August Moonrise

I almost feel like I need to place a warning label on today’s piece: Rated RE Strong Romantic Emotional Content. Thanatopsic material. May not be suitable for those who have not sufficiently worked through issues with self-harm or the experience of self-dissolution.

Modernism had a strong tendency toward a critique and reaction to romanticism and its characteristic expression of emotional content. A man viewed as the founder of its English-language poetic wing, T. E. Hulme, wished to set it on a course of completely overturning Romanticism. But those bylaws didn’t always filter down to every chapter and member of the Modernist International. Readers here know I love some of the early Imagist works which are parsimonious with overt emotional words, even while seeking to charge their images with a fresh immediacy. These poems aren’t necessarily devoid of emotion if the reader has it to supply themselves—but then some Modernists, such as E. E. Cummings, were perfectly fine with frank emotional outpourings.

Sara Teasdale, in addition to being largely forgotten for the better part of the last 100 years, was never officially a Modernist, so there’s no movement membership to endanger and no expectations for her to fulfill anymore. She wrote intensely lyrical and musical verse in plainspoken and non-archaic language. That’s a surface shiny enough, devoid of hermetic imagery, and with sweet word-music that makes it too easy to miss what she’s saying.

Sara Teasdale2

Sara Teasdale is sick’n’tired of you mentioning how pretty her poems are

 

I knew this already, having presented Teasdale regularly here. Still, I had to go through a journey to inhabit and grasp this poem for this project. I collected it earlier this summer, seeking to stockpile a few seasonal poems ahead of time to have some on-the-shelf ideas for possible use.

Here’s the full text of the poem. If you skim through it, it looks like a fairly common poem subject: summer night. It might seem to hit the expected points too: hey, summer, it’s nice at night (maybe even better than the heat of afternoon). Plants, trees green and full, explicit birds. A Moon one can linger with long enough that you feel that if you stay the night you could watch it change its phase.

Teasdale can write a poem that seems like that. That’s a problem. It’s too easy to miss what she’s communicating if you leave it at “That’s pretty.” You could use her writing as a case-study in why some of the Modernist tactics that frustrate (or delay) understanding might not be counterproductive. Teasdale gets misunderstood quickly as one passes over the words, while someone like Mina Loy, Tristan Tzara, or Gertrude Stein causes those who won’t care to read carefully and empathetically to not stop in at all.

As I began to read, really read, “August Moonrise,”  to figure out how I might perform the words, the last section seemed dark—and not in the pretty moonlight way. Here are some of the words that hit the notes in her word-music after the poem’s midpoint: bitterness, sorrow, death, wavering, blind, fearful, fire, cold, vanish.

Seeing that, I reexamined the opening half for portents. The swallows are rushing, willfully, together and departing from each other. And is their willful act truly willful? Maybe not, it’s like the movement of dark tree leaves. If that was a spare Imagist poem, or a work of classical Chinese poetry, we’d be confronted with that image, asked on no uncertain terms to deal with it. Here you may think it’s so much minor scene-painting.

The scene-painting gets even more painterly next. Sunset, moonrise. The final palette: “a deeper blue than a flower could hold.” Is that merely a beautiful picture or a statement of more blue than can be sustained?

Teasdale’s singer in the poem is drawn in (note, she goes “down,” descends to it, even though the preceding birds, trees, sunset, moonrise are all things normally above the horizon) because it’s her, or because it will become her. The poem reaches—if only briefly—a quasi-orgasmic happiness. One line here: “I forgot the ways of men” is so rich in ambiguity. I could read it three or four ways easily.

This happiness, this intoxicated leaving of all but the senses (however brief) is portrayed as a consolation. Consolation for what?

And then we enter that section that is so full of darkness, loss, imperfection. Is this section spiritually sublime or just harrowing? I think you can play it either way, though I suspect it works best if the other choice is kept as an undertone. Compare this to Laurie Anderson’s childhood account of Buddhist Midwest night skies and the non-necessity of self, the archaic trials of the Lyke Wake Dirge, or to a searing inventory of imperfection, almost a suicide note.*

NY Times Teasdale Death Story

Teasdale: not waving, but drowning

 

Teasdale’s concluding couplet is so searing I think it must be performed understated. The crucial word in it, “theft,” says she doesn’t feel in control of this loss of control. Isn’t that frightening? Spending several hours with this text this week, fitting it to music, performing it, thinking about it was a journey, from “Oh, a summer night poem” to a consideration of the sameness and the difference of exceeding the self and end of the self.

So, am I out on a limb here, thinking this a major poem by a too overlooked poet? Has the seeming conventionality of its setting (subverted as it may be), the gender of its author, the musicality of its expression, the unabashed romanticism of its sensibility obscured our view? If this was Rilke translated from the German would we read it differently? If this was Yeats with swans instead of swallows would it matter? If a Cubist ran it through a copier a few times and then cut up all the lines and reassembled it, would we stop long enough to think about it? The issue of Teasdale’s membership or non-membership in Modernism might have seemed germane in the mid-20th century, but to a significant degree it’s immaterial now.

Well, I’ve done it again. Talked about the words so long that there’s no time to dance about the architecture of the music. Thinking about what I said above, I could have cut up and obscured Teasdale’s words rather than a straight recitation I recorded, but the choice I made has its strengths too. I did try to undersell the sensuousness of the lyric in hope it would cause the listener to consider it differently, but the opposite choice works too, for I’ve discovered this gorgeous and emotionally effecting choir setting of “August Moonrise”  by Blake Henson that had me in tears this morning. See my comments last post about how my limitations as a singer and no access to alternative skilled singers focuses my composition into other modes.

I intentionally avoid apologizing for my work. I think that’s a good practice. If you think you should do better, do better or do different, instead of talking about it. My approach to “August Moonlight”  with a skip-footed motorik beat and an ominous and fateful tone in the reading and music certainly contrasts with Henson. I could even imagine that hearing Henson’s work after considering Teasdale’s darker undercurrents intensifies it, as it did for me today. You can hear my version with the player below.

 

 

*There was a point in the production of this piece that I seriously considered abandoning my presentation of “August Moonlight”  because of this. Once I could see that element was present in the work (as it is in Teasdale’s life), I felt it shouldn’t be denied if I was to perform it. Many artists deal with feelings of self-harm and because “All artists fail” in the sense of imperfection and producing things farther, rather than “Something nearer your desire.” I hesitate to present work that might feed into that, particularly with a beautiful and romantic sheen to it all. In the end I decided that Teasdale is illuminating that, and if I presented it so that you can consider its danger, it could have value. Henson’s setting makes a choice to emphasize the perception of beauty, the singular hour of atonement, which also would have answered this concern.

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Black Horizons

How did you like that last Carl Sandburg piece? It’s about as majestic as Sandburg goes, what with its extensive catalog of life in its fullness and emptiness. It seemed to me about right to mark the anniversary of this project’s launch, and my late wife, and my son, and my wife and family, and my country, and you. And I much enjoyed making the large-scale orchestra music for it.

But if it catches you in the wrong mood or with a different and certain analysis of life it can seem a bit too new-agey, suffused as it is with non-denominational spirituality.

Sandburg is best taken in large and varied portions. He has many moods and is open-hearted in a way that many poets are not.*  Before I reminded myself I should do an anniversary piece earlier this week, I had another Sandburg poem I wanted to present, but I put “Black Horizons”  on hold and completed “For You.”  These two selections this week can be taken together to form a better picture of Sandburg.**

Sandburg can offer you balm and clarifying anger, and today’s piece is much closer to the later pole. Published in 1922, there’s not much I can think needs updating or footnoting to explain. You can read it, hear it, speak it yourself this month in 2019 and feel it as freshly as when it was written.

Carl Sandburg Rocks Out

Brothers and Sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem or whether you are going to be the solution! You must choose Brothers, you must choose! It takes five seconds, five seconds of decision, five seconds to realize your purpose here on the planet! It takes five seconds to realize that it’s time to move, it’s time to get down with it! Brothers, it’s time to testify and I want to know, are you ready to testify? Are you ready? I give you a testimonial: Carl Sandburg!” ****

 

Musically, no orchestra today, just drums and percussion, fretless electric bass, acoustic guitar and voice. I tried to add a little color to my I, iii, IV, vi repeating cadence by flatting the 7th in the bass line, after watching Rick Beato on YouTube analyzing some Nirvana songs’ harmonic complexities.***  In a more ideal performance I think the piece would work great with a choir or audience singing the refrain.

The player to hear my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “Black Horizons”  is below (unless you’re reading this on an iPhone with the WordPress app—in which case, switch to a web browser to see the audio player, or you can subscribe to the audio pieces alone through most podcast services such as Apple Podcasts.)

 

 

 

 

*Why would that be? In literary circles by the middle of my century, poetry was the literary art devoted to complex, sometimes nearly unfathomable, emotional and perceptive states. A poet I heard read last night used a word “Apophasis,” which means describing something by what it is not, surrounding it with words that are not it. That term also describes a great deal of Modernist poetry. Poetry did this, at least in part, because so much tired verse of the preceding century or two repeated the same few emotional tropes until poets were tired of them. The great models of High Modernism made poetry a cult of misdirection, irony, personae, parody, and beautiful hermeticism. That poetry had power, if to a smaller audience, and one thing this project tries to do with music and performance is inject it with audible expression to illuminate the complex humanity in it.

**Yet they leave something out, the shorter, more purely Imagist Sandburg, a mode of his that I personally love and think deserves to be better remembered. That Sandburg has all the elusiveness and compression that Modernism propounded as a remedy to the overblown “listen to me play the cathedral organ stops of poetic sentiments” poetry it was rebelling against. For examples of the subtle Sandburg see this well-known poem and this deserves-to-be-better-known one.

Because of the more direct and Whitmanesque Sandburg, those Imagist poems are misread. They’re assumed to be slight, in a way that A Station in the Metro,” “The Red Wheelbarrow  or Oread  aren’t.

***My son has been learning Nirvana bass lines this year, which is stuff I can’t teach him because I only understand such things long enough to use them and because I lack the mimetic talent to transcribe existing pieces well. While recording this I discovered, to my horror, that I’d more or less forgotten how to play fretless bass while working on orchestration.

****Yes, it takes only seconds to decide. Revolution implies it takes only a little bit longer to implement that realization. We’re nearly 250 years into the American Revolution, and we’re still working on it. Sandburg’s poem is almost 100, and we’re still working on it. “The Sixties” are mostly 50 years old, and we’re still working on it. That’s your choice: still working on it, or giving up working on it.

More on that exchange published in the prologue to Kora in Hell

Did you find yourself agreeing more with H.D. or William Carlos Williams in Thursday’s audio piece taken from Williams’ Kora in Hell?  If I was to survey listeners, I’d be surprised if Williams wouldn’t win far more applause. Being that it’s his  book, and he controls what H.D. presents before he responds, it wasn’t really a neutral-site debate.

That sort of exchange could remind you of our modern political ads, where candidate A is quoted or shown in some excerpt that appears outlandish, and then candidate B is cut to saying that they think that’s just as outlandish as you think it is, and I’d never take that position, so vote for me. Except, it’s in reverse. It’s Williams, candidate B, who’s taking the more extreme position. Still I think Williams will largely win the audience.

It’s also easy to see this as a male/female dynamic. H.D. makes a suggestion, plausibly insightful, asking only for self-reflection on W.C.W’s part. Williams responds to her, in much more forceful rhetoric, defending his freedom, saying in effect when you say “sacred” I hear “heretic.” I think a great many observers of gender roles would see this as a stereotypical exchange. I agree*, but I could imagine this same exchange with the genders switched—less common, but possible. And it certainly occurs in a same gender situation too.

Something else that came to mind as I read this was a division that was made in an influential essay at mid-century, something that was still current when I was in school. This month I re-read that essay after Kora in Hell  and the telling exchange I took from its prologue. It’s by critic Philip Rahv, published in 1939, and its title “Paleface and Redskin”**  sets out the framework of its thesis, something that professors still thought relevant when I was being taught. The title is a distinctive dichotomy Rahv had observed in American literature. This paragraph from Rahv’s essay summarized the two types:

…the redskin glories in his Americanism, to the paleface it is a source of endless ambiguities. Sociologically they can be distinguished as patrician vs. plebeian, and in their aesthetic ideals one is drawn to allegory and to the distillations of symbolism, whereas the other inclines to a gross, riotous naturalism. The paleface is a ‘highbrow,’ though his mentality…is often of the kind that excludes and repels general ideas; he is at the same time both something more and something less than an intellectual in the European sense. And the redskin deserves the epithet ‘lowbrow’ not because he is badly educated—which he might or might not be—but because his reactions are primarily emotional, spontaneous, and lacking in personal culture. The paleface continually hankers after religious norms and tends toward a refined estrangement from reality. The redskin, on the other hand, accepts his environment, at times to the degree of fusion with it, even when rebelling against one or another of its manifestations. At his highest level the paleface moves in an exquisite moral atmosphere; at his lowest he is genteel, snobbish, and pedantic. In giving expression to the vitality and to the aspirations of the people, the redskin is at his best; but at his worst he is a vulgar anti-intellectual, combining aggression with conformity and reverting to the crudest forms of frontier psychology.”

Rahv ostensibly doesn’t favor either side. His observation, made by a man who could claim to be an immigrant, outside observer, was that American Lit was binary and divided with authors on one side or the other and no synthesis, and that this was a bad thing. ***

Palefaces and Redskin Potatoes

Pale faces and redskins, or 3 artists and some spuds.

 

It’s easy to see that divide in the H.D. and William Carlos Williams exchange. H.D. in the moment captured in her letter to W.C.W. is paleface, and Williams is redskin. Rahv expends most of his examples on novelists, and Modernist novelists like Hemmingway and Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson he feels all fail to a significant degree due to redman tendencies. But Modernist poets weren’t really in either camp as Rahv defines them. Ezra Pound could be claimed as either, and even in the two early pre-Modernist poems I’ve just presented here he tries on each personae: in “Grace Before Song”  a pious poet in service of art who will be personally forgotten and in “In Thus in Nineveh”  as an unheralded poet who will be remembered because the people value the lively if imperfect vitality of his verse.

Feel free to consider Rahv’s classification system as silly, outdated, or even distasteful. I myself consider it an amusing parlor game kind of thing, more subjective than Rahv thinks it is, and as subject to superficial oversimplifications as taking a “Which Disney Princess are you” quiz. ****

I wasn’t going to include any audio with today’s post, but after spending a day avoiding completing this post so that I could play with orchestra scoring, I figured I could read a couple more sentences also from Rahv’s 1939 essay backed by a short example of what I was coming up with. The player’s below.

 

 

*Even though Williams and English language Modernism in general coincided with the rise of women’s independence and citizenship, and even if women were participants in this cultural revolution, that doesn’t mean that Modernist men were invariably feminist—far from it. There are things to admire about W.C.W. for sure, but even in my limited reading of his work I keep getting this weird vibe from him where women are concerned.

**Yup, Rahv went there with the casual use of the racial slur. As literary culture goes in this era, totally non-remarkable and non-controversial. The first college I attended, where I heard of Rahv’s essay, had named its sports teams The Redmen, a just  more polite term. I had a tiny part in asking this name be changed. In Rahv’s defense I’ll say that he was a Jewish heritage immigrant from the Pale of Settlement. If life experience is knowledge, he likely “understood” ethnic slurs as deeply as any of us.

The kind of dichotomy Rahv lays out has analogues in modern discussions on just how street a rapper is, or debates on if performance poetry can be “real poetry.”

***From the luxurious wisdom of history, I found it fun reading the essay to see who of his contemporaries he thought was fatally damaged by this inability to join the strengths of both groups. He seems to give obvious paleface T. S. Eliot a passing grade, though noting that he had to leave America. Rahv says “Faulkner’s horror stories have long ago ceased to have any recognizable value.” History disputes Rahv there. Hemmingway is just a retread Natty Bumppo he says, an arguable case still today (even though I’ll take the other side on that one). Emily Dickinson gets an atta girl notice as a more or less successful paleface. No, additional reflection since 1939 has discovered that Dickinson is a redskin with paleface trappings.

****I’m Jasmine.

Conversion

Whose fault is it when a poem is hard to comprehend, to understand? The first thought may be that it’s the fault, or even intent, of the author. Communication via written language has its weaknesses, but we know from our day to day lives that it can convey information successfully. Poetry, particularly poetry of literary repute, has a reputation for frustrating expectations of understanding.

For thoughtful people there should be second thoughts on this matter. If a writer, a poet, asks for a certain level of engagement, knowledge, curiosity, and openness are they always being unfair? I’m willing to grant they can  ask too much, but asking too little of an audience of readers has costs as well. Here’s a principle worth remembering as you approach poetry (or other arts): poetry isn’t about ideas, it’s about the experience of ideas. Experience isn’t permanent, one-sided or clearly binary. If we for an instant experience something as a simple truth, a moment of clarity, poetry can express that—but properly comprehended simple truths exist in a contradictory and changing world. Sometimes we can misunderstand a simple poem as much as a more esoteric and confusing one.

Early English Modernist poetry, particularly those poets around the Imagists, wanted to explore these things. It may surprise you, but many of its pioneers before WWI made a choice for clarity, for simplicity. It did to me. I came to the early works late, already steeped in the poetry of the post-WWI High Modernists: Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Paul Eluard and Dada and Surrealist associated writers. But look at the pre-WWI work of some English modernists, like this poem by T. E. Hulme, a poem that has been identified as the first Modernist poem in English, Autumn.”*

Autumn

A touch of cold in the Autumn night—
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.

Does it seem strange to you that such a poem could change things? It’s so un-assuming, so easily grasped. Two homey images that require nothing in the way of pre-requisites to visualize, though it may be helpful to be as Hulme was, a rural person who had migrated from the fields of his childhood.**  If one pauses and looks again, notice what’s not here: length, words naming emotions instead of objective description (save the single “wistful” which carries power in its exception) and rhyme. A not strict, but appreciable meter appears gradually with the final three lines, but the previous four are free

Today’s audio piece presents another poem by T. E. Hulme, one that isn’t easily understood at all. Hulme often wrote his pieces to demonstrate the theories of Modern English poetry he wanted to bring to the fore critically, and like “Autumn,”  the rest of his extant work has a radical clarity. Hulme scholar and professor Oliver Tearle reports that today’s piece “Conversion”  may have literally been a blackboard example of a revamped kind of poetry. If so, those looking at the chalk marks may have been as puzzled then as we are now.

“Conversion”  starts off conventionally enough: a walk in nature, and hyacinths are in bloom. It’s beautiful and fragrant. We are altogether conventional here, save for the free verse. Then the next two lines are a clear image, but not necessarily an expected one: imaginarily our poet is drugged and kidnapped. In Hulme’s era a rag soaked in some ether or chloroform was a standard illustrated weekly/pulp fiction trope for this, but flowers as an agent is not unprecedented either (Midsummer Night’s Dream)  and in the poem the scent of the flowers is associated with this. For all Hulme’s Modernist intent, this does seem to follow a lot of fairy story plots from Tam Lin to “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”  The two lines that end the kidnap incident are uncharacteristically sound rich for Hulme: “Motionless and faint of breath/By loveliness that is her own eunuch.” It’s like Yeats or de la Mare broke into the poem for a moment.

What happens next? I’m not sure anyone can explicate the final three lines in a way that we all will say “ah hah!” to. Did Hulme’s inspiration fail him? Are we just not paying enough attention? Even Tearle, the man for whom I’m indebted for introducing me to Hulme, seems puzzled.

I have a theory, one that greater scholarship or historical knowledge than I have might bolster. The word “eunuch”  in the poem is our fuse. Eunuch in the context of Hulme’s time would likely bring to mind the Ottoman Empire and the exotic non-Christian Middle East. Exoticism is a complex thing, elements of fascination and sublimated desires are part of it, as are, alas, stereotypes and racism. But one common trope in the European mind of the time was the kidnapping and sexual enslavement of women in eunuch-run harems of Ottoman rulers. My guess is that’s what Hulme is referring to here, and that it might have been familiar enough to his time and audience to assume the reference would be understandable even in this highly condensed poem. The poem’s hard to explain title “Conversion” could also be fit to this idea.

Victorian abduction and harem images

Mysterious Victorian abductions, non-Christians portrayed as evil so that Europeans can look at pictures of ladies breasts.

 

That still makes the final three lines hard to follow. Is Hulme’s personae in the poem female, or is this a male-male cross-cultural bondage fantasy? Does it end with the death of the personae or just being carried away in quasi-erotic bondage? Come on Hulme, you may be using some unenlightened xenophobic twaddle for your image here but give us a clue!

“Final river” (Tearle reads the mythological river Styx here, and domo arigato Dr. Tearle) “without sound” seems to lean to drowning death. The one thing I came up with trying to figure this out is the apocryphal tale of the 17th century Turkish Sultan Ibrahim (“The Mad”) who was said to have had his harem of 280 concubines thrown into the Bosphorus to drown, a punishment that otherwise would be fit for a peeping Tom-Turk spying on the ruler’s harem.***  But by now I’m feeling like Wylie Coyote standing on thin air trying to explain those sparse final lines.

Drop all the guesses and dodgy cultural stereotypes, even if we blame the author for them, and “Conversion”  may still work to some degree, after all what I think the images set out to do is to convey that the apprehension of beauty can involuntarily change one by confusing our priors. The philosophic idea is not instantly clear, its images are problematic and opaque, but the words and the sounds of them intrigue. This “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all” as André Breton later wrote.

Of our three London-based “School of Images” pioneers, only Pound would later write “High Modernist” poems with such knotty allusive problems. F. S. Flint drifted out of poetry after WWI, and Hulme was killed in that war. Pound admired Hulme considerably, and T. S. Eliot spoke highly of him too. Those two may have chosen to follow the Hulme of “Conversion”  more than the Hulme of “Autumn.”

Well, this is a long post, and once more I’ve run out of room to talk much about the music and performance of the piece. I decided to make the musical setting discontinuous to reflect the confusion of the narrative and I hope I’ve brought out the mystery and lyricism of Hulme’s poem in my performance. The woodwind instrument featured at the start and finish of the piece is a virtual instrument version of the duduk, a gorgeous-sounding free-reed instrument that might be found around the shores of the Black Sea. I also couldn’t resist blowing a chorus on the Telecaster, an exotic instrument as old as I am, designed by a radio repairman on our western shores. The player gadget is below. Text of Hulme’s “Conversion”  can be found in Terle’s post on the always Interesting Literature blog.

 

 

 

 

*Like the “first rock’n’roll song” or “the first rap record,” there are probably lots of candidates, but it’s still helpful to have a marker to say about it: “This is different, and points to how things can be changed.”

**One cultural-particular is present: in the sunburnt face and white colored children of its two images, it’s not melaninanicly universal, but the particular in the case of poetry can still speak to us. Around the time Hulme wrote this, Charlie Patton was probably singing the floating blues verse that Son House later recorded “My black mama’s face shines like the sun…”

***”Michael Cohen, I like grand viziers who don’t get caught. I’ve got to get me some of the best people.

Back Yard

Just a couple of posts back I said that early Carl Sandburg poetry can be just as aligned with the ideals of the Imagist school as the Trans-Atlantic poets such as the then contemporary work of Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, H.D., Richard Aldington, F. S. Flint, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and T. E. Hulme was. Yet he’s rarely mentioned as such.*  Why might that be?

My guess is that there’s an issue with Sandburg’s more expansive mode, present in some of his work, Whitmanesque in character and scope. The Pound and Eliot school of Imagism wasn’t much on Whitman, charging him with lack of craftsmanship and concision. And then there’s the issue of cultural affinity, which while outside the text, is important. Of the above, only Lowell was from a wealthy background** (and Flint’s childhood seems positively Dickensian) but they all saw themselves as culturally elite. Most were familiar with classical languages, some had Ivy League educations (though none were Oxbridge, save for Hulme who was thrown out after a bit more than a year for rowdy behavior), most had spent time in Europe , even Williams, the most American-focused of these.

Sandburg? Born working class to two immigrants in the Midwest***. Drops out of school at age 13 to go to work. The jobs he had in the first 40 years of his life were modest in prestige, but varied in location and nature. Coal-heaver, farm laborer, Army private, milk-truck driver, political organizer, bricklayer, “The Front Page” era urban journalist. What T. S. Eliot knew about the whole of literature, Sandburg knew about the whole of working-class work and life.

One could make one mistaken generalization from Sandburg’s biography, that like Whitman self-advertised himself, he’d be “one of the roughs,” a man whose art would be artless and as unconcerned with the niceties of aesthetics as the correct fork for which dinner course. But just like the lazy assumption that there’d be no poets in foxholes, the idea there are no aesthetes who punch a clock is bogus. Sandburg’s early work is as concerned with Modernist beauty and style as working-class dignity—and he is very concerned with working-class dignity!

Is today’s Sandburg piece, “Back Yard”  an Imagist poem following the three Imagist rules? Let me paraphrase them:

Direct treatment of the thing: that is, the focus in the poem is on the image itself which will be described, instead of the image being a decoration and figure of speech within the body of a poem more concerned with its moral or message for which the image is only a “like” illustration. Conciseness: no extra words, and though not stated, it’s corollary is no less-apt words used only to make the rhyme. And freer rhythms: word-music, like sound-music, is not required to limit itself to only extraordinarily regular and repetitive rhythms.

Direct treatment? The outdoor, summer night scene is just that. One is hardly aware here that it’s an image, it seems like simple reportage. Is it merely the “hardly news” that on a summer night if one is outside, perhaps sitting on an open porch, you’ll hear and see other people outside too?

Concise? Pretty much. It’s not In A Station of the Metro,  or The Pool,  or The Red Wheelbarrow,  there is some re-iteration in it, even a single line refrain, but even by the standards of lyric poetry, this is a short poem. The elements of the scene are evoked, but there’s little extravagant or showy description. One element that many Imagist poems share (though never a formal rule AFAIK) is that colors are used to simply describe objects, though since this is a moonlit night scene the colors are more monochromatic.

A follow up question: how minor and mundane is “Back Yard”  really? I can’t claim it’s a poem of great originality—but that’s not the job of every poem, and this is more a poem of the continuity of change, a moment of shared perception, not a striking new vision.

I think its intent, in it’s just over 100 words, is for us to see a chain of life in a Chicago night early in the 20th century; and in its everyday exactness, state those things that might link to a night tonight where we live today. The silver moonlight in the scene seems almost a preservative, everything is frozen in that direct moment. In my night tonight it may not be an Italian boy with an accordion, but Mexican music from the back yard at the end of the block. The couple Sandburg says will marry next month, are now-dead grandparents of people as old as I am. An old man has fallen asleep in the late and waiting moment, his back-yard cherry tree’s fruits held in a moonlit unmoving until his eyes close. He will likely pass on sooner than the marrying couple, and his dreams and those long-ago cherries will be returned to the place that dreams, fruit, and poems go and come from.

The poem closes with a perennial thought delivered in the scene’s description. The clocks, the poet relates, say he too must go. The clocks say that to all of the characters in his poem, and by extension to us, his audience. Sandburg, the artist, the poet, has the job like the moon to fix this moment in silver. Was he thinking here of the silver of his brother-in-law Edward Steichen’s art photographs? What does he mean by the poem’s closing line? What are the “silver changes?” My best understanding is they are the endless succession of such fixed moments. There will be more and more silver changes, a great richness, even as we are entirely not there.

Edward Steichen Nocturne-Orangery Staircase

Fancier than my back yard: “Nocturne-Orangery Staircase” (1908). Sandburg occasionally collaborated with his brother-in-law and pioneer in fine art photography Edward Steichen.

 

For the performance of “Back Yard”  I decided to intersperse some other night moments, sung as commentary on Sandburg’s poem. You can hear it with the player gadget below. Want to read along? Here’s the text of the poem.

 

 

 

 

*Yes, Imagism is only a label, a piece of sticky paper put on some writers and writing. But because Imagism was so vital to the formation of English poetic Modernism, excluding Sandburg, “The Forgotten Imagist” from its usual ranks was part of how he was diminished in the late 20th century. The artistically-chosen stark simplicity of Imagism was admired, but similar directness in Sandburg was seen as populist simple-mindedness. For an example, here’s a long review of a late 20th century  biography, where the dagger is that Sandburg’s poetry was “dumbed-down Whitman” and the charge seems to be that he was a pretentious yokel who was also a phony who pretended to be a yokel.

**I’m of the impression that Eliot and Pound’s family had at least upper-middle-class wealth too, but my informal memory is that some estrangement or streak of independence led them to live outside their families’ wealth.

***Sandburg’s home-town area, the Quad Cities and its surroundings in Iowa and down-state Illinois, was a surprising well-spring of writers in his time.

Ollendorf’s Wife

I’m going to do something this time that I’ve done before but is rarely done.

I’m going to revise someone else’s poem without their permission—which I would feel bound to obtain, but the author Orrick Johns is long dead. The last time I did this, it was Rupert Brooke’s work I used, and my excuse was that his fragment that I presented here as On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli”  was likely an early draft left unpolished due to Brooke’s death.

Orrick Johns published “Ollendorf’s Wife”  in his first book-length 1917 collection Asphalt and Other Poems.  There’s little online to help me make sense of Johns’ life, but it’s probable that Asphalt and Other Poems  collected early work Johns had written in his twenties. While most of the poems are short lyrics, Johns works there in several styles. The poems are rhymed, not the free verse of “Blue Undershirts”  that made such an impression on William Carlos Williams. The opening section, “Asphalt” is an odd set of doggerel poems in dialect. I have trouble reading dialect poems, and from my vantage point as a mid-20th century man I can’t make out what ethnicity Johns is representing in these poems. There’s a lot of dropped consonants and dere’s, dem’s and de’s. I assume these poems are intended to be proletarian poetry and demonstrate John’s solidarity.

Another section “The City”  has other poems dealing with social issues of the day, but without the distraction of dialect. It includes one of the book’s longer poems, “Second Avenue,”  infamous in its moment of possible fame for being the poem that beat out Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence”  in The Lyric Year’s  poetry contest.

Almost nothing in Asphalt and Other Poems  grabbed me. Nothing passed the Emily Dickinson test, there was no spectral cold and the top of my head remained attached throughout. While it was trying to depict its modern world, the music was awkward for me, with some forced poetic diction and conventional sentiments that made it more similar to Margaret Widdemer than Millay or Sara Teasdale, contemporaries that were writing prize-winning short rhymed lyrics at the same time as Johns. Like Widdemer, and unlike Millay or Teasdale, the poetry in this book of Orrick John’s is understandably forgotten.

There was one poem in a section titled “Country Rhymes”  that did seem to have a germ of something though.

Ollendorfs Wife 1 Page final

Johns’ poem as it appeared in “Asphalt and Other Poems”

 

Like T. S. Eliot, Johns grew up in St. Louis, but unlike Eliot he stayed in the Midwest for college. The “Country Rhymes”  section reflects that longer experience, and nowhere better than in “Ollendorf’s Wife.”  First off, the poem is generally free verse, with uneven line lengths and sparse rhymes. And it has some vivid images. Ollendorf’s wife significantly has no name of her own in the poem. She works her farm plot assiduously, with no love showing in her face, but also as if it’s her last child. How many children, like her name, go significantly unmentioned? The fields she works, and the farm wife are “drawn together” by a “knowledge…greater” than “each other’s best.”

At its core, this poem works by the things it leaves out, fulfilling Hemmingway’s Modernist theory that you can remove the most important things in a story correctly, and by doing so depict them all the more intensely.

So out of care for “Ollendorf’s Wife,”  I revised it, intensifying that paring away of the unneeded, leaving only the cutout cameo around the farm-wife’s charged day in a life. I added nothing really, but took away words that restated something otherwise established, and rewrote lines aiming to make connections stronger. I made one additional repeat of the “day after day” phrase, because there the repetition is  the image. Though I intended to perform my revision, I generally wasn’t thinking of making the poem more “sing-able” as I changed things, but I suspect that factor worked its way in as well.

Ollendorfs Wife revised

Here’s my revised version of Orrick John’s poem

 

As I said at the beginning, this is not something that is commonly done. There are poems that use the subscript of “after a poem by…” but those poems that are revised and re-voiced are usually much older or in a different language than the new version. Obviously, such an act could fail as well as succeed. You are the judge in this case. The gadget to hear my performance of my revised version of Orrick John’s “Ollendorf’s Wife” is below.

 

Are Song Lyrics Poetry? Part Two

Last post I rapidly traced poetry from the era of Homer and Sappho and the Confucian Odes,  jumped to English language poetry and finally ended with early 20th century Americans. I traveled fast, and simplified much, but it wouldn’t be out of line to say this is a progression from poetry that was expected to be performed with music to a poetry that wasn’t. Widespread literacy and the printing press, and by the Modernist era, a desire to include complex allusions and layers of ambiguity all helped this progression along.

Today let’s start in the 20th Century in America and follow the songwriter’s side of things. Popular songwriting had become industrialized. Composers and lyricists churned out uncountable numbers—and first by sheet music and then by recordings, film, and broadcasts, these productions could be distributed widely. Barriers to entry were low in this business, but rewards for popular success were high. Lyricists came from a wide range of backgrounds—some were middle class, even college educated, but many were immigrants or descendants of recent immigrants for whom English was a fresh language.

As with any mass art or market, much of what they produced was forgettable, a job of work, their ears may have sometimes bent to the muse, but their hands were looking for a paycheck.

Poets and literary critics occasionally paid a little bit of attention to that work in their time. Lively arts and all, some notice was taken.* With the music inspired by Jazz, the cultural force of the music could not be denied, even if the words that came along with it might be condescended to.

Then, in the mid-1930s, a decision was made, outside of music and poetry—a political decision—that eventually changed the course of popular music lyrics. For political reasons both international and U. S. national, the Soviet Union-dominated international Comintern and the U. S. Communist Party decided to switch tactics from a more purist “only the Communist Party is the solution” stance to a popular front position, where anyone to the left of the then rising Fascist forces were considered valid allies.**

In the U. S. this led to such slogans as “Communism is the Americanism of the 20th Century.” On a political level this meant that the Roosevelt New Deal wouldn’t be portrayed as capitalists pushing insufficient reforms to stave off the inevitable revolution, and that actual “card-carrying Communists” would be mixing more generally with socialists, liberals and centrists. But for our purposes, we need to look at how this played out in the cultural sector.

Popular arts, which could have been perceived as hopelessly compromised tools of the capitalist system, became more acceptable; but a more pure, folk expression that was seen as coming directly from and for the workers and the exploited, a music existing outside of the commercial infrastructure of entertainment, was even more ideal.

So here, twenty years before the “Great Folk Scare” of the 1950s were the roots of the folk revival.*** It’s in this pre-WWII period that Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie came of age and shaped their songwriting. Seeger was a Harvard drop-out and son of two musicologists.**** Guthrie was none of those things. The Popular Front meant that the likes of those two, and many others with high to low culture backgrounds, would mix it up.



My apologies to my Christian readers for posting this example of extraordinary Popular Front songwriting on Easter when it’s more a Good Friday kind of thing. Billie Holiday sings the harrowing “Strange Fruit.”

 

As songwriters this could have meant dour issue-of-the-month songs cleared by some central committee. And to be honest, each of them sang and wrote some of those, but both of them had Emersonian Individualist streaks.*****

And they listened too, had big ears. Afro-American music and musicians, isolated southern U. S. musicians who songs and styles were time-capsules of old British Isles tunes. Blues and “Hillbilly” music benefited somewhat from being a source and occasional fellow-traveler with this movement.

The Afro-American Harlem Renaissance is shaped by the gravitational pull of this political decision too. Civil Rights before the ‘30s was often aspirational, and though the folk traditions were honored before, this new emphasis on embracing popular and folk arts increased the interest and respect for them among an emerging new Afro-American cultural consensus.

Now we jump ahead again, it’s that un-named but important straddle decade of the late ‘50s to early 60s. Communist connections are poison. Illness had made Guthrie bedridden. Seeger is persevering outside of any first-tier commercial structure as a road-dog performer. “Folk Music” is now a commercial genre with a still bohemian/left-wing underground. Into this we inject the man who will expand the idea of what song lyrics will be allowed to do: Bob Dylan.

You don’t have to like Bob Dylan as a person, performer or songwriter to accept this truth: there are song lyrics before Dylan’s 1963-66 period and there are song lyrics afterward, but song lyrics are a completely different field after the change he proved was possible. This is why an artist as strong in his own right as Leonard Cohen can say in one of his last public statements: “Giving a Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan is like pinning a medal on Mt. Everest for being the highest mountain.”

But a Bob Dylan has causes, has a context in which he can happen. That choice Communist bureaucrats made for pragmatic political reasons in the mid-1930s led to a folk music scene 20 years later in which Afro-American blues and weird old folk music mixes with poetic Modernism inside the mind of one songwriter, and what comes out is strange and compelling.

Song lyrics don’t have to be a piece of work aiming for an established commercial target. Song lyrics don’t have to make clear front-to-back sense the first or the fifteenth time you hear them, they can mystify you and still have listeners. Songs with narrative elements don’t have to progress in a linear manner. Song lyrics can be about anything, can use any kind of imagery. Love songs can be ambiguous. Political points can be made metaphorically. You can combine different kinds of diction, even sample and reference various existing sources, and it doesn’t have to seem out of place or from the lack of original things to say.

One can point to song lyrics that did one or two of these things before Dylan, but after Dylan used many of them together and repeated that demonstration often, many songwriters wanted to try using any and all of these things, and their attempts caused other songwriters to do the same. A chain-reaction occurred.

Modernist poetry had done all these things already, and often—but Modernist poets didn’t write songs, and for the most part they didn’t read and perform their poetry charismatically. Some Beat poets, that faction of the Modernist movement that had vowed to remain resolutely bohemian, who had read their poems in front of jazz combos, recognized this was a different level of music combined with words. Allen Ginsberg heard a copy of Bob Dylan’s second LP in 1963. As the first side of that record moved inward toward the ouroboros groove in its middle, as “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”  played, he says he wept. Did he weep, feeling he was now displaced? Did he weep because this not yet 40-year-old poet might be replaced by this just over 20 singer-songwriter? No.

He wept, with an outlook of gratitude, because “There’s a saying among the Buddhists. If the student is not greater than the teacher, then the teacher is a failure.”


A long excerpt from “A Hard Rain Is a-Gonna Fall” with Ginsberg’s statement cut in.

 

Good story. But this was far from the end of the matter. A great many important poets and critics didn’t feel Ginsberg, or any of his Beat cohort, were very good poets. Therefore, Ginsberg’s say-so didn’t make Dylan a “real poet.”

You can’t say songwriting accepted or didn’t accept Bob Dylan, because acceptance is too meager a word for what happened—he changed how songwriting worked. The question of poetry “accepting” Bob Dylan, or songwriters in general, is still open.

Will I ever answer the question in the title? I beg your patience. This is by far the longest piece ever published here, even though I’m skimming over a lot of things. In Part Three I’ll finally get down to the answer that makes the most sense to me.

For an audio piece today I’ll suggest this one, one of the rare times here that I perform my own writing, a live version of “On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde”  by the LYL Band. The audio player is below. Thank you for reading and listening! Part Three, that should be the conclusion, comes soon.

 

 

 

 

 

*Decades after this era in 1990 literature professor Phillip Furia published his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley  which helped convince this fan of more “authentic” songwriters that these commercial lyricists were not without considerable art.

**As in the case I’ll make later regarding Dylan, please don’t let any personal feelings or judgements you may have regarding Communism or the Comintern blind you to the historical connections here.

***I can’t not mention one poet and musician who jumped the gun on this, Carl Sandburg, who published his important folk song collection American Songbag  in 1927. And for length reasons, I’ve largely left out the 20th century development of Afro-American blues and jazz. Charlie Patton didn’t wait for the Comintern to get in touch with him to forge his new alloy of styles.

****One of his father’s prize students was Modernist composer Henry Cowell. His step-mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger was in some opinions the most significant female American Modernist composer of the first half of the 20th century.

*****We can think of songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Bells of Rhymey,” “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,”  or “This Land is Your Land”  as exceeding requirements for that kind of song. Abel Meerpool’s “Strange Fruit”  is an excellent example of a lyric, written as a song, that would stand alongside poetry intended for the page.