A Spring Song with Some Winter In It: Frost’s “A Patch of Old Snow”

A bit earlier this month we presented a landmark very short Imagist poem, Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.”  14 words, and a prime example of the Modernist’s reaction to the rhetorical flourishes of a worn-out 19th century. Today I’m going to release a Robert Frost response, a 47-word rejoinder, a spring poem with some winter snow left in it.

Frost was born 145 years ago this week. His relationship with Pound is complex. On one hand Pound could view himself as responsible for launching Frost’s career, writing the first substantial review of Frost and seeing to it that his poems were published in Poetry  magazine. Without Pound’s endorsement, Frost had submitted poems there which had been rejected.

Frost tells the story of their initial meeting, with Frost’s first book A Boy’s Will  so newly published in England that he himself hadn’t gotten a hold of a copy. F. S. Flint (a too-often-forgotten pioneer of British Modernism) had met Frost at a bookstore reading, shortly after Frost had moved to England. Flint noticed Frost’s American shoes and insisted that he must meet his countryman Ezra Pound, now also residing in London. Frost later went to Pound’s apartment, and this is how Frost recounted their meeting:

[Pound] said, ‘Flint tells me you have a book.’ And I said, ‘Well, I ought to have.’ He said, ‘You haven’t seen it?’ And I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘What do you say we go and get a copy?’ He was eager about being the first one to talk. That’s one of the best things you can say about Pound: he wanted to be the first to jump. Didn’t call people up on the telephone to see how they were going to jump. He was all silent with eagerness. We walked over to my publisher; he got the book. Didn’t show it to me—put it in his pocket. We went back to his room. He said, ‘You don’t mind our liking this?’ in his British accent, slightly. And I said, ‘Oh, go ahead and like it.”

Even in prose, there’s some Frost-ian ambiguity it his account. He notes in passing that the American Pound was putting on a British accent. And his sly quote of Pound “You don’t mind our liking it” before Pound has read it—a subtle dig at poetic politics that—and who’s the “our” here. Pound (and Flint too) were promoting a poetic movement, Imagism—poetry that used direct, concise treatment of “a thing” without any extra words whatsoever.

Frost never liked a movement that included more than him.

And to some degree this soon led to a break between the two poets. Pound thought that Frost fell short on the “use no extra word” dictum of Imagism. He apparently offered to help Frost learn to excise those surplus words—and though similar offers from Pound were taken up by literary giants like T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemmingway, Frost refused it.

There was a second catch. In Pound’s review that launched Frost, Pound wanted to make a point of Frost’s rejection by American editors, and he was loudly saying this in an American magazine (one of those that had, in fact, rejected Frost). Many musicians and music fans will quickly recognize Pound’s move here. This is the punk/indie/”street cred” claim. This artist has too much honesty and individualism and lacks the subservient guile to please the suits and the mainstream! The problem here was that Frost was a middle-age man with a family—he wanted to cross-over to those editors. Frost thought Pound was pulling this move to show what a discerning critic he was more than to promote Frost as an outsider artist.

But note too in Frost’s account of his first fateful meeting with Pound, the subtle admission he makes about himself. “Oh, go ahead and like it.” He wanted, needed the help—by any means necessary.

Oddly, if you were to read Pound’s short review today, you might be surprised that it worked to launch Frost at all. There are condescending elements, Frost is almost treated as some idiot-savant country bumpkin. And worse for Pound, he goes on record as the first man to misread Frost as simple and earnest (the same mistake that I made as a teenager, but then I’m not Ezra Pound).

A Patch of Old Snow_1080

A patch of old snow, blossoms on wet dark bough not included

 

Here’s the text of Frost’s poem I use today and here’s Pound’s 14-word Imagist flagship. Look at Frost’s first stanza. Sure, Frost’s is rhymed and metrical, though Pound uses a near rhyme that many miss. If Frost ended there, his poem is purely Imagist. “Old” in front of snow isn’t a wasted word. We need to know it’s spring now, and that the snow is past its sell-by date. And it’s an interesting choice to say “blow-away paper” instead of blown-away—more immediate, and it indicates that its transient nature is inherent, not something acted upon from without.

Frost’s second stanza? Pound’s editor’s pencil might have suggested he’s restating the image from the first stanza, but Frost might have countered by noting that he’s making clear this isn’t just any crumpled scrap paper the snow is being made equivalent to, but a newspaper or other publication, with “small print.”

Here’s the Imagist difference. In conventional poetry, the images, the similes and metaphors, are only decorative—look, clever I can compare this to this. In Imagist poetry this comparison shouldn’t be just decorative—it’s the meaning of the poem.  This last edition of winter is “yesterday’s papers.” And bilaterally, wrong-headed reviews in Poetry?  They will pass like the lonely grimy snow-bergs.

The last line, “If I ever read it,” is Frost’s touch. Pure Imagism doesn’t like to draw conclusions, even enigmatic ones. Does it mean one thing? I think it predominantly says, it’s the past, I’ve endured, it’ll soon be gone completely. The poem first appeared in Frost’s third book, the first to be published in America not in England. Frost was on his way. But there’s an undercurrent—with Frost there always is.  Is that small print an edition of The Book of Nature? After all, we also know this: winter will return, and should we not read what it has written to us?

Frost will do that too in many of his greatest poems.

This morning I ask myself, what a strange way to spend a weekend full of news and melting snow, reading the small print about two poetic innovators at cross-purposes to each other.

Musically, I wanted to let loose a bit for this one. I’ve been playing acoustic guitar for many recent pieces, so I wanted an unleashed electric guitar. The wild spring bird-whistles near the end are feedback between the guitar’s pickups and the amplifier.

 

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The Parlando Winter 2018-19 Top Ten part 3

Should I stop for a moment in our count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces this past winter to describe briefly what the Parlando Project is? After all, there are always new people coming upon this stuff.

What we do is take various people’s words, mostly poetry, and we combine them in various ways with original music. The music too is not one style. Sometimes we sing the words, but not always, or even usually. Sometimes we read them or chant them or talk-sing them. Singing gives a particular effect to the words, and though I admire many examples of art-song, including some examples that use the same texts that I’ve used, I think there are other facets of the poetry that can be shown with other performance styles.

I wish we had more modern or semi-modern poetry here, but very soon in this project I determined that the effort to obtain the rights to creatively engage with work still in copyright protection would reduce the amount of encounters we could produce.

Limits and restrictions often engender creativity though. I’ve found that being largely restricted to the pre-1923 public domain world still allows me centuries of material to pour over, and there seem to be a great many under-appreciated and forgotten writers to discover. A lot of what I end up using is work from the first part of the 20th century, the Modernists that established the world of literature we are still continuing and reacting to. It’s been fascinating to experience this early formative time of Modernism by adapting and performing their words.

Now let’s return to our countdown with numbers 4, 3, and 2 in popularity this winter. Yes, they’re all early-20th century Modernists. And one poet takes two slots in the countdown today.

4. A Winter’s Tale.  D. H. Lawrence is another novelist who was also a poet. In my youth he was probably better known for his novels, and their spicy rep in the mid-century world no doubt helped his youthful readership. I recall reading some Lawrence poems in the sixties and I remember liking them then, but I have to say that my interest in them didn’t continue. Now in this project, in this century, I’ve run into him again. The Imagists who kicked off British literary Modernism considered him one of them.

I liked this poem of his, even though I still can’t say for sure what’s going on in it, but we often can forgive that in the context of music and words. My musical setting for an early 20th century poem kind of took some small inspiration from the late 20th century music of Mark Hollis (of Talk Talk) who died last month.

 

D H Lawrence in Mexico 1923

D. H. Lawrence asks “Is that a Mexican poncho, or is that a Sears poncho?”

 

3. Gacela of the Dark Death.  Here’s another work that I translated into English myself for presentation here, a poem of passion and wit from Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. I actually first heard this poem as part of a project that attempted to do something like what the Parlando Project does: Joan Baez and Peter Schickele’s 1968 LP Baptism.  Baez read Stephen Spender’s translation of Lorca’s poem earnestly there, and the poem’s title would lead one to read it as sorrowful. As I translated Lorca’s Spanish I sensed a more playful and mocking attitude in some of the images, and my performance tries to bring that out from my translation. As part of conveying the emotional range of the piece, I sang the opening and closing sections while speaking the middle of the poem—an example of how singing and speaking words changes the experience of them.

 

Baptism back cover

Baez and Schickele do Parlando 51 years ago

 

 

2. Self-Pity. D. H. Lawrence again, but a different kind of poem from “A Winter’s Tale.”  Shorter, and superficially an Imagist poem, it so clearly makes its “no whining” point that it was once used in a film by a drill sergeant. Poetry that makes straightforward self-improvement/empowerment points was not that common in early Modernism, and it’s not the usual way to literary cred these days either. I’m not sure why that would have to be. There’s an audience that likes it, and the 19th Century revered some poets who plied lessons like this poem does, although usually with many more words and stanzas. My best guess is that artists, particularly now in an era when literary poetry is something of an outsider art, like novelty and rebelliousness too much to settle for earnest self-improvement.

Well, this poem isn’t one of my favorites, but you know something: I need its message some days as much as anyone. I may have worked extra hard on the music I wrote and performed for it to compensate for that.

 

So what will be the most popular piece from last winter? I’ll be back soon to reveal that.

Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight

Here’s a piece for today’s U. S. holiday: President’s Day.

Long-time readers here know that’s not going to be simple, but it may be interesting.

For some time in this project I’ve thought I’ll have to deal with Vachel Lindsay. In the early days of poetic Modernism a century ago, when no one knew exactly how that movement would turn out, Lindsay was a force to be reckoned with, with a life story and approach to his art that was so outsized, that if he hadn’t actually existed, and instead you created him as a character, you would be charged with unrealistic and exaggerated imagination.

In the great American tradition of bohemian artistry, Lindsay was not well-off, not Ivy League educated, nor born in some cultural capitol. By force of will he decided that he would make his way in the increasingly business-oriented world of the 20th Century as a poet.

How’d that work out? Better than you might imagine, if only for a time. He made most of his bones touring the country intensively, reciting his poetry in a flamboyant style. Much like the life of a musician, it worked only to the degree that he was able to keep up a relentless road-dog touring schedule. Between tours, what time he had to write was also the time that he fell into debt and doubt.

If you think that poetry should be, at least in part, a spoken art form, Lindsay was there before. If one wants poetry to be appreciated as a popular form, with no academic prerequisites, Lindsay lived that. If you want poetry to be a force for social good, Lindsay too. Slam poetry? Lindsay was doing that before there was a name. Poetry inspired by and linked with vernacular music? Lindsay, a century ago.

Vachel Lindsay strikes a pose

Vachel Lindsay is not doing the hokey-pokey here, but performing poetry.

 

So why haven’t I presented Vachel Lindsay before today? Three reasons.

One, he wrote a lot of bad or flawed poetry. Awkward, sentimental, not particularly striking in imagery, and despite his spoken word and musical inclinations, not always in tune with my sense of music.

Secondly, though he always claimed his heart was in the right place, his treatment of other cultures was so clumsy and ignorant that it’s too often indiscernible from racism. This isn’t a close call, or some case of modern politically correct revisionism, even in his own era this was noticed. It was more than 50 years ago when I first ran into one of his set pieces, “The Congo,”  and from that I figured I was done with Vachel Lindsay.*

These are both general reasons why Lindsay is not seriously considered along with his contemporary Modernists of the early 20th Century. But there is another, more personal reason: I fear the Vachel Lindsay in myself. When I see in my own writing awkwardness and flawed art, when I stop to consider the un-earned audacity of my own spoken word and musical expression, when I catch myself assuming that good intentions are sufficient, when I write here of other cultures and experiences, and despite my provincial and limited knowledge of them, perform works associated with them—then I fear I’m becoming my own variation of Vachel Lindsay. I continue to do those things anyway, stubbornly—again, like Lindsay.

Art is not just a place to model human potential. It’s also a revelation of human failures. Bad art can inspire good art. Failures illuminate as much as successes.

With that long introduction, let me now tell you that today’s piece, “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (in Springfield Illinois)”  is still worthy of four minutes of your attention. Unlike China or the Congo, Lindsay knows Lincoln’s adult hometown of Springfield Illinois, as it was his hometown too. “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”  is not a piece that extends language, it has no clever images that re-calibrate how you experience something, its word-music is not so beautiful that you’d be drawn to it before you even care what it’s about. We have long celebrated Abraham Lincoln as the President of our greatest national traumatic event, the American Civil War, fought over our greatest national sin, slavery. So, the poem has only an emotional, empathetic message, but this is all art delivers to us however plain or fancy the wrapping.

President’s Day is not a simple holiday today. Here’s my performance of Lindsay’s Lincoln poem. I kept the music simple enough and in that hometown key of C. The high melody part that sounds like a synth patch is actually 12-string guitar run through a lot of time and modulation effects and a compressor. The player is below:

 

 

 

*Here’s a recording of Lindsay reading part of “The Congo” which gives some idea of his performance style and also his manifold issues with understanding and appropriating African experience. And here are some excerpts of remarks on the poem and Lindsay.

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.

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.