Two men walk into a hotel room, and…

I can’t say what day this happened, but it was sometime in 1916 in Davenport Iowa. A well-off, Harvard-educated man in his mid-thirties named Witter Bynner was visiting a former Harvard classmate Arthur Davison Ficke in the latter’s elegant home. Besides family wealth, both men shared an interest in the arts, and both were published poets and art critics. A variety of fine-arts could have been discussed by these highly educated men, more so than any yet-to-be-invented concerns that random recently-young men might discuss today. Bynner later recalled the high-spirited discussion got raucous enough that Ficke’s wife asked the men to take it outside.

Nijinsky Le Spectre de la Rose crop

What the F.T.D! Nijinsky as the spirit of the rose

 

We know where the conversation started: Bynner had recently seen a new modern ballet, The Spectre de la Rose  based on a poem by Théophile Gautier with music orchestrated by Hector Berlioz from a piano piece by Carl Maria von Weber. I don’t know who the dancers were in the performance Bynner had seen, but the titular role of the spirit of the flower was first danced by Nijinsky, and the piece’s choreography ended with the extravagant gesture of Nijinsky leaping out of a stage-set window and disappearing as if he had flown off into the ether of the rose’s wafted scent.

Ficke and Bynner drawings

Arthur Davison Ficke and Witter Bynner. Bynner’s portrait is by Kahlil Gibran.

 

The two men retired to a cross-town hotel room with a bottle of whisky. Bynner had had an idea while watching that ballet. The romantic artistic styles of his birth century were now being challenged by new 20th Century modes. The kind of poetry that the pair wrote: carefully crafted metrical, rhymed verse was being challenged by new verse. It too had extravagant expression, but not only did the new free verse not care about symmetrical forms, it didn’t seem to care about extracting from its expression sense or meaning—things didn’t mean, they were, in these new poems. And some of the new poets were so deadly serious about how important this was! They wrote manifestos about how poetry should work without the old frameworks, yet they didn’t seem to care about how meaning worked!

The levels of the whiskey in the bottle lowered quietly as the levels of whisky in the two loud poets increased. Here was the plan: Oh, this was so good! They would write a bunch of these new poems, just whip them out while they were good and drunk and no longer bound by anything other than sounding like these new Imagist, Vorticist, Futurist poets. Great fun! So much so that nine more sessions and nine more bottles followed in close succession.

Intoxication didn’t stop these two educated, upper-class men from some structure and planning. They’d publish the poems under assumed identities. Bynner, a gay man, was to be Emanuel Morgan, a painter/poet who had dallied in Europe and dug the French poetic influences. Ficke, the straight, goyim man with day job as a lawyer, was to be an exotic eastern-European Jewish poetess Anne Knish. Later that year they roped in another well-off child of local Midwestern privilege, Marjorie Allen Seiffert, whose contributions would be signed as Elijah Hay*, who would be (like Ficke) a cisgender lawyer/poet. Ficke was drafted to write the new movement’s manifesto**, and Bynner supplied the name, taken from the ballet: “Spectrism.” Prophetically anticipating the birth a dozen years later of Andy Warhol there, these Spectra poets were said to be living in the Pittsburg area. Well, maybe it wasn’t Warhol. Maybe Pittsburg was chosen because it was half-way between the East Coast-based Bynner and the Midwestern Ficke, or perhaps they shrewdly judged it as sufficiently nowhere to evade detection.

They submitted Spectrist poems to magazines and some were published. They submitted a manuscript of the drunken hotel room poems to their own publisher and had a good laugh when it was accepted (they did tell the publisher about the hoax after the acceptance however). Perhaps the strangest publication was a “theme issue” of Alfred Kreymborg’s Others  magazine. Others: A Magazine of the New Verse  was the  publication of the Modernist Avant Garde in America, promoting William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, Marianne Moore, Fenton Johnson, Mina Loy, Man Ray, H. D. and Wallace Stevens. If it was “free” or “new” or “modern,” Others was associated with it. It seemed particularly open to redefining sexual and gender roles. Recent “theme issues” before the Others’  Spectra issue for January 1917 had focused on Spanish-American poets and “A Woman’s Number” (which included work by Seiffert).

Spectra Covers

Mysteries of the Spectrism. The 1916 published collection and the 1917 special issue of Others.

 

What would happen if the Spectra hoax occurred this year? I’m certain there’d be considerable criticism of the perpetrators. Other than the inherent dishonesty the goes into a hoax (though “honesty” is always ambiguous in art) the audacious usurping of the Anne Knish persona by a WASP scion of wealth would draw additional condemnation for sure. Rich white men tweaking the always struggling to stay in business little magazine Others seems particularly cruel on the face of it.

You’d also expect pieces to be written about how the hoax “proves” that Modernist poetry is, consciously or unconsciously, a hoax itself; that Spectrist poetry had shown that if the right signals are made, any word-jumble will pass as art. And yes, that happened after Bynner revealed the hoax in 1918, just as it would likely happen now.

Interestingly, at least in my limited research into this, the 1918 response did not seem to include much if any anger toward the perpetrators though. Class, ethnic and gender privilege might have shielded them. Perhaps even those who might have standing to complain were cowed by the perpetrators prestige and power, or maybe they hadn’t developed an analysis of “cultural appropriation” yet. AFAIK, Ficke, Bynner, and Seiffert never suffered “you’ll never work in this town again” repercussions.

Those fooled by the hoax generally followed a line that the Spectrist poems, regardless of the author’s intent, had some vitality as Modernist expression anyway.*** As the 20th century progressed, automatic writing, cut-up, exquisite corpse, chance and computer-generated composition, found poetry, psychedelic poetry composed while intoxicated, and more would be tested as tactics. Spectra might have started in Davenport Iowa not at the Cabaret Voltaire in Switzerland, but does Dada require intent to be Dada? Can one draw a line from the Ficke’s Spectrist manifesto to the First Surrealist Manifesto?

For myself, more than the philosophical and aesthetic questions, I wonder at the personal impact, and not just on the hoaxed. Modernism had not yet triumphed in its campaign to take over poetry in the 1916-1918 era, but all three of the Spectra hoaxers began to agree with the hoaxed that when they freed themselves from their birth personas and the formal rules of poetry and meaning, that something else emerged that their poetry hadn’t seen before they put on the mask. All three later wrote some free verse as their careers continued and Modernism won the post-WWI war for literary respectability.

On the other side, I’d suppose that the Spectra hoax may have helped give impetus to New Criticism and it’s move to establish objective criteria for what makes a poem good, even if it’s Modernist in language, structure and word-music.

What of the poems themselves? I read the original Spectra book and found it disappointingly forgettable. There are some good lines, but fewer than pure what-the-hell wild improvisation should have engendered. You can laugh at the unhidden humor present in some of the poems, and I can recognize and smile at some of the references to common early Modernist tropes that they are parodying. I was drawn more to Ficke/Knish than Bynner/Morgan, and couldn’t help but think that Ficke, part-way down that bottle of whisky, might have found his invented exotic anima therapeutic.

Therefore, I’ve chosen to perform one of Ficke’s Spectra poems today, “Opus 131.”  I think Ficke—a son who grew up in a house wealth-filled with his father’s world-spanning art collection and who had followed his father into the practice of law—may have needed something more, may have wanted something that Millay or Kreymborg or Mina Loy had, even in their not-having. He may have wanted to leap out of that hotel room window, like Nijinsky in that ballet, and never come down.

Here’s my performance of Ficke/Knish’s Spectra poem:

 

*Although it’s usually not filed under “hoax” there’s a fairly long tradition of women writing under masculine pen names, from the three Bell/Bronte sisters onward. Davenport itself was home to Octave Thanet, a successful popular writer born Alice French.

**Sample lines from the manifesto: “The theme of a poem is to be regarded as a prism, upon which the colorless white light of infinite existence falls and is broken up into glowing, beautiful, and intelligible hues… Just as the colors of the rainbow recombine into a white light,— just as the reflex of the eye’s picture vividly haunts sleep,— just as the ghosts which surround reality are the vital part of that existence,—so may the Spectric vision, if successful, synthesize, prolong, and at the same time multiply the emotional images of the reader.” I can only think of the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

Spectra Poets Dark Side of the Moon LP Cover

 

***However, the funniest critical quote from before the hoax was revealed was William Carlos Williams remark that he preferred the Elijah Hay’s Spectrist poems to Anne Knish’s because the “Woman as usual gets all the theory and—as usual—takes it seriously whereas the male knows it’s only a joke.” Mirror upon mirror in that quote.

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Thank You for your Robert W. Service

We’re entering a month in which Veterans Day will be celebrated with additional ceremony, because the 11th will be the 100th anniversary of the ending of the first world war. Earlier in the blog I remarked that World War 1 was the last war which was substantially narrated to us by poets.

That’s so for a complex set of reasons. Modernism, arising before the outbreak of the war, sought to revive a fresh poetry shorn of worn-out imagery and obligatory practices. The war brought both the old poetry and the new Modernist ideas into a great deadly laboratory to test their efficacy. The comfort of the old poetic music survived this test, but it was gravely wounded. The new practices were not exactly proved either, such was the horror and absurdity of the war. Indeed, the post war Modernism that came out the other end of the war’s meat grinder was oddly often much more obscure and seeking after esoteric tactics.

To a large degree, the post-WWI era marks an off-ramp for poetry. 20th century poetry emphasized the language of aesthetics and philosophy that might employ music to sweeten its sound, rather than the music of words that might employ philosophy as one of its harmonies. Eventually, by our current century, it turned again, and it is now largely about memoir and the establishment and explanation of personal identity.

World War 1 broke poetry, and in it’s wake, the Modernists ascendant decided the shards better reflected reality than some dusty Grecian Urn.

Any of these schemes can work (and not work) artistically, but there is a sort of hierarchy of needs and audience here. The old poetry was more universal, the post WWI High-Modernism the most exclusionary, and our current poetry can result in a multitude of voices crying “I’m here!” to the exclusion of “I see you!”

If one sets aside modern literary poetry, the old poetry still survives. One place you might find it is in the library that some carry about in their heads: memorized poetry. How rare is that today? I cannot say, but I can recall late in the last century, observing Garrison Keillor offering some prize (an autographed book? a T-shirt? I can’t recall the exact prize) to anyone in an admiring crowd who could recite a poem of more than 8 lines. I recall no one taking him up on that offer. Poetry started with those libraries in our heads, and we have the Iliad, the Odyssey and other ancient poetic epics because of prodigious memorization before writing. It isn’t just the noise from our glowing palm screens, or giant TVs that numbed this out of us, it started with the silent racket of all those printed books that call us to read them. Memorization seems a mooted point.

McDonald and McCain

Can you pick out the veteran in this picture?

 

But returning to that portable library in our heads, and returning da capo to where we started. Somewhere near the middle of the 20th Century, a U.S. Navy pilot was captured and imprisoned by the forces of the country they were bombing. Their captors were none-too-restrained in their treatment of their prisoners, torture and physical abuse was part of that; but in-between that and the constant lack of control that all prisoners face, the prison was made up of small solitary cells with deliberate and extraordinary limits on communication between the prisoners. The design was to break their will, not just their bodies.

The captured pilot was John McCain, who survived this and later went on to a long political career, but one thing that he said helped him persevere in his prison was another captured pilot teaching him a poem by Robert W. Service, essentially loaning out a book from the library of one prisoner’s head to the other. And the method of doing this was painstaking: a pseudo-Morse-code of taps on the wall of the cell that the prisoners devised.

Robert W. Service poems would fit well into taps, as his marching poetic feet can make one tap involuntarily—and the rhymes and narratives give a good structure to assist memorization too. Of course, this was a war prison, it wasn’t a graduate class in Modernist poetry, and if any of the prisoners might have known T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”  they might have skipped it if they couldn’t add the famous published edition’s footnotes in tap codes.

Other than Service’s poetic aids to memorization that let his poetry be present in these solitary cells without possessions, another reason that it should be a poem of his that helped these prisoners endure is that some of Service’s best-known poems are about fatalistic endurance leavened by dark humor. Service’s poetry wasn’t just available without paper, it shared an outlook that helped sustain the prisoners.

Robert W Service

Canadian poet Robert W. Service, not essaying a look that Leonard Cohen would own up to.

 

So that’s one veteran’s story from a war, decades after WWI.  Here’s another.

While McCain was imprisoned, another Navy veteran went into a studio in New York City and recorded an LP of Robert W. Service poems set to music.* While Service’s pre-war “Canadian Kipling” poetic style hadn’t changed, the outlook of the poems used in this record included Service’s rage at the horror and lies of WWI. Robert W. Service didn’t become a Modernist poet, but he showed in these poems the same WWI impact that broke other pre-war poetic outlooks.

The veteran in this case was “Country Joe” McDonald, and even if these Service poems talked distinctly of WWI and the British, French and Canadian experience of it, McDonald no doubt intended it to reflect on the then ongoing war in Vietnam. Of course, there were poems written after the WWI era about war, and McDonald had already tossed off one of the most famous Vietnam war songs himself: “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag.**”   And yet, here he was, drawn to these poems about World War I to express something decades later.

For our audio piece today, here’s a Robert W. Service poem, “The Lone Trail,”  more from the endurance side of the poet, performed by Dave Moore with the LYL Band. Here’s the player to listen to it:

 

 

*The record War, War, War  largely draws on Service’s Rhymes of a Red-Cross Man  which was published in 1916. McDonald’s record is a true solo record, just acoustic 12-string guitar, vocals, a bit of harmonica, and some foot-stomping; a straightforward, earnest, and harrowing collection. Parlando Project voice Dave Moore owned that LP, part of the reason he performed today’s Robert W. Service piece.

**McDonald later tells the story of hearing that not only did the North Vietnamese appropriate his song for propaganda broadcasts meant for the U.S. troops, but they even piped it into that POW camp in Hanoi. In the story McDonald heard, the soldiers, and even the prisoners, would laugh. His analysis: the French-educated Vietnamese “Never understood…an American sense of humor.”

Crushed Before the Moth

Increasingly, I am comprehending the miracle of Emily Dickinson. Fifty years before Ezra Pound and T. E. Hulme constructed a compressed modern poetry replacing conventional imagery with fresh and direct observation, a woman in a rural town in the woods of Massachusetts had already practiced their innovations over a thousand times.

Through a series of happy accidents, Dickinson’s poetry was preserved and published at the end of the 19th Century, just before the Imagists launched their Modernism—but even then, she was still like one of those unexploded bombs dug up by a construction crew decades after the war. Even after publication, the framing of her poetry still obscured it. Her posthumous editors cleaned up her punctuation and gave the poems titles, and on the page they looked so normal. As these were poems by an Emily, they were clearly the work of a woman, and so they were read as women were generally understood, even when not pressed between the boards of a poetry book. And Dickinson herself designed her poems to draw you in with their modest length, their frequent use of pious hymn meters and stanzas, their homey rhymes. Even into my mid-20th Century lifetime, it was perfectly possible to be aware of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and not be awed.

“Hey Joe, there’s a big chunk of metal buried way down in the mud! Here, listen when I give it a bit of a whack with my pipe wrench…”

UXB2

They still run across stuff like this from WWII around Europe. Decades old, and they can still go “Boom!”

 

Some early 20th Century Modernists looked more closely, and maybe saw some of what was there. Carl Sandburg straight-out called her an Imagist in a poem. I am unaware of how much attention the other early Modernists gave to Dickinson, but just on a promotional level, it might not be advantageous to talk much about poems written decades ago when your brand is “Make it new!” Remember too how Pound jabbed at Walt Whitman in his tribute poem: Walt Whitman you were a hacker out there in some unharvested forest, I’m a fine wood-carver able to bring out the finest detail. Dickinson’s near-rhymes and loose but familiar meters may have been read as imperfections to Modernism.

It took the last quarter of the 20th Century for Emily Dickinson to finally be seen, and we are still seeing more now as we look closer. What if, back in the mid-19th Century when Dickinson was creating this unprecedented expression, one had been able to talk with her about it? The value of writers’ groups, seminars, and MFA programs is not universally acknowledged, but most think these things at least have some effect on those who participate.

It just so happens, that occurred. Dickinson’s letters to Thomas Higginson give us some of her ideas, but as I read that correspondence I see Dickinson adopting masks, some playfully, some for protection. And Higginson, as varied as he was, was not, as far as I know, a poet, and therefore there was no chance that he would use Dickinson as a model for his own writing. But Dickinson’s long-time friend, neighbor, and sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson was a writer who dabbled in poetry.

Susan Gilbert Dickinson

Like Emily, Susan Gilbert was smart, was allowed some access to education, and wrote poetry

 

No other person saw as much of Emily Dickinson’s poetry while she was still alive as Susan. It’s also probable that no other person other than Emily Dickinson’s sister Lavinia (who seems to have had no artistic interests) was as intimate with the author. There is even speculation that there was an erotic bond between Susan and Emily. Besides the pant, pant passages in the letters between them, Emily praises Susan’s intelligence and cultural companionship. Given what must have been the loneliness of Emily Dickinson’s creative innovation, amplified by the cultural limitations for women in her time, we may all owe a debt of gratitude to Susan Gilbert in helping sustain Emily Dickinson.

Today’s piece uses a poem by Susan Gilbert Dickinson that shows some of the same elements one finds in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Given that the prolific Emily Dickinson experimented with her expression, if “Crushed Before the Moth”  was slipped into some complete poems of Emily Dickinson volume it would not seem entirely out of place.

What elements of “Crushed Before the Moth”  are Dickinsonian? A short line length (six syllables, though not Emily’s familiar 6/8/6/8 hymn stanza). Alternating rhymed lines with unrhymed, though here first and third not second and fourth, and the rhymes are all perfect rhymes except the final “moth.” Even the use of a Bible verse (Job 4:19) is not unprecedented in Dickinson, who though a religious dissenter, was steeped in a Christian religious culture.

The poem begins, just as many of Emily’s poems will, with a close observation of nature. In Job, the moth is only a passing metaphor, in Susan’s poem it’s an actual moth, looked at closely enough to see the texture of its body in the evening. The moth is treated here as an Imagist would. It’s not some intellectual counter, a rote symbol only standing for something else, but an actual animal in an actual evening. The second stanza continues in the same vein, the moth the morning after, though with more characterization.

The concluding three lines, though they contain the only Emily-like slant rhyme, are the least like Dickinson’s poetry. That kind of envoi ending with a clear and orthodox moral lesson is not something Emily would write in her mature poetry, and the “Is this thy stronger host” line sounds unnatural and stilted.

Still, this might be the first poem ever written that imitates Emily Dickinson’s strengths and innovations. That Susan Gilbert Dickinson was a more orthodox Christian than her friend, and like all of us, not the genius that Emily Dickinson was, doesn’t keep her “Crushed Before the Moth”  from being an effective poem.

I’m back to acoustic guitar for today’s performance of this piece, which is available using the player below.

Seventeen Almost to Ohio

Two threads lie here, waiting to be woven together. One thread: those young pre-WWI Modernists, the other: writers in old age.

Young: Mina Loy, Alfred Kreymborg, Glaspell and Cook of the Provincetown Playhouse, early in their careers, workers shaping modern literature—though none of them are remembered much now. Older poets: Longfellow, Donald Hall, and even Sarojini Naidu, Dave Moore and I, all speaking for carrying on past youth. Longfellow of course is no longer read for his intrinsic value, Naidu’s poetry is not read in the West, and Donald Hall concludes in his late-life essays, that he, like the majority of poets who receive prizes, notice and ample publication in their time, will be unread 20 years after their death. Moore and I of course are in a different, more perilous, class of ranked achievement. If Hall is right, Dave and I can look forward to equaling prize winner and American Poet Laurette Donald Hall’s status (unread, forgotten) in only 20 years!

There’s your writer’s affirmation for today.

What happened to those bright young Modernists? Cook died young. Kreymborg, that pre-WWI networking avant garde-ist, had a long post-war career judged by literary critics as undistinguished. Glaspell had an increasingly difficult second half of a career, though she won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1931 for a play that few praise now, the sort of late plaudit that sometimes comes to pioneers when prize committees compensate for overlooking earlier achievements. Like Hall, Mina Loy lived into her 80s, but unlike Hall, the last half of her life seems fallen from any career path. So, even before she died in 1966, she’d already achieved Hall’s 20-years-past-death status.

In 1960, Loy was 77 and living in the Western US when young poet Paul Blackburn was sent to interview her. A creaky hundred-minute tape exists of the encounter. Loy’s memory of things a half-century old seems spotty by this time, and this once eloquent poet grasps for words, even her own words, when asked to read her still modern sounding verse from her youth. Her readings are flat, though she occasionally is stirred by remembrance of the times and places when the poems were written. Once or twice she humble-brags or finds sincere surprise at how clever she had been. Listening, I wanted her to claim outright the fierceness she had shown back then. Instead, she seems an old 77, tired and distracted.

Mina Loy Paul Blackburn

Mina Loy in later life by Jonathan Williams, Paul Blackburn 1966 by Elsa Dorfman

 

Blackburn is patient, and he rarely man-splains or talks over Loy, something I would be all too prone to do if I was the man holding the microphone. He seems to genuinely admire Loy’s poetry as he seeks to add to a record of a career that was forgotten then, and he wants her to know that in 1960, at least one reader “gets” what she wrote in 1914.

Just past one hour in the recording, something extraordinary happens. Blackburn, touched by one of Loy’s recovered memories, a feeling perhaps amplified by additional visual clues he would have in the room that are not imprinted on the audio tape, exchanges with Loy a memory from his own youth during the second instead of the first world war.

I have taken that story, much as Blackburn expressed it that day in 1960, with some minimal editing and shaping for the words of today’s audio piece.

Of course, we’ve now largely forgotten Paul Blackburn as a poet too, following Hall’s law. Blackburn died too young, and more than 20 years ago, but his story struck me as a tightly expressed spontaneous poem. What was this: a poem he had already written, one he was paraphrasing from memory for Loy? Was it a poem he was thinking of writing as he interviewed the aged poet, perhaps thinking the tape recorder could serve as well as a notebook jot to put a first draft down? Was Blackburn simply a practiced poet who could orally improvise from his skills a well-shaped improvisation?

Whichever, I think it’s beautiful. His story combines looking back at youth and a landscape that is no more, with Dante’s Inferno moved forward to Greatest Generation Pittsburg, and it has a closing that contains a remarkable Imagist jump into synesthesia. I call my arrangement of Blackburn’s anecdote told to Loy “Seventeen Almost to Ohio.”

Today’s music, like the interview, is restrained: contrabass, a pair of cellos, piano, and percussion. I strove in my  performance and arrangement to do justice to Paul Blackburn’s story. To hear it, use the player below.

 

To W.C.W. M.D.

It’s now 1916—well not really—but allow me immediate mode for the time being. Some early 20th Century Modernist characters we’ve already met are about to collaborate in New York City with a largely forgotten figure whose words we’ll meet today.

The Provincetown Playhouse, that CBGB’s of Modernist American theater, has moved its organization from the remote Cape Cod artist’s colony to New York’s Greenwich village, and they’re still looking for new types of plays by new playwrights. How about drama using Modernist poetry?

Verse drama, despite continuing productions of Shakespeare, is a thing that often generates rumors of revival while never really reviving. In 1916, the Provincetown group was open to trying this. Which poets can come up with something?

Alfred Kreymborg could. Kreymborg was a leading networker or influencer in the New York area for Modernist poetry. Ezra Pound, and then Amy Lowell, would publish anthology books of Imagist Poets. Harriet Monroe out of Chicago was also gathering new Modernist work for Poetry  magazine. In 1916 Kreymborg would do the same in New York, with a magazine and anthology book series called “Others.”  Kreymborg had also been writing poetry, short poems mostly, all of them free verse. Now a play.

Others group

The “Others” group: L to R in back: Jean Crotti, Marcel Duchamp, Walter Arensberg, Man Ray, R. A. Sanborn, Maxwell Bodenheim. In front: Alison Hartpence, Alfred Kreymborg (bowtie daddie), William Carlos Williams (w/ Internet click-bait cat) and Skip Cannell

 

The play he wrote is an odd thing to describe. Titled “Lima Beans,”  it’s a two-character play about a couple. The husband loves lima beans, the wife decides he might also like string beans and surprises him with the new beans—but no, he loves lima beans. He stalks off, angry. She scrambles and gets some lima beans. He realizes he loves his wife, returns and she’s got lima beans for him. Kiss. Curtain.

I guess this could be a Seinfeld  episode plot decades later, but that’s not how Kreymborg uses it. He writes his play with litanies of repeated words, hocketing between the two voices. After reading the play this month, I’m guessing a performance might sound like a cross between Dr. Suess’ Green Eggs and Ham  and a late 20th Century Minimalist musical work by someone like Phillip Glass or Meredith Monk. Or as Preston Sturges’ Sullivan would have it, Waiting for Godot  plus vegetables—but with a little sex in it. That musical comparison is particularly apt, because even though the play did not use musical accompaniment, Kreymborg saw it as a musical structure.

So here in 1916 we have the Provincetown group, putting on a play that pioneered a performance aesthetic that still seems audacious 50 or 60 years later. Who are you going to get as actors to realize this—words and a presentation of thought conveyed musically, without actual music?

Poets.  In the role of the husband, William Carlos Williams. In the role of the wife, Mina Loy, who had just arrived in New York after getting away from those Italian Futurists. Neither poet had acted before, but Kreymborg rehearsed the two poets until they could present his free-verse vision.

Loy and Williams in Lima Beans

Mina Loy and William Carlos Williams in Lima Beans. The set for the proudly independent Provincetown Playhouse production cost $2.50, and its set designer, William Zorach,  also played the 3rd character whose hands are hanging, Soupy Sales-like, out the window.

 

I toyed with the idea of trying to realize Lima Beans  here, although with music this time. But it really needs two voices, and I wasn’t sure that a short section could do justice to the structure of the piece.

In it’s place, I looked for a short poem of Kreymborg’s to use instead. This proved more difficult than I thought it would be. I read his two poetry collections from this era, but no poem grabbed my attention. As in the play, he’s looking for a new poetic language in these poems, but it’s hard to grab the emotional center of many of them for performance.

In the end I chose today’s piece: “To W.C.W. M.D.”  It’s dedicated to William Carlos Williams. This might be more of Kreymborg’s log-rolling networking skills on display, but its subject also answered a desire I have to do a piece remembering my late wife Renee Robbins in some way today. As best as I can penetrate the emotional core of this poem, it speaks of the need to separate and not separate from those that have died.

Musically, the piece is based on one stacked chord, E minor7/11, but the notes are spread out between the instruments. Besides drums there are two bass guitars, piano, two viola parts, a violin part, and a clarinet in this. To hear it, use the player below.

 

Pig Cupid

Today we return to the early 20th Century Modernists with a piece using words by Mina Loy. Last post we had a poet taking a political stand: Longfellow aligning himself with the movement to abolish slavery. Decades later, the Modernists joined political movements too.

One might suppose that since Modernism sought to overthrow the old cultural order and revolutionize artistic expression that many Modernists would be attracted to political radicalism—and to a large degree that’s so.

You might also assume that these artistic radicals would be leftists, aligned with the growing Socialist movements in England and the United States, or attracted after 1917 to the as then untested promise of the new Communist government in Russia. Or perhaps they’d make common cause with anarchism. Or maybe they’d create their own playlist mixing all of the above.

And yes, you can find that. Carl Sandburg in the U. S. Midwest, most of the Surrealists, bohemians in New York’s Greenwich Village, Herbert Read and some other British Modernists.

However, one can also find Modernists who aligned with the right wing in this era—and not only garden-variety Tories, or even those who allied themselves with the “respectable” racist strains of U. S. politics. Even in the years before WWI, the social theories that would coalesce into Fascism found adherents in the new literary avant garde. As to Americans, the most famous case is the indispensable Modernist poet, editor and promotor, Ezra Pound, eventually charged with treason at the end of WWII.

Modernists seemed something like stem cells as their artistic revolution kicked off—they could develop into followers of any kind of political radicalism. At a time when political engagement for artists was common, there must have been a feeling in the air that a side must be chosen if one was to be a thorough-going cultural Modernist.

So, much as the French Surrealists once sought to make Communism a dictate for membership in the Surrealist movement, the slightly earlier Italian Futurists eventually made Fascism a core value of their artistic circle.

mina-loy

I love my baby, cause she does good sculptures, yeah!” The young Mina Loy

 

It’s now we get to Mina Loy. No, not the delightful Hollywood actress—that’s Myrna Loy (Myrna Loy was the stage name for the woman born Myrna Williams, and it’s just possible that Loy could have been chosen to refer to Mina).

It’s 1905. Modernism is kicking off first in the visual art world, followed just behind by the poets. Loy, in her 20s, has already done the visual art thing in London and Paris, but her marriage is failing, and she’s just had an infant child die. To change her life, she moves to Italy. She befriends Futurist artist Carlo Carra, and if you follow along on your Futurist score-card she had love-affairs there with two principals of Italian Futurism: F. T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini.

Let’s re-set our scene. Here’s a young woman in a foreign country going through life stress events. The art-world is shifting under everyone’s feet. As a movement that will eventually fancy itself outright as the cultural well-spring of Italian Fascism, the circle she’s fallen in with isn’t just about making it new, it’s militaristic, paternalistic, nationalistic, and it worships violence. That isn’t what jealous opponents say about Futurism, it’s what its own manifestos brag about.

Tullio Crali - Bombardamento-aereo (1932)

Futurist war painting. Compare its outlook to Guernica or Flint’s poem “Zeppelins.
Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto declared “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene”

 

As preparing actors say, all that would be part of the work to figure out what Mina Loy is experiencing. Here’s another bit of business you might grab onto: young, ambitious, male artists. I doubt some not-uncommon tropes have changed in that field.

What happens?

Mina becomes a poet. A fierce poet. Artistically she uses some of the new ideas that the Futurists are thinking about. Her poetry moves between time and tenses, voices and outlooks, in machine gun bursts. Conventional expression and sentiment? Blow them up, run them over with a locomotive. Sixty years later Harlan Ellison would write “Love is just sex misspelled” and be thought provocative. Mina had already been there in the horse-and-buggy era. How can a woman keep her selfhood (or for that matter, how can any human being do so) in the minefield of desire and relationships? What is deep and inherent in motherhood that society will not express openly?

Though she used some of the artistic ideas of Futurism as effectively as any writer, Loy seemed to resist most of its political ideas and she satirized the pretentions of the “Flabergasts” while writing about her Italian time as being in the “Lion’s Jaws.”  Leaving Italy, she next moved to New York, where she joined the Greenwich Village circle.

Today’s piece uses selections I took from a 34-poem sequence called “Songs to Johannes,”  inspired by the relationship with Giovanni Papini (Johannes and Giovanni are variations of the same root name). Loy published these in 1914, near the end of her Italian time. Within the little-magazine world of Modernism she made an immediate impact. Eliot, Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Gertrude Stein said good things about her work. Legendary founder of Poetry magazine Harriet Monroe seems to have been scared by Loy’s frankness. Amy Lowell, poet and influential anthologist, was so put off she is supposed to have said that she would not publish in any magazine that printed Loy.

If the patriarchy may have lost the battle with Mina Loy, for a long time they seem to have won the peace. It was only in the last few years of the 20th Century that Loy’s poems of the first part of that century began to be looked at again. Now, Loy has become a key poetic Modernist for literary scholars tired of the usual sausage-fest, but that opens up the danger that work like “Songs to Johannes”  may be introduced, academically, like this: “Loy in effect diagnoses an end to love poetry in the light of historical circumstance, anticipating that poststructuralist line of inquiry which urges a rereading of ‘lyric’ as a culturally responsive construct. Instead, her poetry constitutes a critique of the very demand that lyric expression be viewed apart from the social world.”

There’s nothing wrong with that view, but I find Loy’s pre-WWI writing here a lot more immediate assuming one has some applicable life experience to bring to it. Her diction sometimes reminds me of Emily Dickinson, and like Dickinson figuring out what is ironic, and what is earnest, and what is both, can sometimes be a challenge. In performance, any of those three choices seem to work for most phrases here. The greatest error would be to make them all of the same tenor. Also, like Dickinson, Loy will move from speaking concise abstraction to vivid metaphor using very few words. Thus, the high minded and the sensual nitty-gritty are juxtaposed.

My appreciation for this sequence grew tremendously as I constructed this performance. There are strong images, richly ambiguous expressions, and yes, lines that one could deconstruct at thesis length. I didn’t even have room to include the phrase from “Songs to Johannes”  that I’ve chosen to title today’s selection, but I can never look at a plump rococo cherub again without recalling it. But the real gift I got, the unique gift of art, is that I could experience some of Loy’s moments in the hot-house nexus of Fascism and Modernism.  “Pig Cupid”  would probably be more authentic if this was performed in a woman’s voice, but alas my voice is what I have available today. To hear my performance, use the player below.

 

Morituri Salutamus

I suspect no poet in the past couple of centuries has suffered a greater decline in esteem as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This is not due to some scandal in his biography, for as far as I can tell he lived an admirable life, but artistically he’s been indicted for a number of crimes and misdemeanors. Before I go over those, let me briefly summarize the heights from which Longfellow has fallen.

He was the first self-sustaining professional American poet, the first to reach a considerable level of national and international success. By the middle of the 19th Century he was roughly as famous as Tennyson and Dickens, known and generally admired by his contemporary poets, and avidly read by a broad non-academic readership. He sustained this fame for several decades and further, past his death in 1882. His general readership survived into my grandfather’s generation, and then through my father’s, and to a degree, into mine. Somewhere in the middle of the 20th Century, this engine of fame and readership broke down, and by now they’ve torn up the tracks of the Longfellow Line, and ragged grass grows over the railbed.

I grew up reading Longfellow as the next generations might read Dr. Suess or Sandra Boyton in childhood. As I reached the age of ridicule, I could revel in Bullwinkle the moose in his parody poetry corner reciting Longfellow poems that I knew. Now Longfellow is probably not well enough known to satirize.

So, what are Longfellow’s poetic crimes? Meter and rhyme and a certain amount of antique diction—though we are able to somewhat forgive the English romantics of the generation before Longfellow those afflictions. Earnestness and popularity, two things that no ironic 20th Century Modernist would wish to be accused of—but Robert Frost survived the later, while being seen (mistakenly) as expressing the former. Longfellow’s contemporary, Walt Whitman, explicitly sought to commit the earnestness and popularity crimes—though, as the old dis goes, for many years, Whitman couldn’t get arrested for it.

Whitman-Longfellow

The good gray poet Whitman, and his doppelganger the forgotten famous writer Longfellow.

But Longfellow’s capital offense, the crime his reputation has been executed for, is simplicity and conventionality of thought. If I had to be Longfellow’s defense lawyer on this charge, perhaps I’d be reduced to throwing his case on the mercy of the court. Longfellow’s writing is often expressly didactic, and impersonal sentimental themes abound. Over and over again, he counsels perseverance and its seeming opposite, acceptance of impermanence. A more metaphysical poet would show his work and do more with incident to earn his conclusions. A more modern poet would make sure to make his life’s painful particulars his main subject.

Ironically, Longfellow’s life story is full of such material. Today we often think of poetry and art as an extension of memoir, and that writers earn their license to express things from their life stories. Longfellow would have had that license.

Some forms of Modernism believe that the best way to deal with complex emotion or great pain is to put it in the silences, in the blank spaces. These Modernists believed this would be more effective, because they are signaling with this constrained and minimalist expression that the thoughtful audience needs to seek for what is not said.

20th Century Modernists decorated their foreground with images, not antique forms of literary expression, and the complex message is encrypted in those images as if by steganography. Could Longfellow be doing something similar in the blank spaces between the lines of his hypnotic verse?

Today’s piece uses words from a late Longfellow poem “Morituri Salutamus,”  a Latin title taken from the famous gladiator phrase “Those who are about to die salute you.” The bulk of this poem, written for the occasion of his 50th college class reunion when Longfellow was 68, is taken up with matter that might appear in a commencement speech or the granting of an honorary diploma. Its purported mode is lightly elegiac, advice to the young is given; but as it proceeds, Longfellow transitions to a not over-worn thought. He prepares for the poem’s final stanza by cataloging some swan-songsters of literary history: Simonides, Chaucer, Sophocles. For compression, and for my preference for briefer work, this last stanza is what I used for today’s piece.

In that final stanza, with supple verse, Longfellow concisely implores his aging generation (and himself) to continue to labor to create, to create better. That’s not a complex thought. Does it need to be? Is it easier or tougher to do because it’s a simple thought?

To hear my performance of the conclusion to Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus,”  use the player below.