.” More on this below.

“You read your Emily Dickinson. And I my Robert Frost…” The two great American poets lived in Amherst in different centuries, and this set of statues there commemorates that.

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In the third stanza we outdo Bezos, Musk, and Branson as Frost notes with inexpensive poetic efficiency that Free Thought is not bound-in by earthly hills but is capable of interstellar flight. This stanza’s final lines, an Icarian or Luciferian plummet, find that at the end of the limits of the dreams of a night Thought invariably returns to an “earthly room.” As my footnote below notes, Frost is fairly sure of the fallen nature of humanity.

The final stanza is, to my reading, an ambiguous judgement. If humanity is fallen, Frost too is unable to judge the competition and contrast of Love and Free Thought. Thought’s freedom and range, even if temporary, even if illusionary, has a pull and value. And “some” (Frost externalized this opinion and doesn’t say they are right or wrong) say Love (even if it’s bondage and constrains one) can have a fuller possession by nature of its grounded stasis.

The poem’s final couplet retains this duality, Free Thought has partial experiences of multitudinous beauties in a wonderous universe, but these beauties are “fused” to other stars. To choose other than temporary dreams, just replaces New Hampshire with Sirius.

I said at the start performance means choices. I made an audacious choice. In Frost’s poem he consistently gendered Love as female and Thought as male. Furthermore, I’ve read second-hand references that in an earlier draft he chose to make both Love and Thought female, an unusual choice that he abandoned. I made my choice for my own reasons, to help the performer, myself. I think that choice makes it a stronger piece for myself and for my audience.

The reports of Frost’s abandoned choice would make for a different poem. English writing in Frost’s time usually used male pronouns for universals and abstracts, so that original choice of female pronouns must have been intentional. His choice for skyward Free Thought as male, and earthy and fecund Love as female is archetypal, and I in turn made a conscious decision to reject that. I did this because I feared that too many listeners might grasp this poem as a conflict of male sexual freedom vs. the clingy women. Intentionally or subconsciously, this may have been in Frost’s mind, and even so then this is Frost’s version of the complicated love poem that the female “songbird poets” were developing in his time, even if it’s more abstract in describing the bond and free of desire.**  I just preferred the duality of the poem ungendered, and I think modern audiences are ready to receive that version.

The player to hear my performance will appear below for many of you. However, some ways of reading this blog won’t show it, and so here’s a highlighted hyperlink to play it. You will notice that besides the pronouns there are a few other textural differences, some accidental, some chosen to make the language more colloquial***  and easier for a modern listener to grasp on hearing. I don’t know if these changes are for the better, but they were this performer’s choice.  As promised earlier in this month of noisier musics, acoustic 12-string guitar and piano featured this time, but just enough sarod and tambura in the background to add a non-New England air.

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*Frost did write one searing poem on racial hatred and violence: “The Vanishing Red,”  which I presented here. A brief search today didn’t return much. I would expect that he held stereotypical views and used ugly racial epithets casually. Like Dickinson, Frost’s silence on this central American issue should be more often considered as a loud silence. In her defense, Dickinson’s stance on human freedom, often expressed in her poetry, can easily be viewed as inspirational by all. Frost is surer of a fallen humanity, but that too can be appreciated by those weighed down by life or oppression.

**That reading would say that Frost was more guarded and indirect in dealing with desire than Millay, Teasdale, and the “songbird poets.”  Thus, the uncharacteristic abstraction of this poem

***One of Frost’s Modernist strengths was to largely remove from his metered and rhyming verse the sense of stilted and too formal poetic diction. My judgement was that this skill deserted Frost several times in this poem. Perhaps abandoning his usual distinct and grounded settings for this more abstract poem also blunted his naturalness of speech.

Cobwebs, Steel, and Moonshine

This is the weekend that ends in American Labor Day, and I’m going to see if I can put up at least a couple of pieces celebrating that.

The relationship between poetry and labor is complicated. On one hand, unlike entertainers, popular prose writers, or some other fields in the arts, almost no poet earns enough solely from poetry to escape a complete lifetime of some other everyday work. This could lead to the world of work and the concerns of those that do it being widely incorporated into poetry, but in my observation that’s not so. Why should that be? Well, as much or more than any other art, poetry, in self-image or in public image, sets itself apart from ordinary work.

Poets are seen as dallying with the muses, observing unsullied nature, being drawn to erotic passion, explaining the godhead and the nearly unreal, or engaging in an endless spree of derangement of the senses. None of this seems related to the world of work. Things like that may be a way to spend the weekend or a holiday, and so poetry may be attractive to those seeking to temporarily escape their workdays — but then not an art used to understand them, or to interrogate them.

Two Poetry Collections about Work

Thinking about poets who did write about work today. “Down on the Corner,”  Kevin FitzPatrick’s early career collection (cover pictured on the left) is still available.

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American Modernist poet Carl Sandburg conspicuously didn’t avoid work and workers as a subject. Some elements of Modernism liked to write about the products of early 20th Century industry — odes to locomotives and airplanes could stand in for birdsong or daffodils just fine for the make-it-new crowd — but the systems that built them and the human effort involved were largely not viewed as fit subjects. Satires of the management classes could be undertaken, and by damning their mundane concerns, the world of work could be dismissed as a fallen human state.

In variety and extent of opportunities to observe work the poet Sandburg may have had an advantage, and he didn’t squander it. Itinerant laborer, municipal government functionary, labor-union agitator, journalist, small-time farmer — Sandburg certainly had his perch to observe work. He wrote about all of those trades from inside and beside. Today’s piece is taken from the very last section of the long title poem in his 1920 poetry collection “Smoke and Steel.”   In the poem Sandburg concentrates on that backbone of American industry in his time, the smelting of iron ore into steel, and he does so by focusing on the laborers in that system. While he’s in a long-winded Whitmanesque mode, he brings to this task the miniatures of Imagism, and in this final section, if separated out as I did here, he presents an Imagist poem. Earlier in his poem we meet a lot of people and their tasks involved in the manual labor of steel making; and now in this Imagist ending we’re left with three or four objects. Once he violates the unity of the charged moment, but otherwise it follows Imagism’s rules. Here’s a link to “Smoke and Steel”,  and the section I adapted and used today is at the end of the opening poem.

We first meet cobwebs, called “pearly” to indicate a beauty in them, and they’ve caught and held raindrops. Just a “flicker” of wind tears them away from the scene. Moonshine, golden and so also portrayed as beautiful, perhaps in a pool of rainwater, is likewise shivered and dispersed by the wind. Finally, a bar of steel is presented, and there’s contrast. It’s not so transient. Violating the unity of the moment, the poem says it’ll last a million years, even if nature will coat it with a “coat of rust, a “vest of moths” and “a shirt” of earth, images that seem to me to connotate the grave when we are also told the steel bar will “sleep.”

I’ll admit that while I could visualize the cobwebs with pearly rain drops and the moonshine rippling in short-lived puddles, just exactly what the steel bar was as an image to be visualized was puzzling to me. A railroad track? We don’t usually call rail tracks bars. A fence, or even a jail cell (“steel bars” as shorthand for jail)? Nothing earlier in the poem prepares us for that reading in this section. Some steel ingot stockpiled and stored outside? But destined to be forgotten and left for a million years? Other than that “million years” permanence we’re told only one other thing about the steel bar: that it looks “slant-eyed” on the cobwebs and pools of moonshine. I understood this as “side-eye” and that reading seems pretty solid to me. The steel bar knows it’s going to be there longer than the cobwebs and moonshine, so it can dismiss them as ephemeral.

Then looking to confirm if a slant-eye look would have been understood to Sandburg as side-eye, I could only run into the use of, and disparagement toward “slant-eye” as an ethnic slur. Though that slur wasn’t news to me, it hadn’t occurred to me as I don’t think it’s what Sandburg intends.* Realizing this after I’d completed recording today’s performance, I considered that it might harm the ability of some listeners to receive the poem’s intention, and if I was to perform the poem again, I might take my privilege with a work in the Public Domain and sing it as “side-eye.”

Coming as it does at the conclusion of Sandburg’s longer poem “Smoke and Steel”  what do I think the cobwebs, steel and moonshine mean as they are met by the wind of time and change? We may abide by the convention that poetry and work are separate things, but as Sandburg has just written a long poem about work, we know he wants these things to be combined. The things we do everyday for pay, the work we do in arts like poetry — are the later the cobwebs and moonshine, beautiful, transitory, little noticed; and the former the steel, the solid, useful things that will last? Or is the steel the “real” that is buried, and the cobwebs and moonshine it distains the eternal now that returns fresh?

And then, can either be both?

The player gadget to hear my performance of an excerpt from Sandburg’s longer poem that I’ve titled “Cobwebs, Steel, and Moonshine”  will appear below for many of you. Don’t see a player? Then this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play it.

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*Sandburg is too comfortable with ethnic slurs for many modern tastes in his poetry, and “Smoke and Steel”  contains a handful of them earlier in the poem. The unabashed way he uses them in his way argues against this ethnic-Asian slur being a 1920’s dog-whistle.