How many poems celebrate the poet’s dream, or dreams? This one doesn’t.
It’s fair to say that American poet William Carlos Williams had a curmudgeonly streak. In this poem from his 1921 collection Sour Grapes he holds the line for the style that early Modernists had championed to break free from the poetic fancies that preceded them. By the 1920s the Modernists were moving on to new things, and it’s safe to say that many of them had developed new fancies. Indeed, in three-years-time the first Surrealist Manifesto would be published. The Surrealists went further than our usual sentiments about the value of an individual’s personal dream presented in the context of following one’s dream with the idea that it would integrate into our plans for work or a place in society. The Surrealists didn’t want to domesticate one’s dreams to society, they wanted to bring the full wildness of dreams to the fore and let society make whatever of it.
But, here’s Williams’ poem “Thursday,” which you can find by following this link. First off, I see that he uses very plain language here, and there’s little trickery or poetic obscurity in his manner of speech either. There are no references to ancient myths, no quotes from Latin or Greek, or even Elizabethan English. He starts by noting the ubiquity of dreams, and at least for the purposes of this poem, he doubts their worth. I like the choice of words he uses here for why he’s going to skip the value of his dreams aspirational or Surrealist: “carelessly.” In other words: I don’t care about that all, at least in this poem’s now. Instead, he spends the body of the poem inhabiting the body of the poet — as we the reader may too if we come along with Williams.
WCW at the wheel. “Yeah, but I’m driving and we’ll have some good ol’Imagism and none of that pretentious stuff.”
This is part of what I found intriguing when, as part of this project, I revisited the original English-language Modernists early work. I loved Surrealism as a young poet. I liked Dada referencing nothing and T. S. Eliot referencing whole libraries. But before those evolutions existed, what Modernism first used in English to break free and “make it new” was very concrete and radically simple: the presentation of the experience of brief charged moments that could include the revolutionary act of taking notice of the mundane and unexalted.
Like just a “Thursday” in Williams’ life, in your life, in mine.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Williams’ “Thursday” should be below, but if your blog reading software doesn’t show it, this highlighted hyperlink will do the job too. More work with piano this time and a return of an orchestra section. I keep hoping to return to more fierce electric guitar soon here. We’ll see.
Recently I mentioned I might return to the Modernists of 100 years ago who inspired a lot of the material I’ve used here over the years. And indeed, I read two early William Carlos Williams collections early this new year looking for material as I prepared to do that.
And then, as a novel from 1925 warned: “Somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night….” and we’re borne ceaselessly into Make the Confederacy Great Again. Doomscrolling overcame me, and my concentration scattered without need for pepper spray. Unlike some others this week, I don’t want to play-act armed revolution — and despite the abundant wrongs and injustices of my government, I’m not even enthusiastic about the real thing. If I can’t bear up under the tedium of actual politics and its incremental proposed solutions, why then must it follow I would want the excitement of the barricades?
I had to sidestep new pieces for a while. Yesterday I was granted a few hours in which I might work on them, and so I felt compelled to return to what I had thought of using for the new year, and this poem from American Modernist poet William Carlos Williams was on the top of the stack. It’s called “January,” and it was published 100 years ago this year.
As to doomscrolling vs. poetry, Williams said: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
By some caprice of the muses, this century-old “January” seems to address my situation in this one. Williams speaks of the distractions outside himself as he continues to write, and to winter’s “derisive music” he replies he’s still “bound to my sentences.” I can’t be sure what specifically inspired this poem. Williams could simply be sick of winter, that season that litters itself all over the landscape and then freezes itself in place. Or it could be speaking of his place in the Modernist movement, which was gaining traction culturally while (in Williams’ judgement) it wasn’t recognizing his part in it sufficiently.*
For our own arts, that’s an indispensable act for us: to stay committed to our work. Beside the world’s events that tell me that what art does is not quick acting enough to serve as a vaccine for our society, beside doubts that I should be better at what I do before presenting it, beside my own particular guilts that I should spend less time doing these things and more at promoting it, there’s no work to fail or be ignored unless one does one’s work.
I had to work quickly on the music, relying on some things that have become stylistic standbys for me in this Project: bowed strings (contra-bass this time), electric piano, electric guitar, and drums. In his poem, Williams develops the idea that the distracting winter wind is playing music to interrupt his own word-music. He describes this music as featuring the chromatic scale interval of the fifth. Reading the silent poem, you might think he’s talking about a dissonant interval since he also says twice the winds’ music is “derisive.” But the fifth is instead a sweet interval, even if one plays minors or major scales against it or piles on fuzzy overtone-rich distortion. From a musical perspective, I’m thinking Williams is saying that even the winter winds are not as cutting, honest, and to-the-bone as he wants to write. They’re derisive because they are merely sweet.
*The collection this poem appeared in was titled Sour Grapes. Williams thought — and some later critics began to agree with him — that American cultural critics were more enamored of WASP writers and overly eager to establish their own Ivy League version of the Oxford-Cambridge hierarchy for poets and poetry. Williams’ father was raised in the Dominican Republic and his mother was from Puerto Rico. Now of course, both Williams and some guy named Trump both went to the University of Pennsylvania, which is officially in the Ivy League. While Williams did post-graduate travel and work in Europe too, unlike some other American Modernists he was committed to making his poetry speak in, and to, an American way.
I made it! This is the 500th audio piece presented here as the Parlando Project since it began in the summer of 2016. In the month of December I’ll write more about what the work for this project has been like, and what I think I’ve learned. I’ll also share with you, my valued audience, what I plan to do going forward in some upcoming posts, but let’s get onto presenting today’s piece based on a small portion of Susan Glaspell’s pioneering American play about pioneer women and their isolation.
I’ve long wanted to do something with a text from Susan Glaspell since she’s partly responsible for this project so often dealing with the beginnings of Modernism in the first two decades of the 20th Century. In America, I think we have a cultural tendency to forget our pioneers, to think of them as imperfect, “beta test” versions of what we consider to be the current and vital expressions of art. We owe them some gratitude, an obligation, but it turns out that looking at first attempts, first intentions, can reveal insights we’ve forgotten, potentially useful tactics we set aside. That said, there’s coincidence in wanting to point out Glaspell’s work here, I’m related to her in one of those fractal-branched family trees; and elderly relatives I once knew, now dead, knew her as a living person, a person with roots in Iowa along the Mississippi River, a place that was home for some time to my people.
Susan Glaspell at the keys. Can’t have a Modernist American theater unless someone writes some plays!
In a previous post I’ve noted that some figures important to American Modernism came from that mid-river region. Carl Sandburg, the forgotten Imagist with dirty fingernails was one. Glaspell was another, not just forgotten as a Modernist, but forgotten as a prime-mover in Modernist American drama. You see, she and her husband had a wild idea while living in an artist’s colony on the East Coast: plays that reflected the “make it new” ethos, radical social analysis, and the symbolic undercurrent that European dramatists were exploring. The theater she organized in 1915, The Provincetown Players, was nothing less than the CBGBs of independent and experimental American theater.
The one-act play that supplies today’s text is her ground-breaking “Trifles.*” It’s now remembered largely as a primary piece of feminist drama, rightfully so, and that outlook might see it as a piece of the social-realist school. There are good reasons for that. Recent scholarship has uncovered that Glaspell, as a young journalist, had covered a murder trial in Indianola Iowa with parallels to the story of “Trifles.”
But the Provincetown group wasn’t just about plays about issues, or gritty realism in opposition to melodramatic fantasy, gaslight adventures, and blithe romances. Modernist poets were also playwrights and actors in the group. “Trifles” isn’t a verse drama, it isn’t a choral poem, but it’s also not unaware of those forms of dramatic expression. In the play’s language, Glaspell uses extraordinary compression, objects representing feelings not explicitly told, and long arias of extravagant emotional expression are conspicuously absent. I’ve never heard it called such, but it’s not outrageous to call “Trifles” an Imagist play. In today’s presentation, which I call “I Know What Stillness Is” I have extracted a section of dialog near the end of the play between two women incidentally drawn into a murder site investigation. One, Mrs. Hale,** a neighbor of the murder suspect, speaks first; the second speaker, Mrs. Peters, is the wife of the sheriff leading the investigation.
Picture of the original New York production of “Trifles.” The woman playing Mrs. Peters at the far left is Marjorie Vonnegut. Yes, she married into that Vonnegut family. So it goes…
In my presentation, as per the ways of the Parlando Project, I want to combine music and words in some useful way that illuminates the piece. So, while not rewriting, I removed some sections of dialog, slightly compressing the scene, and added one subtle use of refrain not in the original text.*** If I was a bel canto singer perhaps I’d think of making this an opera, but instead I’ve kept the dialog spoken word, but by setting this to music I want you to hear the dialectical conversation the two women are having as one would listen to it sung. Does this work? Maybe, and that’s what I wanted to try.
One challenge I had in completing this given our pandemic isolation and my lack of collaborative resources was how to perform the two women’s voices, and I broke through that issue by finding and using recorded voices from a reading of the entire text of the play collected by Librivox. In the performance I used, the part of Mrs. Hale is played by Elizabeth Klett, and the part of Mrs. Peters by Arielle Lipshaw. The whole play is performed and is available here, but it’s a reading of the entire 1916 script, which includes Glaspell’s extensive stage directions which are read interspersed with the dialog.
I could go on about the things expressed in the play, the remarkably early and clear-eyed feminist analysis contained in it, but I thought my audio piece does well enough in portraying the sense of isolation that rural women of the time faced (and to some modern degree face again in our current pandemic.) There is an extensive overview of things others have noted in the “Trifles” Wikipedia page. Before leaving you to listen to our 500th audio piece I thought I’d say instead something about the music I composed for this. It’s an orchestral strings score with a female vocalese part, all of which I played via my MIDI guitar interface and little plastic keyboard. Musical mavens will note that I use simple musical devices in my orchestral stuff, and if I was high falutin I might call myself a Minimalist composer—but frankly, when exploring composition I’m naïve enough to find the simple musical materials produce results that I still find moving and effective.
I started this project thinking I might get to a nice big number of pieces combining various words with original music, like maybe 100, or dare I dream, 200. Thanks for reading and listening along the way!
Since this is the 500th piece, I decided to provide a bonus today for those that would like to listen more distinctly to the music I’ve composed by also providing a separate version without the dialog, just the instrumental music. The version with Glaspell’s words performed in a way to suggest the word-music in them, “I Know What Stillness Is,” has a player gadget below. If you don’t see the player gadget, this highlighted phrase is a link that may work to allow you to hear it.
*Glaspell later transferred the script into a short story which was titled “A Jury of Her Peers” and the piece is therefore known under two titles. Much later (in that year that read the same upside down and right side up: 1961) the somewhat revised and extended script became an episode of the TV anthology show Alfred Hitchcock Presents under the “Jury of Her Peers” title. In titling my excerpt and attempted recasting of the piece with yet a third title, I think I’m following a tradition.
**The part of Mrs. Hale was also played by Susan Glaspell in the play’s first production in Provincetown.
It occurs to me that since I’m an English speaker this project focuses on poetry in English, and though I’m an American, I do give a fair amount over to it to poetry from England itself. But that said, even when I’m not working on a translation* some of that English language poetry is written by writers for whom English is a colonial language.
Irish writers certainly lead that contingent here. If only for Mr. Yeats, this is unavoidable. English language South Asian writers have appeared here too, though South Asian musical influences on me contribute more often. Jamaican Claude McKay reminds me of the easy intersection of colonialism and racism. Afro-American writing in general, even for the native-born American, is often concerned with the issues of colonialism, since it’s more than a metaphor to say that Afro-American communities are treated as colonies in America. If I offend or irritate some white readers with that statement, let me offer this question as a small balm: to what degree does American literature and American poetry, taken as a whole, have aspects of dealing with colonialism?
Those bearded Smith Brothers of American poetic independence Longfellow and Whitman both had to plead that American subjects and American civic ideals were worthy along with their verse. Emily Dickinson didn’t seem to care that she didn’t write quite like her British influences, but to not care in one’s independence is an anti-colonialist stance inherently, isn’t it? Even into my century, Eliot and Pound got to have the immigrants’ revenge: to sit in Europe and reform poetry in English, while obscuring their Missouri and Wisconsin roots. The eventual 20th century American hegemony obscures this accomplishment, but I’ve got to hand it to those two cheeky fellows.
So, who’s left out in the former English colonies here? It seems odd that I haven’t found an in-the-public-domain Canadian to present, given that I live in Minnesota—or Baja Canada as it’s been called. A single Leonard Cohen parody doesn’t seem to be enough. Well how about Australia? Irish-New Zealander-Australian-American quadruple bank-shot Lola Ridge can’t cover all this by herself! Well, there is one other, one that I’ll present again today: Kenneth Slessor.
Does this look like a sensualist to you? Kenneth Slessor, shipboard “With my hands in my pockets and my coat collar high”
What would one have to overcome to be a Modernist Australian poet in the first half of the 20th century? As an American I can only guess. For starters, remoteness would be a significant issue. These days, when I post around midnight here in the American Midwest, folks read these posts in Australia right off in their afternoon before my North American neighbors have awakened. But 100 years ago? As an American I can suspect there was little interest in London literary circles in that time about what they might be missing in the antipodes. If the Irish, descendants of enslaved Africans and Bengalis had to worry about being seen as inferior human species, the descendants of European settlers in America and Australia had the lower but still significant prejudices that they were rubes from the sticks who didn’t know enough to do anything worthwhile.
I’m not going to say that Slessor is Yeats, Pound, or Eliot to the world, nor is he Tagore to his homeland. I said this month you might not have heard of Lola Ridge, but I’ll guess Slessor is even less well-known to world-wide English speakers. He doesn’t seem to have had a particularly interesting life. There aren’t juicy stories about who he rubbed elbows or other bodily parts with. His poetic output is modest: his career poetry collection published in Australia is 100 poems. As far as his typewriter’s mileage reports show, he was a working daily journalist for most of his life, though that includes a very important to his poetry stint as the official embedded Australian journalist to cover his country’s participation in WWII.**
I don’t know how many of his poems are as remarkable as “Sensuality.” As I’ve apologized this month, my scholarship, such as it is, includes a shocking lack of wide/deep reading. What little scholarship I’ve read on Slessor doesn’t even care much for this poem of his. I may have a bad or non-representative taste, but to me it’s a remarkable poem formally, emotionally intense, and for an apparently heterosexual middle-class male the just-as-it-says-on-the-tin sensuality of it (expressed within the Modernist manner of largely avoiding labeled emotion-words) still surprises. I suspect that’s part of the poem’s lack of esteem problem, for even if it’s entirely Modernist in it’s word-music; Imagism and the Modernism that followed most often reduces the senses to sight with a side-dish of sounds. Taste, smell, and touch are numbed. If one of the singular symptoms of Covid-19*** is that taste and smell go away, then poetry has been suffering from this for a long time. Sight seems high ruler of sense in much poetry, the intellectual sense allied with visual art, reading and higher learning. So, a poem without that seems to have failed in presenting compelling images. I joke here a lot about the patriarchal assumptions positing “lady brains” that are not up to vigorous art, and yet now I must suggest that the male sensorium of a lot of English-language poetry is lacking in being able to draw meaning in from most of the senses.
It’s been more than 10 years since I first encountered Slessor’s “Sensuality,” and the performance of it I present today is from shortly after I came upon it. Open yourself to feeling it as you read the text linked here, or listen to my performance of it with the player gadget below.
*As I am right now: one from German, one from French—as well as catching up on some overdue work with a small circle of poets who’ve read each others’ work for some decades now.
It was those other Twenties, the last ones before ours. Some people are in the streets, angry and sad in every mixture, protesting lives that will taken away by force of law. Authors Katherine Anne Porter, John Dos Passos, Edna St. Vincent Millay* are among them. Mounted police are before this ragged line of protestors who are sagging back from the horses of disaster.
Here’s Porter’s account** of a moment in that night, resurrected from her notes 50 years later for a magazine article:
One tall, thin figure of a woman stepped out alone, a good distance into the empty square, and when the police came down at her and the horse’s hoofs beat over her head, she did not move, but stood with her shoulders slightly bowed, entirely still. The charge was repeated again and again, but she was not to be driven away. A man near me said in horror, suddenly recognizing her, ‘That’s Lola Ridge!’ and dashed into the empty space toward her. Without any words or a moment’s pause, he simply seized her by the shoulders and walked her in front of him back to the edge of the crowd, where she stood as if she were half-conscious.”
That’s a remarkable story, one often recounted about Lola Ridge in our newer century, and it was my first introduction to the poet whose text I’ll present today. What might one think from this testimony about Lola Ridge? Brave, foolhardy, self-less, self-harming, committed, able to throw it all away?
Perhaps as an aesthetic choice, Ridge never smiled in her photos.
Best as I can tell, she was all these things and more. Before this event she had been born in Dublin Ireland and her family had emigrated to New Zealand while she was a child. Eventually finding herself as a young woman in a bad marriage there she fled to Australia, took up poetry and visual art, emigrated once again to the United States, first landing in San Francisco, but proceeding to New York City and the Modernist and Anarchist ferment there around the time of WWI.
She was published by and was associated with the leading Modernist publications of her time, and her poetry was firmly in the free-verse and Imagist style, but with a significant commitment to portraying poverty and urban grit . Even among her co-revolutionaries in politics and the arts she stood out then by her austere commitment to these then somewhat intermingled causes.
It’s a complicated story about why you may not have heard of Ridge, but today you’ll get to hear one of her poems performed. Titled “The Dream,” it’s easy to see it as an Imagist poem. Like so many of the Modernist movement poems it’s a charged, compressed moment told with images without a single overt statement of emotion. The uneven lines and unusual line breaks and the use of colors for adjectives are hallmarks of Imagism. The full text of “The Dream” is linked here if you’d like to read along.
“The Dream” was published in Ridge’s second book-length collection Sun Up in 1920, but I don’t know when it was written. It’s possible that it, or some version of it, might date back to her days in Australia, since Sydney harbor is mentioned. Following from its title, it can be taken as a somewhat apocalyptic or fantastic vision. Or you can take it as expression of a rough morning’s awaking. It’s also a word painting of an urban scene, and in that guise it seems to focus in on pollution. Indeed, part of it could pass for poetic reportage on the strange Australian and American skies this year after the massive forest fires.
“Air heavy…Vapor of opium…Sulphurous mist…Its sun the junk of red iron” skies after massive forest fires in the Western US and earlier this year in Australia.
I made do with a simple demo recording of the main vocal and acoustic guitar track for my presentation of “The Dream” so that I’d have time to complete the string quartet part of two violas, a violin, and a ukulele bass faking a pizzicato cello part. Real string composers and players will note how simple my parts are for the quartet. I sometimes think of my string writing as “punk-rock orchestral,” in that I hope simplicity in my technique and conception brings a certain focus on the unfussy parts of music that might still have an impact on the listener. The player gadget to hear it should be below (unless you read this on the WordPress reader for the iPhone or iPad, in which case you’ll need to switch to a browser to hear the music, or subscribe to the audio pieces via Apple Podcasts).
Let me write a post about something that I experienced recently, just like a real blog would do.
Early this month I attended a virtual symposium Sonnets from the American organized by Dora Malech and Laura T. Smith.* I’ve heard “Zoom Fatigue” is a thing now, but I found it energizing. I’m still integrating things from this experience, but here are a few preliminary things this three-day program brought forward.
There’s still a lot to be discovered out there for me. Even when I saw the listing of sessions, I came upon the subject of Fredrick Tuckerman’s poetry, a name that I’d never heard, and someone who was certainly not part of the American Lit canon in my mid-century day. I can see why he’s a fascinating subject, and the simplest thing I can say about his biography is one could quick-take him as “a male Emily Dickinson.” Similar locations, times, and period of social isolation. I’ve read a few of his sonnets, and so far they aren’t grabbing me, but then that may be me. I’ve been quite distracted as this difficult year has progressed.
Americans don’t mind messing with the sonnet form. I started writing sonnets around age 20 or so. It was the first poetry form I cottoned to, and the only one that I’ve ever practiced much. There’s something about the length of 14 lines, long enough for a contrasting pair of lyric statements, but not so long as to ask the reader to maintain the mind-meld intensity lyric poetry asks for past endurance. The venerated Petrarchan and English/Shakespearean forms have mechanisms that have been established to work, and I wrote close to the form to start. I recall writing a crown of English sonnets as a 20 year old in a barracks on a fair grounds, but mostly since then I’ve wanted to see how many variations I can create inside the 14 line form, while at the same time worrying that I was cheating by not being faithful enough to it.
In session after session I learned from scholars that Americans not only brought a different sensibility to the matter of their sonnets, but that they didn’t mind morphing the form too. And why not, after all the Elizabethans didn’t just clone the Italian form.
I’m pretty sure I’m not up to snuff as a scholar, but I like running into scholarship. Compared to any scholar (and many avid readers) I’m under-read. I’ve perhaps read more poetry than a few, but I’ve read many fewer novels than almost any serious literature person, and I’ve got lots of holes in contemporary poetry that this project doesn’t help me in remediating. And at my age, there’s also the “I read it fifty-years ago” factor. The younger scholars at the event had a reasonable retention of what they had read, perhaps more than I have read in my longer time. Is there a minimum amount of poetry one has to have read to have a significant interaction with it? I’m unsure. But what the scholars presenting at the event brought to this is new outlooks, new connections. In my modest, under-read way, this is what I try to do here.
To non-scholars who read this, if you think (perhaps put off by scholarly terminology or personal educational experiences) that scholars have dissected poetry only from corpses, the Sonnets from the American event let me see the real enthusiasms that are out there.
Just this month I’ve noticed that the Royal Holloway, University of London seems to have linked to some thing or things I’ve written here. The referrers link lets me know that folks are coming here via that institution, but the referring links are behind a staff/student login, so I don’t know what. I’m not sure if that’s a blessing. I might be embarrassed by what I wrote!
There are more light-skinned people writing about Afro-American poetry. I’m a hybrid music and poetry guy, this shouldn’t have surprised me. While this is a complex and delicate subject which cannot help but interact with wider social forces and existential injustices that this post cannot even begin to cover, in my 20th century Afro-Americans tended to write (where they had the opportunity) about current or recent generations of Afro-American music, and white writers, performers, and impresarios did a lot of the noticed work in reviving interest and applying attention to older Afro-American musical artists and forms. This is changing in the 21st century.**
Again, there can’t help but be an overlay of the American racial caste system here, but my observation, blinkered as it may be, is that this factor still exists in music scholarship and non-institutional enthusiasm.
I don’t want to give a misleading impression here. There were people of color presenting at this event and presenting important insights, but in the current isolation of my project I could think I was the only white guy whose interests in “Other Peoples Stories” included Black Americans as well as Elizabethans, Tang Dynasty Chinese, South Asians, various early Modernists, some French-speaking guys, and sundry 19th century library stack dwellers.
Since I’ve written this instead of working on new audio pieces, I’ll leave you with a piece I did last autumn, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “October.” Dunbar, the first successful Afro-American poet, emerging late in the 19th century, wrote in several styles: dialect poetry that I find hard to read and impossible to present, competent variations of late 19th century literary poetry and subjects, and a handful of poems speaking about the experience of an American Black man in an era when the promise of freedom was decaying steadily into a new era’s variation of denial of humanity. It’s those last poems, small as the number may be in his work, that he is most remembered for now. But what about this one? On the face of it, this is a harvest poem, a “happy autumn” number taking joy in the last bounty of fall.
It works entirely on that level. I’m not enough of a scholar to tell you if Dunbar ever expressed any other intent in writing it.
Now, listen to or read the poem again. Published in 1913, when large numbers of Afro-Americans were trapped in a feudal agricultural share-cropping system, where harvest’s bounty went to the white landowner and their family. I can’t unread the subtext here. My performance of Dunbar’s “October” can be heard with the player gadget you should find below.
*I found out about this symposium via writer/editor/professor Lesley Wheeler. A big thanks to her for that! Wheeler’s own presentation at the event was on sonnets with radically short lines, a variation that I hadn’t thought of or tried.
**And wait a few years, and any fresh Afro-American musical innovation will get adopted by white musicians. I’m an American musician—most of the notes are Black. This blog started out largely focusing on the early 20th century Modernist poetry revolution, part of a multi-art-form change. Fenton Johnson’s poetry and Toomer’s Cain are public domain examples of Afro-American Modernist poetic work from this era that I’ve run into so far, though maybe there are others yet for me to find. But, but, but, if one asks the question: “Where are the pre-1925 Afro-American Modernists?” all you have to do is look to poetry’s sister art music and the blind will see.
Here’s the other pole of Carl Sandburg, a prose-poem about the nature of government. It seems so far from the tight compressed Imagism of “Gargoyle” that one might wonder how it could be from the same poet. I may have a clue there, so read on, I’ll return to that thought.
But first let me note that Carl Sandburg had some unique experience to bring to this subject. This poem comes from his landmark Chicago Poems published in 1916, a collection that both established his bonafides as a Modernist poet and as a foundational writer of American proletarian poetry. But before that he’d been a first generation immigrant,* a Spanish-American War soldier, a college dropout from a no-where college, and an itinerant worker. In the first decade of the century, as he turned 30, he was working as a daily paper journalist as he began a period of political activism in Wisconsin as a Socialist party organizer. In 1910, the city of Milwaukee elected a Socialist mayor, and Carl Sandburg took a position in his city administration. He was a self-proclaimed idealist as well as an aspiring poet. In his new job in government he was ready to—well, let me quote how he remembered itin an interview in 1953:
We were to build in Milwaukee the kind of planned city which existed in some places in Germany and in other European cities where socialism had taken hold….Then came the jarred awakening. Hordes of job-seeking Socialists descended on our office wanting the crumbs of victory. They behaved just like the Republicans and the Democrats on that day when they swept into power. This was not idealism; it was the old spoils game.”
In another account he said that his first official act in the new administration was to handle a citizen’s complaint about a dead dog in an alleyway.
After two years in government, Sandburg kept with poetry but went back to Chicago and to getting his paycheck from the Fourth Estate. Thanks to Ben Hecht, a fellow Chicago newspaperman, we can sense what being a newspaper reporter in Sandburg’s Chicago era might have been like. Hecht’s play The Front Page has been made into a movie three times, with most favoring the middle version, His Girl Friday, as cinema, but the original 1931 version is most faithful to the original play and era.**
Sandburg’s “Government” may not be one of his greatest poems, but I’ve maintained that poetry (like other arts) can serve us even when it’s not some sublime act. You’ve heard me maintain that Sandburg has poems that deserve to be considered in that sublime class, but this one shows us something too.
So now that we’ve detoured in the non-aesthetic realm of politics, let me come back to that thought, however unformed, that I have about the compressed Imagist Sandburg, the one we forget or underestimate, the poet who has poems that can stand with the other Modernists in concrete and incised compression. In “Government” Sandburg, though in a prose-y and less concise manner than the Imagist Sandburg, shows government in its evil and corruption is us, human us. It seems an institution as we speak of it in tired language that poets must avoid and repair, an external thing, like a building or statue put up long before our time—or if living, a monster from the other. However impure, however damaged, our republic is; however unclean our language is; however dull, ignorant, insufficient our thoughts are; we are the blunt weapon that damaged it, we are the only tool to repair it. Blunt tools break, sharp tools repair.
Here’s my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “Government” available with a player gadget below.
*I grew up in a small Iowa farm town with substantial Swedish heritage. In my half of the 20th century I believe I may have underestimated the impact that Sandburg’s parents were immigrants, or that parts of WASP culture may have noticed this about Sandburg more than you or I might think. Last year when reading more about another under-considered Midwestern Modernist Edgar Lee Masters who crossed paths with Sandburg in Chicago, I was struck at how often Masters referred to Sandburg as a Swede/poet in a context that I believe was meant to be read as a natural incongruity, that such a coarse background could be associated with the athenaeum of poetry.
**Footnote fans, be prepared for a wild mouse of a ride in this one. In The Front Page remember how the corrupt mayor is indebted to “the black vote.” In 1915, the black vote was largely Republican, and the Chicago mayor that year was William Hale Thompson, a character that could give our 21st century President a run for his money. He survived WWI politically despite being pro-German and reflexively anti-English, and with a drain-the-swamp campaign that was working to make sure the money sump-pump went toward his pockets. He was finally voted out of office by the campaign of Anton Cermak, the most important mayor in the history of Chicago. In that campaign, Wikipedia quotes Thompson as Tweeting (well, I guess not, it’s 1931 after all—but the flavor sure sounds reminiscent of our contemporary) “I won’t take a back seat to that bohunk, Chairmock, Chermack, or whatever his name is. Tony, Tony, where’s your pushcart at? Can you picture a World’s Fair mayor with a name like that?”
So, what’d Cermak do that was so important? In 1933 Cermak took a fatal assassin’s bullet that could have hit the U. S. President-elect Franklin Roosevelt standing next to him. Regardless of who took what bribe from who, or who did a better job of expired canine disposal, or even weighed against the epic odyssey of the Afro-American migration to urban centers, the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 would have likely changed America and the world’s history immensely.
By way of footnote dénouement, I’ll note that Cermak’s son-in-law Otto Kerner chaired the commission that was charged with evaluating the urban riots of The Sixties. Read this linked article for a sense of what was said then, and then consider Sandburg’s words in his great poem “I Am the People, the Mob:” “When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: ‘The People,’ with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.”
I said last time that the Midwestern American poet Carl Sandburg is not often thought of as an Imagist when we recount the Modernist revolution in poetry. Indeed, I get the impression that his work as a whole is summarized as folksy/clumsy by academia, the efforts of a low-fi Modernist with middlebrow pretensions to real artistic innovation.
I wonder if some of this is an unexamined hold-over from the High Modernists who made a cult of academic culture and credentials in the mid-20th century. Sandburg certainly intended to be a Modernist and wrote thoroughgoing Imagist poems. And yes, he can present himself in a friendly, non-pretentious way in some of his poetry. T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound rarely seem to welcome in the casual reader, Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams may puzzle us on first encounter. Amy Lowell will let us know this is salon-worthy art. E. E. Cummings may charm us in a playful way while still remaining elusive. Marianne Moore likes the seemingly earnest statement, but when I try to absorb an entire poem I’m often at sixes and sevens.
Sandburg can seem a bit too straightforward. Which he’s not, or at least not always. Williams can have his red wheelbarrows and plums, Pound his wet petal Metro pedestrians, and we understand this is willful simplicity in the context of their more elaborated work. Poor Sandburg. He’s misunderstood for being thought understood. Understood too quickly perhaps.
Here’s an example of a poem that hardly seems like Sandburg at all. If I presented it, unattributed, as translated from the French it might seem Surrealist, but it was published in 1917 before Surrealism was a movement. Even at the time I was performing it, I had only been able to absorb it as a sensation, and I’m not sure yet if I could paraphrase it even now. Here’s the link to the poem’s text if you’d like to follow along. It seems to be a poem about violence and strife, about suffering and infliction of suffering. Is the poem’s gargoyle war, Moloch, capitalism, the demonized exploited, or the demon exploiter?
Is it possible that Sandburg intended this ambiguity? The sensation of this poem is so strong, yet it doesn’t seem easy to solve into a one-to-one allegory. One could use Orwell’s famous decades-later statement as a gloss on this poem:
If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
Two things ground this poem, and Imagism wanted to be grounded, not intellectually abstract. First is the gargoyle, which was a commonplace building ornament in Sandburg’s Chicago, secondary to the beau arts style popularized by the 1893 Worlds Fair there and to the widespread availability of immigrant stone carvers in the city. Gargoyles are ugly and often open-mouthed,* as this poem’s gargoyle is.
But Sandburg’s poem subject is metal, which is not impossible—there are cast metal gargoyles. I’m no expert on metalwork trades, but the actions described in the poem sound like hot metal riveting. Is the “gargoyle” some metal construction which is having red hot molten rivets being pounded into holes one after another?
A riveting video? Maybe not for everyone, but a few minutes of watching will show how a four-person team works together in hot metal riveting
Or is this poem’s subject a child’s nightmare? After all, twice Sandburg wants us to know a child could visualize this.
So, an elusive work, but the horror certainly comes through. My performance is straightforward, just acoustic guitar and bass. Sort of a folk song, if the kind of folks you hang around with like Michael Hurley. The player is below.
*They are sometimes functional downspouts, designed not just as ornament, but as a way to direct roof rain water away from the building and it’s foundation. Gargoyle as a word is derived from the French for gullet, or throat.
Today Emily Dickinson is going to show us how not to write a poem—and how to make it work anyway.
This piece combines two different poems she wrote: “Forever—is composed of Nows” and “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act” in a way that I hope lets each poem reflect on each other. Both speak about time and the universe’s track along it, and that’s part of Dickinson’s substantial task as the poet here: these things are abstract. The Modernist experiment, which Dickinson in many ways presages, would generally try to represent even the most abstract, contradictory, and elusive things as images, palpable things. When that tactic works, it lets us find a shape, a sensual feeling, a weight and color to things we otherwise cannot behold.
Dickenson can do that. Forgotten Imagist Carl Sandburg* even called her an Imagist, just as Imagism’s call to Modernism was emerging a few decades after Dickinson’s death and posthumous publication. But here, in these poems, she predominantly avoids that tactic.
I can think of a few reasons she might do what she does in these poems. If you’d like to follow along, here are links to the text of “Forever..” and to “Crumbling…”
First, she received a science education. This may seem odd, even though some time back we learned that Percy Bysshe Shelley, the uber-romantic poet knew how to calculate the distance between the Sun and the Earth, but Emily Dickinson was a woman as well as a poet in Shelley’s 19th century. Science? My 21st century child goes to a high school with a substantial STEM program. “It’s all guys, and they act like it too” is the report about the Engineering class here in 2020. But in Emily’s New England, science, the humble mechanics of the universe, was actually considered a safe subject for the hampered female brain. Politics, theology, fine arts would all be fields walled off from women anyway, but they were also considered inappropriate for the lady-brain.
The second is that she grew up in a household steeped in the legal profession. Her father, her grandfather, and her brother were all prominent lawyers. Though I’m not a full-fledged Dickinson scholar by a long-ways, I’m not aware that this substantial fact is much discussed as potentially formative in how Dickinson saw and thought about things. Yet, here by her poetry we can see that she was possessed of a mighty intellectual engine, one whose genetic blueprints and environment would be tailored to express things as lawyers might: in sharply defined abstract legalities.
Lastly, 19th century poetry was comfortable with abstraction of the sort she exhibits here, though few could match her compression of expression. We still use much abstract rhetoric in general discussion, but our poets generally recognize the danger of taking the specific vividness out of verse.
In the first piece of our dual Dickinson presentation today, she makes a statement about the nature of time: that it cannot be experienced relatively other than as an infinite series of nows. She cannot find a physical image for this, and so uses abstract scientific and legal language to describe this mystery: “Composed…Infiniteness…latitude…remove…dates…dissolve…exhale,” and the near-enough Latin of “Anno Dominies.” This, the language of a contract or scientific paper. That said, a phrase like “Years—exhale in Years” is palpable.
The second piece, “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act,” could be read as a tiny summary lecture on entropy. In the middle stanza of this three-stanza poem (‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul…An Elemental Rust,”) Dickinson moves from abstract summary to imagery, but even here, her knowledge of botany, both empirical and academic, is deployed. “Cuticle” is not some chat over a manicure—it’s a distinct feature of plants. “Borers” and “rust” likewise would be familiar to Emily as the dedicated gardener of the Dickinson household.
Emily Dickinson, science nerd:. Hosta’s cuticle protects it from dust, Dickinson’s self-made herbarium scientifically categorized a host of plants, and Rudolf Clausius considers entropy and whether to grow a mustache or not
The concept of entropy was only first posited in 1850, and I don’t know if Dickinson had any access to discussions of what would have been a fresh scientific concept. Some read “Crumbling is not an instant’s act” as a reaction to medical or psychological issues Dickinson was personally facing rather than musings on the formal structure of ruin and the universe’s law of return to equilibrium. That reading works too. This old guy may not study thermodynamics, but I can personally recognize the states in this poem without measuring instruments or a blackboard of equations.
If you or I were to try to write either of these poems, we’d risk failure. Our abstractions might seem enervated, while the compressed energy of Emily Dickinson carries me through her argument, even where one cannot follow its intellectual thrust easily. In the middle of these abstract arguments, in the second stanza of each three-stanza poem, Dickinson lets in enough imagery to pull us in.
It may seem odd, now, in this month, as the nation stands at a crossroads to present these two poems today. Frankly, as I looked for any poem in the public domain that wouldn’t seem beside the point or merely pander to it, I failed.
Dickinson wrote in the midst of the greatest crisis, moral and physical, that our nation ever faced. In 1963, in a critical year of struggle against Afro-American civic oppression, John Coltrane released four records. In 1863, in the midst of the turning point year of the American Civil War, Emily Dickinson wrote 295 poems. Coltrane was a musician, not a poet or singer. I can’t fault him for not giving us words when he gave us “Alabama” and “A Love Supreme.” Emily Dickinson’s poet’s words don’t address the Civil War directly, we can even doubt that she understood the situation of Afro-Americans and slavery’s advocates significantly, however sharp and searching her mind was. So, check your privilege Emily? Sure. But her poetry is about—no not just about, is —freedom, a searching, seeing mind. Our caring hearts take us partway there. Our minds must journey too.
In combining these two poems I wanted to put them in a context that rings for me, in our present moment, however abstractly. We are in our forever nows, as we always are. Ruin is not a now, but a formal process, consecutive and slow.
Thank you for reading and listening. The player to hear my performance of two poems by Emily Dickinson should appear below.
*In looking for the next piece here I must have read or re-read over a hundred Carl Sandburg poems this past week. He’s often remembered as the 20th century’s first great inheritor of Walt Whitman, with great spanning catalogs of Americana in rambling free verse. But early Carl Sandburg is full of attempts and successes at concise Imagist poems that work like his contemporary pre-High Modernism Imagists’ poems did.
Is he joining me in celebrating National Poetry Month? Last week Bob Dylan released a new song called “I Contain Multitudes.” It’s pretty good, mixing the elegiac mood and the bittersweet blues. Like Dylan’s other new release, “Murder Most Foul” from earlier in the month, folks quickly swept through the lyrics to collect and note the allusions. They found that “I Contain Multitudes” has literary references mixed in with the musician and cultural touchstones. Poets William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe get name-checked.
But for some reason, the main poetic link Dylan seems to intend was missed in most of the early write-ups I read. The song’s refrain, which also supplies the title, is a line from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” We’re going to fix that today.
Over the years of this project I probably haven’t presented enough Whitman. He’s the indispensable ice-breaker of poetic Modernism, even for those that didn’t attempt to closely follow his style. By writing in free verse with no set line length, irregular meter, and no need to make the rhyming word, he freed poetry to be infinitely expansive and did for poetic music what Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane did for instrumental music. Once this idea of freedom was demonstrated, any number of other Modernist approaches eventually developed, some of which don’t directly bring Whitman to mind as a model, though that doesn’t mean that they didn’t benefit from his revolution.* And some subsequent writers did show the influence of Whitman’s characteristic word-music: Carl Sandburg, John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Allen Ginsburg. Stop for a minute: all three of those writers—all examples where one can trace the lineage of Whitman easily—are influences on the language and expression of Bob Dylan. Whitman, like Dylan, loves the wide-ranging catalog, the linking of things plain and exotic, the workman’s comment and the sage’s koan.
So maybe it was time for Bob to give a nod to Walt—and for me to do so too.
I’ve chosen today to present the last two numbered poems in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Besides the “I contain multitudes” line, this selection also includes some other of Whitman’s most famous proclamations: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself,” “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” and “Look for me under your boot-soles.”
Barbaric Yawp in action: “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Well, maybe if you take off the hat and remove your shirt Walt.
Although I approach Dylan’s age, yet somewhat in arrears, I’m not going for the old-man lope of Dylan’s recent songs today.** No. It’s time to rawk! My personal index-thought as I composed, arranged, and started to perform this was “Whitman as if done by Iggy*** and the Stooges.” As with many of my index-thoughts in this project, I missed the mark, but that’s OK, maybe I came close to the bulls-eye of another target nearby. Since I long for the sound of a loose and loud rock band in these days of social distance, I tried to make one myself for this piece, even attempting to duplicate the kind of thing my LYL Band partner Dave Moore might have played on piano when that was possible. My shelter in place partner Heidi Randen kicked in some backing vocals on the chorus. It took me to this morning to get a time when I could crank a guitar amp to get the feedback and speaker interaction for the Ron Ashton-style guitar solo, which I scheduled between my high-schooler’s interactive telelearning sessions.
As always, the next audio piece will likely be different than this one, so check back (or hit “follow”) to see what the Parlando Project does next during National Poetry Month.