Songs of a Girl II

I’ve mentioned I’m reading a couple of memoirs that cover the early 20th Century Modernist era in America this month. At some point there may come a post here directly about them — which this isn’t — but in one of these memoirs, Troubadour,  its author Alfred Kreymborg is discussing the launch of his crucial American Modernist poetry magazine Others.*   He writes that his initial goal in starting Others  was to publish Mina Loy** and William Carlos Williams, but as he and his main backer discuss their first issue, the initial work of selection is described as including Loy, but then another poet: Mary Carolyn Davies. Indeed, when the first issue of Others  arrives in the summer of 1915, the first poet presented is Mary Carolyn Davies and a version of her collection of short pieces called “Songs of a Girl.”***   Davies work directly precedes in Others’  first number the debut of Mina Loy’s set of longer “Love Songs,”  the series of caustic love poems which introduced Loy’s indelible image of “Pig Cupid.”

Mary Carolyn Davies

One of the few pictures of Davies

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In memoirs when I come upon a writer I’ve never heard of, a “I should at least check briefly on who they were, what they did” research reflex is triggered in me. “What? Not even a Wikipedia stub entry!” was one return on that. Just how obscure is this author? I’d say we know more about Davies than we know about Sappho, and less than we know about any other author that was published in Others  just a hundred years ago. Dates of her birth and death are not clearly known. The former somewhere in the 1880’s or early 1890s, and the later as wide as 1940 and 1974.  She grew up in the American Northwest, and this short Oregon Historical Society entry has the longest biographic note I’ve found. Her work was presented not just in Others,  but by the Provincetown Players too, giving some evidence that she was connected somehow with the bohemian New York City area avant guard in the early 20th century, but she’s also said to have published in a variety of mainstream publications, perhaps to keep the pot boiling.

Mary Carolyn Davies Play

This is Davies’ play which was performed with music by Kreymborg at the Provincetown Playhouse in NYC. Read this link for this  intriguing description of it. Now, to give some contrasting sense of what her potboiler work may have entailed, this hit recording with a Parlando recitation may have been from a published poem of Davies. Per the Oregon Historical Society bio, about this time Davies would have been destitute in NYC when this 1942 record was on the hit parade. The bestial creature with the whip in Davies’ playbill? The character’s name is Life!

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Some have compared Davies to Edna St. Vincent Millay, who of course is vastly better known. Encountered in a vacuum, Davies’ “Songs of a Girl II”  could be taken for Millay, and particularly with today’s piece, as a more explosive take on Millay’s famous “First Fig”  short poem published several years later.

In our time, I could casually compare “Songs of a Girl”  to modern “Instagram Poets” what with “Songs of a Girl’s”  short pieces and public intimacy.

Those who’ve read this blog over the years know I’m often fascinated by such mysteries, with those “Flowers [that] fail in wood — Or perish from the Hill” that Emily Dickinson wrote of. How widely or narrowly interesting is Davies’ work? I don’t know yet, but for about a minute and a half you can consider one tiny bit of it as I perform “Songs of a Girl II”  using the player below. If you don’t see the player gadget, you can also use this highlighted hyperlink to hear the performance.

*Here’s the Wikipedia entry for Others.  The contributors that wrote that want to make a strong case for the social and sexual radicalism of Others  in 1915. I don’t know enough to say if they overstate that case, but with Kreymborg’s determination to publish American Modernist work he was  pushing boundaries out every which way. Other important and sometimes longer-lived publications that included Modernists, like the Chicago based Poetry,  mixed in more conventional verse, while Others  stayed true to its credo: “The old expressions are with us always, and there are always others.”

**Mina Loy was once nearly as forgotten as Davies, but in this century her work has been re-examined and found by many who do that to be extraordinarily vital.

***I am unsure at this point what the entire contents of Davies’ “Songs of a Girl”  was intended to contain. There appear to be at least three differing collections that can be found under this title and author — all of them sets of short pieces without individual titles, each set off by Roman numerals. In one, today’s piece is “II,” and in another it’s “III” in a series titled “Later Songs,”  while in the 1915 publication in Others,  today’s short bit doesn’t appear at all. The version I saw first and used when preparing my piece today was in the 1917 The New Poetry  anthology edited by Harriet Monroe.

Perhaps Davies intended Songs of a Girl  to be like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, an all-encompassing and evolving statement?

Jazz Fantasia, a pioneering work of Jazz Poetry

This Friday is International Jazz Day, and for a project that subtitles itself “Where Music and Words Meet,” it’s a little odd that I talk less about the musical half of what we do. My project assumes that poetry, even on the page, can be defined as words that want to sing. What manner of tune fulfills that desire? It varies.

Early in this project it became apparent that I was going to feature a lot of early 20th century verse as it was the newest poetry that was clearly available for reuse. This was the time when literary Modernism came to English language poetry, greatly expanding the tactics that could be applied to poetry, and it came in too with an idea that much of what had become expected of poetry was tired and worn out, inauthentic and false.

Almost simultaneously, a very similar movement was happening in music. Though largely segregated from European Modernist composers in person, Afro-Americans were developing at the turn of the century a twisted helix of musics that came to be called Blues and Jazz. Differentiating between those two things is a complex matter. Blues is a nearly inescapable element of Jazz, and Blues is more substantially a vocal music, and so Blues needed a poetry from the start. That means that Blues song lyrics are the Modernist revolution as originally expressed by American Black people, though because of their context and place in American culture this was not understood as such. Like Modernist poetry, Jazz and Blues too demonstrated freedom to use new tactics, and they too wanted to replace tired and false musical tropes.

Poets, even those who intend for their work to be published and read on the page, can’t help but be informed by the music they know and admire. Earlier this month I’ve speculated on Emily Dickinson’s use of 19th century hymn-song meter and a possible connection for her deviation from strict poetic forms informed by her own improvisations on piano. By 1920 we had a Modernist Jazz music coming to America’s attention, and literary Modernist verse, though not without its naysayers, had reached an American audience too. It’s like flame and gasoline, isn’t it? When are they going to meet?

I can’t say what the first Jazz Poem was, or who wrote it. If it was composed by an Afro-American it may have been unnoticed, unpublished, and unrecorded (save by the oral tradition and the folk process which didn’t keep their names). Some of the traditional folk-blues lyrics seem to date from the turn of the century, but they were not printed as poetry then — and even as vocal recordings, the oft-cited first blues record, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,”  dates from 1920.*  The recording history of Jazz predates that a bit, with the all-white but still claiming “Original” Dixieland Jass Band’s broadly comic “Livery Stable Blues”  coming out in 1917, and that’s sometimes cited as the earliest Jazz record. Two poems already featured here: Ray Dandridge’s “Zalka Peetruza”  and Fenton Johnson’s The Banjo Player”  were available in 1922 for James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry.**   The former’s “tom tom” beat and the later’s Modernist free verse could make them Jazz Poetry. Some articles cite Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues”  of 1925 as the first Jazz Poem, and it is unquestionably a Jazz Poem, but even Langston Hughes had some issues to overcome with it. Back in our February focus on Locke’s The New Negro  anthology of 1925, recall that the elders mentoring and gatekeeping The Harlem Renaissance weren’t yet welcoming Jazz into high culture and were unsure of its effect on their project to elevate America’s appreciation of their race.



No, not that Prince’s band. A 1915 example of proto-Jazz and Blues being integrated into society dance music.

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Which brings us to the underrated Modernist figure of Carl Sandburg,***  the white Midwesterner who had won the Pulitzer prize for his free-verse poetry in 1919 while being based in Chicago. In 1920 he publishes a follow-up collection, Smoke and Steel containing today’s poem called “Jazz Fantasia.”   This too is clearly Jazz Poetry. It appears to be portraying an instrumental performance, and while unlike Hughes’ poem it quotes no Blues lyrics, it’s clearly a Jazz performance with its imitation of horn sounds, the husha, husha, hush of brush work on the high hat, and their sandpaper swish on the snare, the tin can of cowbell, and the knocking pan-metal ring of stick hitting rim.

If not Blues form as such, two details from Sandburg’s 1920 words (here’s a link to the full text of the poem) stand out to me. Half-way in, there’s a car, a cop, and… “bang-bang!” Striking to hear a still modern pain in a 100-year-old poem isn’t it! And the poem’s conclusion makes a case for the breadth of Jazz expression infrequently made in the fad for Jazz during the Jazz Age: that it wasn’t only frantic music with comic musical effects suitable for careless youth further forgetting their cares, but that it could also portray some green night lanterns and the boats ceaselessly beating against the current.

It was imperative to me that today’s musical performance for International Jazz Day must use some approximation of Jazz. I play no brass instruments and I find them hard to approximate with virtual instruments articulated by keyboards, so you’ll hear an anachronistic, more modern, Jazz trio: drums as featured in Sandburg’s poem, guitar, and bass. The player gadget for this may appear below — and if it doesn’t, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my performance of Sandburg’s “Jazz Fantasia.”


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*In 1903, Afro-American composer W. C. Handy encountered a Blues playing guitarist in Tutwiler Mississippi, noted he was singing a Blues song with recognizable Blues lyrics. He thought the music was “The weirdest thing he’d ever heard” but by smoothing it off and adopting it to the composed brass band and society dance music he was familiar with, he made use of those Blues elements.

**Other examples of Jazz Poetry influenced writers I’ve managed to sneak in here are Kenneth Patchen who read to Jazz music, Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka, a poet who also wrote widely about Jazz, and even words by Laurie Anderson who was influenced by fellow Chicagoan Ken Nordine who had released several LP records he called “Word Jazz.” The music on Laurie Anderson’s recordings doesn’t read as Jazz to most, but focus instead on her voice and you’ll hear that same ‘50s cool jazz phrasing.

***I often make the case here that Sandburg’s poetry contains some admirable examples of the compressed and spare Imagist aesthetic, but besides poetry he’s intimate with the rise of photography as an art via his wife’s brother Edward Steichen, he was reportedly the first daily newspaper cinema critic in Chicago, and he was an important popularizer of American folk music.

And speaking of Langston Hughes achievement, Hughes’ early poetry often sounds unmistakably to me like he had “heard” Sandburg and taken some of his riffs into his own heart to be further extended by Hughes’ personal familiarity with the Afro-American experience.

Sail-Moon-Sheep

Here’s a piece celebrating our Spring springing forward that’s also appropriate for America’s celebration of Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s Day. It consists of three short poems by the Irish poet Joseph Campbell.* I put them together as I think they somehow increase their individual power presented that way. I call the combination “Sail-Moon-Sheep.”

Sail Moon Sheep art by Joseph Campbell

Campbell was also an artist. Here are his own illustrations for the three poems I used today: “Sail Answers Sail,” “The Moon,” and “Sheep.”

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Campbell is one of the more fascinating discoveries I’ve made while doing this project. As far as I can tell he’s largely unknown in the United States, even though he spent some time here between the World Wars. And while it’s harder for me to assay his position in Irish arts and culture, he doesn’t seem to be highly esteemed and remembered there either.

What draws me to present him then? First, he seems to be an early Modernist poet, who writes in a mode those pioneers used — one that I think bares reconsidering today: short poems that present charged emotional states by physical description while eschewing both tired conventional metaphors or overly elaborate original imagery. A hundred years ago there was a name for this kind of writing. It was called Imagism. It rose as a force in opposition to established literary styles, flourished briefly attracting both writers we still celebrate and even some not-inconsiderable popular interest, and then was largely discarded for further evolutions of Modernism.

Campbell didn’t always write in this style, but he did so often enough for me to have work to present here. I’m not sure exactly where or when he picked up this mode of poetic expression. Today’s pieces are from a 1917 poetry collection of his called Earth of Cualann,  a year when Imagism would have been in more common currency as a poetic style, but he seems to have used it occasionally before 1910 when he might well have been independently inventing it — or he could have had some as yet undiscovered connection to the small pre-WWI Anglo-American group in London that would give the Imagist style a name.

Boat Moon Sheep in Chinese Ideograms

Chinese ideograms for sail (or rather, boat), moon, and sheep (though more at goat I gather). Some of Campbell’s poems seem to me to work very much like classical Chinese poetry too.

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Secondly, he is like Yeats, intimately involved in the Irish cultural renaissance** that was an engine driving to Irish political independence. Indeed, in that second event he seems even more involved, perhaps to the detriment of his poetic career.***   My 20th century brought forward many anti-colonialist artists, but America has it’s own colonialism (both internal and external) and English language eloquence on these matters may be useful to us. Often when reading Campbell I think that aside from some simple translations of particulars I could be reading a poem by someone of American-Indigenous heritage and culture. Campbell’s connection to nature and his native landscape is deep and inescapable.

If one reads a book of Campbell’s poems, this repeated connection to the landscape and its history is so deep that it’s impossible to not think of it as an Imagist expression of a spiritual or religious feeling**** in the poems, even where that is not overtly mentioned. I know next-to-nothing of Campbell’s religious beliefs. Catholic Christianity is sometimes invoked, and at other times a Neo-Pagan-like stance seems to be displayed.

Well, it’s so like this project to say a whole lot about three very short poems from Campbell’s Earth of Cualann  that I present in the expectation that they hang together as a portrait of Spring, and then a Spring in a nation in need of renewal. It’s an Irish man’s depiction, and let us celebrate that too, but perhaps I’ve opened you to some further ways to consider that.

A player gadget should appear below to hear my performance of these three Campbell poems if you’re reading this in most full-fledged browsers — but some blog readers and reading views will not show the player. Then, this highlighted hyperlink will also allow you to hear the performance. I also normally provide a link for those of you that want to read the text along with or instead of the audio performance, but Campbell is so obscure that most of his poems are not available on the Internet so that I can link them. In place of that, here is a link to several book-length collections of Campbell’s work available at the invaluable Internet Archive. May Spring renew us all!

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*As I must always say when mentioning his name — no, not that  Joseph Campbell — this is another man who also used a Gaelic name Seosamh MacCathmhaoil.

**It would not surprise me if the instigators of the Afro-American Harlem Renaissance featured here last month were not aware of the power of Irish elevation of Irish art, history, artists, and culture as a pre-requisite to self-determination as well as a significant argument for their value as citizens. And in other anti-colonialist cross-pollination: consider the mutual admiration of Rabindranath Tagore and William Butler Yeats, or Gandhi’s example to Martin Luther King.

***Imprisonment and exile, for two examples, were involved. Knowing a little now of some of the impassioned factions even among and between the Irish Nationalists, I fear finding out more of Campbell’s actual political beliefs, alliances, and possible revolutionary actions. It’s also plausible that it may have reduced his stature in Irish literature, as political opponents divided by violence often are unconcerned with merely literary merits.

****Remember, Imagism expects there to be few, if any, overt use of words naming emotions or reactions to what it is depicting. It expects — and when it works, it may even compel — the reader or listener to supply their own internal emotional reaction and impact from the poem’s description of a charged moment.

Monotone

I love me some early short-form Carl Sandburg. Oh, I can enjoy him in his lengthy Whitmanesque catalog mode and I surely appreciate his too little recognized work in forging what we more recently call Americana, but in much of his early work he’s writing in a mode that people often forget. It’s similar to some of the other early Modernists before the High Modernist style absorbed that revolution and used it to make a complex and literary bureaucracy of allusions and images that were more showy and complex on the surface.

If you have a moment, look at “Monotone,”  a nine-line poem, linked here. How easy it would be to overlook this poem. There’s no exotic words or settings, and the images seem to risk falling into the banal. What’s there? A rainfall, a sunrise and a sunset. If most of us were to put those as the major images in a poem, our poems would likely fail to seem unique in any worthwhile way, or we’d stress and strain to make them unique. I myself might reach for the surreal or the odd detail because I would think I was otherwise making a poem with no worthwhile freshness. And perhaps Sandburg fails in that way for some readers here. What is he risking that failure to convey?

In these nine lines he wants to write a love poem of the least common kind. Poems of desire, poems of the kind of overthrow of the senses and proportion that new love brings, poems of enchantment with possibility—those are legion. And they’re worthwhile. Love and desire, like other visionary states, illuminate things we are otherwise unable to believe. Some of those things are true and some are false, some are the painful disguised as beautiful. They proclaim for us to give ourselves and give up ourselves.

Sandburg’s “Monotone”  isn’t that. It’s a lyric poem of a long-time relationship. Even its title dares to be unexciting. Monotone word-wise is near enough to monotony, and musically who would be attracted to a piece that claims that as its title?

The poem’s opening image makes an argument for musical monotone. A rainstorm has no melodic invention, but if listened to without seeking that quality and being disappointed that it lacks this, it has dynamics of volume and rhythm. Listen to what’s there, not to what’s missing  the first stanza asks of us, and we’ll find the “multitudinous rain.” This is not a showy stanza, but since multitudinous is by far the least common word in the poem, that one ornament stands out all the more. Even if one remembers only those two words “multitudinous rain,” one can carry it with ourselves and experience rain in new ways while thinking on that phrase on some grey and otherwise unappealing day.

Is the second stanza banal? If you think so I can’t give you an argument that’ll refute you. Yes, the sun on the hills is beautiful, and sunset over seas too. Thank you very much Carl Obvious Sandburg, but why have you wasted our time with those three lines about what everyone has already noticed. What value might they have? Well, for one they are  common. Carl Sandburg is fully baptized in the belief of a common humanity, so the fact that he states what we all know isn’t quite the sin that another artist might abhor. What Sandburg does with these commonplaces is to let us know there’s something we still don’t know about them, even when we think they’re too prosaic to have anything yet to perceive. In those few words in the second three-line stanza there is the notion that the sunset (precious, golden fire) is captured by the cold sea. So easy to overlook if we read it like a prose paragraph, assuming only quick utility. If one had to translate this from a foreign language, if this was written in Chinese ideograms, perhaps we’d slow down and see this. The beautiful in the guise of the desired, is captured, is quenched, rises and sets.

Now the third, three-line stanza concludes this book of changes, bringing synthesis to the previous two. Beholding one’s long-time partner, one sees the multitudinous monotone rain and  the moments of passion or anger, unease or loss, joined. With the “Monotone”  title at the head and the ending line I read that sunny mountain scene and picture postcard sea-sunset of the second stanza as being measured against a rarer and more precious multitudinous rain of long-love.

With this simple concise expression of a complex feeling, the poem requests you to see that. In 1916 when this was published in Sandburg’s Chicago Poems  its very simplicity was still audacious, and that itself made the case for this poem. In a generation or so it would seem to not be trying hard enough to capture our attention. While poetry was free to leave strict meter and reliable rhyme schemes behind, it had returned to an aesthetic of surface complexity equaling merit.

Carl and Lillian Sandburg by Edward Steichen

Espoused. Carl and Lillian Sandburg around the time “Monotone” was published. Photograph by Lillian’s brother, the photographer Edward Steichen. Earlier, inn 1908 Sandburg wrote “I would rather be a poem like you than write poems,” but we got the multitudinous rain of his poetry anyway.

 

A few words on the musical setting before I remind you that you can click on the player gadget to hear my performance of Sandburg’s “Monotone.”  As I composed this I was concentrating more on timbre and less on melody. The dominant keyboard sound in the piece is a complex combination of a grand piano with every bit of string resonance brought forward, an electric piano, and a keyboard piano bass (that last a sound mostly known from Ray Manzarek’s playing with the Doors). It’s kind of the idea of the “Hard Day’s Night”  chord being used throughout the piece. this is another composition where it would probably be better if I wasn’t the vocalist who sings it, but that’s who I have available. Listen to it with the gadget below.

 

The Entire “The Fire Sermon” from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

Part of the ongoing adventure of doing this project over the years has been the performance of a section of the English Modernist poetic landmark “The Waste Land”  each April as part of our celebration of National Poetry Month. So far I’ve done three large sections, one each year.

My first preference in this has been to separate these larger “Waste Land”  sections into smaller pieces, lasting 2 to 6 minutes to match the usual length of other audio pieces here, but then each year as a “previously, on ‘The Waste Land”  recap I also present a combined audio file of the whole section that I’d done the previous April.

That means it’s time to present the third and longest section of Eliot’s poem, “The Fire Sermon.”  That’s a sizeable chunk of stuff just from the weighty nature of Eliot’s long poetic threnody on the disillusionment of post-WWI western civilization, his own experience of depression, and search for spiritual and cultural consolation—but I also wanted to fully combine my experience of it with the entire range of musical expression that I’ve used here over the years, which means that I haven’t tried to hurry things along in order to stuff “The Waste Land”  squirming and squealing into a smaller sack.

So, today’s rollup of the whole Fire Sermon section is about the length and experience of an entire vinyl LP record’s side, just a bit less than 21 minutes long. What kind of LP would it be then? Perhaps it’s the second side of a “Progressive Rock” album where the band is going to stretch out in a linked suite. At one time that seemed a fresh thing for the popular music consumer from The Sixties, who had been primed by a few years of short 3-minute singles that were masterpieces of varied kinds of expression. Could one group weave that variety themselves? Could these shorter pop music forms become movements like longer orchestral music made use of?

Lets listen to some LPs

Long ago people playing long playing records. The merman in the lower left mixes expansive rock with Blonde on Blonde and Lenny Bruce’s caustic spoken word take on sex and the culture, which may not be to far off today’s slab of vinyl.

 

Of course these cycles were, are, cyclical. Less than a decade later the short sharp stab of 3 minutes of squall in a singular mode was back in hip style again. And now? Perhaps we’re progressive suite makers clicking in Spotify or Apple Music, or consumers of Peel-ing playlists in our each streaming perfumed garden of earbuds.

In these we lose this once particular 20-minute-magic. For today’s piece “The Entire Fire Sermon”  was created in one period of time, and not just by one group of musicians, but by one person. I wrote the music, played all the instruments, and recorded it myself to create this. I don’t say this to brag*—it was more a matter of practicality—but to call your attention to an essential part of this, as it’s an essential part of “The Waste Land.”  All the voices, all the modes of expression in that poem are played by T. S. Eliot. The men. The women. Tiresias, the at-least-sometimes narrator who is both genders. Yes, there are elements of memoir as poetry in this; yes, there are places where Eliot’s representing himself, his particular culture, the early 20th century man who went from growing up white upper middle class in St Louis to Harvard to France to London before he was 30. If Tiresias is a prophet, he is also blind and cursed by error. Eliot has all these things in him too, just as you or I do.

“The Waste Land”  is a harrowing work. If Keats hopes art, as his urn, is a “friend to man,” this friend Eliot made is telling you about the parts of life where hope has to struggle to come out. This section, like other parts of “The Waste Land”  has a reputation for misogyny. In my current reading of it, I’m relieved to not have to figure out a way around that, because I don’t share that reading, even if it may be part of the artist. What it is, particularly here and in the previous section, is the complete opposite of sex-positive. There is absolutely no joy or consolation in desire. Sex acts are referenced, but there’s no love made or even pleasure, only bad deals on unequal terms.

Since I’m asking to take up 20 minutes of your time to listen to “The Entire Fire Sermon”  I’m not going to say more about “The Waste Land”  today. If you’ve come here for homework help or because you have a nagging question about “what’s that thing on about” these sites will help with notes on the many, many references in this poem that is in effect sampling and collaging dozens of myths and other works: here, here, here, and here. And last spring, in March and April, I wrote about the individual sections as I presented them anyway.

Another way to experience it is to just let it wash over you as the dirty water of an urban river. Relax between your speakers, put your headphones/ear buds on and let it flow until the side ends. You drop the needle by clicking on the player gadget below. I’ll be back soon with some shorter work by another poet from St. Louis.

 

 

*Listening back to it as I made this combined file today, I am reasonably proud of what I did with the music, though I the composer wish I the performer was a more skilled singer.

To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train

Continuing on with lyric poetry, that short form of compressed immediacy, here’s a poem that seems to be better known in Britain that it is here: Frances Cornford’s “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train”  first published in 1910.

I think it illustrates one of the things about good lyric poetry of the Imagist* type: it may be right or it may be wrong, but it’s always true. Almost immediately this poem was recognized as “wrong” by many (most?) readers. It could, and was, easily seen as unfeeling, or an expression of cruelty to the extent it has implied feeling. How the hell does the poet on the train know anything about that fat white lady in gloves? Early responses seemed to dislike the compression they read as glibness; more current readers see haughty fat-shaming.

Good lyric  poetry of the Imagist type: it may be right or it may be wrong, but it’s always true.

I haven’t found anywhere where Cornford wrote about her intent with this poem. Given that she lived a long life and this poem became her best-known one, she must have said or written something, but lacking that I’m left to react to the text itself.

The objectionable is the poem’s third line. If the poem did not include it, I doubt any significant number of readers would dislike the poem. Let’s look again at that line: “O fat white woman whom nobody loves.”

If that was a social media post today, one can see the storm breaking rapidly. It sounds like it’s “kicking down” doesn’t it? Our graceless current President could easily tweet this line at someone who disapproved or challenged him, and regardless of one’s political stance, his demeaning meaning would be clear. But even in this short poem that stands alone with no testimony from its author, context may change how we read it.

What’s changed since 1910? “Fat” stands in a strange place in our culture currently. There are elements that regard it as somewhere between a sinful sign and a regrettable disease, but also strong elements that wish to make fat-shaming disreputable. Our general agreement, best as I can read it, is to allow “fat,” like curse words, as something we allow or forgive when we feel the subject it’s applied to has wronged us sufficiently, but not something we should throw around willy-nilly, particularly at strangers. But how damning and diminishing was “fat” in 1910?

Much less I think. First off, let’s look at the U.S. President in that year. A crude reading of the culture for sure, but William Howard Taft was, well, fat, and yet today few politicians are.**  Female beauty standards too were curvier (though this was soon to change). Fat was, to the level of unexceptional cliché, associated then with wealth, and therefore wealth’s courtier, power. This once unquestioned association with wealth and power is partly responsible for how the fat person was treated comically, even later in the century. The lean, skinny person was the scrappy underdog, the fat person the one who ran things. Stan Laurel was put upon by the more officious Hardy. The Marxist critique of Margaret Dumont was to tear down the well-fed power structure of white women in gloves.

Moving on in Cornford’s problematic line: “white” is if anything more striking in its frank appearance in this short poem. Here I’m even more unsure of Cornford’s context and intent. “White” as a term for those not considered a person of color existed in 1910 certainly, and that’s how most of us will read Cornford’s line today. But a consciousness, without the context of other non-white people in the frame, of a white person calling out someone as “white” strikes me as so unusual in 1910*** that I wonder if we’re misreading her intent. Does she mean that she’s dressed in white? If she means, to us as we may experience the poem now, “a member of the favored and privileged racial caste,” we should take that into consideration regarding the effect of the poem more than most readers seem to. If she means “dressed in white,” which I think is more likely in the poem’s context, then she’s extending the “gloves” image as observing someone she imagines is not in touch with the earth. It’s probably taking too large a deterministic leap to think that she’s meaning to reference suffragettes with a singular woman in white. It’s a slightly lesser leap to consider dressed in white as a wedding gown undertone.****

And yes, let’s not miss the third word in this compound epithet: “woman.” Given that the author is a woman, and we presume the train-riding speaker of the poem looking out the window is a woman, we may have something like a peer to peer relationship between the observed subject and the observer.

In the few Frances Cornford poems I’ve read so far, there’s considerable female empathy exhibited. Why are we sure that the woman in the train is disgusted with or condemning the other woman? Does she feel superior or knowing in some way in the lyric moment (regardless if she’s right or wrong) that the white woman is missing something (love, an experience of nature)? Yes, I can see that. Is it a haughty superiority? I think that leans too much on the dismissive way we read “fat” and even “white.” As I read this poem over, I visualize looking out a train window, and the sense that comes to me is that one sees the woman outside through one’s own reflection in the glass we are looking through. I think, in the lyric moment, Cornford is imagining (and letting us know that it’s only that, imagining) a difference and a risk for herself, and for that other woman.

Frances Cornford - two sides

Dialectic: Frances Cornford at work. Frances Cornford without gloves.

There’s another mystery in the poem that I can’t decode completely: the gloves that refrain along with the absent loves. One reader jocularly suggested that the woman is hurrying on her way to a cricket match, and she’s wearing gloves because she’s a wicket keeper. Some, I think seriously, see gardening gloves. Others, formal-wear gloves. This is part of what I like about this poem: it’s plain-spoken, allusive, and elusive. That’s a hard combination to pull off. Along with its excellent musicality, that may be why it’s so well remembered in Britain—even by folks who are sure they dislike it.

Like Marlowe’s shepherd, this is a poem that calls out for an “answer record,” and humorist G. K. Chesterton’s retort “The Fat Lady Answers”  is the most famous of several. I stand more with Cornford’s lyric than Chesterton’s busted triolet, but his point is worth remembering as we consider “other people’s stories.” And so I performed the two together today. At the time I recorded this performance I decided to read the female poet’s poem in a male voice and suggest a woman’s voice in the male Chesterton’s response. I was still buying into Chesterton’s objection more than I am now after living with the poem a bit longer.

Anyway, Cornford’s triolet is so damn catchy that I wanted to keep it to the hook today—mostly drums and bass for the music—but I added a little of my naïve electric piano working off an odd inverted-voicing CMaj13 chord. One of my shortest audio pieces gets this long post. Go figure.

You can hear my performance with the player gadget below, or if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink which will open an new tab window and play it.   The full text of Cornford’s poem is here if you’d like to read along.

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*AFAIK, no one considers Cornford an Imagist, and this poem was written and published before other pioneering Imagist train poems like Pound’s In a Station of the Metro  or Sandburg’s Limited.”  But in its straightforward immediate language, specific color imagery, compression, and avoidance of sentimental emotional language, it follows the intent of those later free-verse Imagist poems.

**King Edward the VII doesn’t look svelte either, nor Queen Victoria in her later years. Of course, “Who made you king of the Britons?” and all that, but this still speaks to how excess weight was viewed in 1910 as representative of wealth and power.

***I don’t know much about Cornford’s political and social beliefs. She had one son who was a dedicated Marxist of the Karl branch, but what she thought herself about racial questions, I don’t know.

****If it was explicitly a wedding gown, it’d be a different poem, but you can re-read or relisten to the poem and imagine that at your own option. Another possibility would be that the woman is white because she’s a ghost. Again, overdetermining the poem. I’d still like to know what Cornford’s intent was, but even if it was a bit of light verse that got away from her, one of the joys of lyric poetry is that undercurrents can be waiting for the next time you read, hear, speak, or perform it.

Here’s a follow-up note on another alternative reading of this poem. In the time since I wrote this post I sometimes wonder if the woman in white we ostensibly see through the train window is actually the poet, Cornford,  looking at her own reflection in the glass which would then seem to be sweeping through the countryside. In photos I’ve seen, Cornford appears quite thin, and even given cultural differences in body image that I talk about above, I wonder (with no evidence)  if Cornford may have suffered from anorexia.

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Night, and I Traveling

When I started this project a few years ago I didn’t realize that I’d have to largely work with poetry which is in the public domain. This can still disappoint me, but there’s been a welcome side-effect.

This limitation caused me to look deeply into the first couple decades of the 20th century for texts to use. I knew a little about the pioneers of Modernist poetry in English, or thought I did—but as things often go, the more you find out, the more you find out you don’t know.

I had carried the impression in my younger years that Modernist English poetry started out with “Prufrock”  and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” and that it soon moved on toThe Waste Land”  and Wallace Stevens with his multi-section poems set off by roman numerals. All stuff with moments of beauty and extravagant language, but also a bit heavy-lifting if one wanted to take it all in, much less wonder what the poet was on about.

But when you look for the actual beginnings, you find Imagism in the time before WWI—and the poems are much more modest: often short, sub-sonnet length, and they aren’t out to wow you with the elaborateness of their imagery, which is concrete and immediate.

Are these slight poems, ones lacking the impact that the weight of a few hundred lines and some quotes from Latin or Tudor poetry could bring? You can read them that way. Absorb them like a short paragraph in a novel that you are rushing through to get to a waypoint of a plot, and then they may seem so.

But the men and women that wrote these poems didn’t intend these poems to be slight. They intended revolution or rejuvenation of the poetry of their language. Compression. Concision. The leaving out all express sentiment to be replaced by a call for their readers to be involved, to see the certain things the poem described and to feel them as fresh experience, not as an allusion to ideas about the experience.

Well here’s a poet and poem I didn’t know about before this project, and one that isn’t classed as one of the pre-WWI Imagists as far as I know, even though this poem is—intentionally or not—exactly an Imagist poem. The poet’s got more names than Du Fu, for he didn’t always write or name himself in English: the Irish poet Joseph Campbell, AKA Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil, and Joseph McCahill.

Joseph Campbell

No, not the “Power of Myth” guy, the other Joseph Campbell

 

Like many Irish poets of the turn of the 20th century he was involved in trying to end the colonial status of Ireland. He lived in Ireland the colony and the free state, England and the United States. He wrote lyrics to traditional Irish melodies, plays and other stuff (including a memoir of his imprisonment during the struggle for Irish Independence).

But here’s one of his poems, first published in 1909, and as Imagist as anything by Pound, H.D., Flint, T. E. Hulme, William Carlos Williams, or Sandburg were writing around then:

Night, and I travelling.

An open door by the wayside,

Throwing out a shaft of warm yellow light.

A whiff of peat-smoke;

A gleam of delf on the dresser within;

A woman’s voice crooning, as if to a child.

I pass on into the darkness.

 

Like Frost’sStopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,”  Campbell’s “Night, and I Traveling”  takes place in the old, unlit, rural night. And instead of a dark copse of trees, it’s a country house, perhaps more a hut, that the traveler pauses beside. What does Campbell see?

Light from a hearth burning peat, that not-quite-coal that served the country people of his time. There’s a dresser and some small array of porcelain dishes displayed on it. There’s an ambiguous line: he hears inside the hut “A woman’s voice crooning, as if to a child.”

Why did Campbell choose “as if” for two of his 46 words? Well, practically he might not have seen the woman, much less the child. It may be meant to suggest that the child is being lullabied to sleep and this may be the reason the traveler doesn’t even consider helloing to the home’s inhabitants. Or it could mean that the child is no longer home, grown and left for elsewhere, or even dead.

I don’t think I’m imagining that later implication, though it’s not explicit.

The last line is rich in ambiguity too, though it seems to suggest it’s resolving that spare line that preceded it. Is our traveler passing on into the darkness like the child who has left home or has left life? Or is he a traveler who has “miles to go before he sleeps” who cannot stop and rest or talk to those who live in the hut? Or is the traveler perhaps a person who knows or suspects he’ll never even have such a meagre but real home like the one he’s passing? I know too little of Campbell’s life as of this point to weigh that last possibility against his own biographical facts.

You’re free to hear the poem as saying any one, or all, of these things. It’s still a charged moment even without it being defined exactly—perhaps even more so for that. I’m not Irish, but it seems to me to be a concise emblem of Ireland at his centuries’ turn.

Musically, I used a 12-string acoustic guitar with tambura and sitar drone accompaniment today. I can’t say it’s authentic Irish music, but then Celtic music in the 20th century picked up a lot of things like alternative guitar tunings brought by a Scottish-Guyanese man traveling from Morocco and bouzoukis from Greece. To hear my music and performance for this poem, use the player below.

 

Fire Dreams, or Carl Sandburg’s Come On, Pilgrim

Emily Dickinson isn’t the only one of this project’s favorite American poets to write a Thanksgiving poem. Carl Sandburg did so too.

Long time readers here will know how much I like Sandburg and how often I like to speak toward the canon-keepers to point out that early Sandburg was a devoted Modernist with a strong American democratic take on Imagism, one that kept to Imagism’s unfussy and concise mode of expression without dressing itself up with any unnecessary scholastic references. Of course, I’m no opinion-shaper, and even if William Carlos Williams has undergone a reassessment as a domestic Modernist of the same era, Sandburg doesn’t seem to have benefited from the same second look.

Sandburg and David Byrne seperated at birth

My title may reference the Pixies and Larry Norman, but I think this Edward Steichen image of Sandburg looks a little like David Byrne.

 

I think this is a great pity. A poem like Sandburg’s “Clark Street Bridge”  is as perfect an Imagist poem as any written in London or Paris, and Sandburg’s subject matter and life-experience is broader than most of his fellow Modernists, because he traveled across America with his Imagist eye and working-class soul.

That said, I have to say that today’s Sandburg text is a partial example of why this might be so. This is the kind of Sandburg poem that people think  he wrote. It’s somewhat sentimental, unquestioningly patriotic, and there are almost no strong, immediate Imagist images in it. Although it’s not that long-winded, it seems to me longer than it is—and if it had broken into a Whitmanesque catalog of a hundred things at least it would have the courage of its convictions.

So, it’s a Thanksgiving poem, but it’s not great Sandburg. Why bother?

Its central Pilgrim history myth may not be entirely accurate, but it is a good story—one that children were told in his time and mine, and perhaps even sometimes now: tempest-tossed dissenting religious immigrants undergoing tremendous trials. For good or bad, Sandburg leaves out the native Americans who helped them survive,* and who were rewarded with a few decades of peace before the wars of conquest ignited in the Pilgrims’ region.

Historians like to point out that the Pilgrim Thanksgiving didn’t include most of the foods that we’ve come to expect for the modern American holiday harvest meal. Sandburg reduces it to “soup and a little less than a hobo handout today,” which is also inaccurate but makes the connection he’s trying to make. America always has pilgrims like these somewhat mythologized Pilgrims. Sandburg, the child of working-class immigrants knew this completely, the ones who worship the God of broken hearts and empty hands.

And though he doesn’t show it here, Sandburg also fully knows the imperfection of America, and yet still wishes to say yes to gratitude, to thanks “if so be” for himself and his child.**  He wishes to say yes before perfection—and continue yes “Till the finish is come and gone.”

So, while this is not the poem to restore Sandburg’s rightful place in Modernism, I think it’s still worth hearing on this holiday. The full text of the poem is here, and the player to hear the LYL Band perform it live*** is below.

 

 

 

 

*In hearing the story of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving as a child I never absorbed the full story of Squanto (Tisquantum,) which deserves to be better explored. There is a long and detailed Wikipedia entry on the context of this American.

**And before we leave that, let me point out that Sandburg is the rare Modernist who deals with children wholeheartedly.

***LYL principals Dave Moore and myself are both dealing with the inability for our hands to follow what musical precepts we hold, and this has reduced the appearance here of the more spontaneous LYL Band recordings. I’ve been missing that element and we’re trying to do what we can.

Amy Lowell’s November

To my knowledge, there’s no situation, no case, in the Modernist revolution of English poetry quite like that of Amy Lowell, who for around a decade from 1915 to 1925 made herself a significant force in the popularization and dissemination of short free verse,*  yet was often derided by others writing in this style, and whose own concise verse was largely forgotten until this century.

That her name and place in Modernism survived at all, it was largely because of her brief connection with the original Imagists in London which led to a running feud with Ezra Pound. Pound said that Lowell’s promotion of the same poetic principles that he had been propounding was a descent into “Amygism.” It wasn’t just Pound, D. H. Lawrence said of her work “In everything she did she was a good amateur.” Witter Bynner, the literary-hoaxster who wanted to mock this form of Modernism tagged the overweight Lowell as the “hippopoetess.”

Young Amy Lowell

The young Amy Lowell. “Does this hat make my…oh, forget it…”

 

What was their beef? Was it that she was a woman and she was generally considered a lesbian? Even though the early-20th century Modernists often fail contemporary standards for wokeness, the Modernist movement included other women** and gay artists. Likewise, Lowell was eccentric, but that too was no mark of uniqueness in their artistic world.

I should make it clear, that even though I often write here of encountering writers from this era as I present their work, I’m not an expert or scholar on the era, and there’s a great deal I don’t know. But my quick read of the situation is that Lowell was seen by Pound and many of his cohort as a wanna-be. She came from a wealthy and prestigious family.*** She seems to have bought her way into some of her influence—but once again, wealthy arts patronage can’t be what makes Lowell unique. That was common then as it is now.

What made her unique is that she wasn’t content with being a patron, she believed herself a poet and a critic, and worked extraordinarily hard in her short career at exercising herself in those roles. Controversy may be good for short-term fame, but some of the most lauded poets of her time didn’t think much of her work as hierarchies and canons were being formed by those that outlived her death in 1925. Did they make their judgements cavalierly because they didn’t like her as a person or by reputation?

Let me cut to the chase: I don’t know. I’ve probably encountered a few Amy Lowell poems over the years, and none of them left an impression on me. But transient mood and expectation and the randomness of anthologized selections could account for that. As this project has come to use a lot of poetry from Amy Lowell’s contemporaries, I’ve figured that someday I should tackle one of hers if I found something I thought I could do something with. And this fall, her poem called “November”  was brought to my attention.****

November

I can’t find any good Internet links to this poem, so here it is.

 

What did I notice about it? “November”  follows the style of the early Imagists, including the one thing that I’ve come to recognize about early Imagist writing that later Modernism came to reject: the modesty and directness of its statements. You could knock Lowell and say that when she wrote this she had Pound, T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, H. D., and so on to model this poem on. But if you believe, as I’ve come to, that this mode of poetry was abandoned too soon for longer, more elaborate and esoteric statements, then continuing to use those valid methods is no crime.

The trick of this kind of compressed poem is how to be simple and subtle at the same time in some way that the reader will find a working expression of beautiful. After finding “November”  worthwhile, I quickly looked at a few other shorter Lowell poems and I’m not sure she consistently manages that, but I believe this one does. Even famous and much anthologized poems in the Imagist style can be read quickly as superficial “Is that all there is?” poems. Their simplicity asks for a engaged reader, not one blown-over by some kind of surface filigree.

As with our other autumn poems, this one touches some common tropes: leaves, bare branches, dark, rain. But Lowell keeps this fresh, where many other poems would seem to just be checking off the boxes. The leaves’ color is secondary, we are subtly asked instead to hear the sound of the crisp leaves rattling against the walls of the poet’s house. Yes, there are fallen leaves too, but they gather under the evergreen pines, sheltered there. The lilac bushes sound-move with the rich word “sweep” against the overhead starlight.

And that translates then to an interior scene where the sheltered poet is too under the lights, a lamp, writing, perhaps handwriting with a sweep of the hand. And another unshowy, but well-chosen, phrase says what the subject is: “The emptiness of my heart.”

Let’s pause there for a moment. Is that a simple epithet for longing? Yes it is, but there are others for that too that weren’t chosen, and “The emptiness of my heart” is more ambiguous than most, for it may indicate a feeling of unworthiness and unreciprocity too—but then to think to explore that, to write of it, to experience it in an autumn moment, is a self-reflection that a callused always cold and empty heart will never do.

The poem’s closing image, following up on that, gives us one more sheltered, or barely sheltered thing: the cat who “will not stay with me” and is huddled in a window casement.

In summary, there is considerable complexity of feeling encoded in these images without the emotions being explicitly named and listed, but rather invoked in the Imagist manner. And the poem hides its craft so that one may not notice it reading quickly, particularly the subtle repetitions in the three scenes. I chose in my performance to repeat the writer under the lamp scene once more at the end to emphasize that I heard that key point the other two scenes turn around.

Musically, I worked on this performance yesterday which was Joni Mitchell’s birthday, so I wanted to try something in an unfamiliar alternate tuning. And today is Bonnie Raitt’s birthday, so it was good that the one I settled on (G minor DGDGBbD) worked well when played with a bottleneck slide. You can hear how Amy Lowell worked with that music using the player below.

 

 

 

 

*A year after her death in 1925 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and besides editing and helping to publish several anthologies of Modernist verse, she promoted it by popular lectures and articles in mainstream publications. Louis Untermeyer in his summarizing American Poetry Since 1900  published in 1923 says that “No poet living in America has been more fought for, fought against and generally fought about than Amy Lowell.” But to speak about her poetry (which he does praise) he writes first about her work as promoter and provocateur: “Her verve is almost as remarkable as her verse” indicating that the element of celebrity and controversy was already masking her actual poetry.

**Oddly, the path in the 20th century seems to have been to increasingly under-rate, value, and remember women poets of the Modernist era as the century went on. By the time I came along to encounter Modernism in school 50 years later it was a sausage-fest—but the 21st century is working to re-evaluate that. Canons and reputations are one thing, but every poem and its poet lives or dies each time a reader encounters it. That’s always a present act.

***Some of the Modernists came from what appear to be upper middle-class families, though of those, some had broken family ties and their financial support in some way. How much richer was Amy Lowell? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect noticeably so. Wealthy and gay poet Bynner had to reach for the body-shaming to find something to ridicule Lowell.

****Once more, I first saw this poem at the Interesting Literature blog.

Saint (Cecilia) and Translating Mallarmé

One of the issues with being half-learned is that one can fall into traps and tasks that are more difficult than you expected. This week I thought, why don’t I translate some Mallarmé? Alternate voice here Dave Moore had given me a book on him for my birthday (which I haven’t had time to read yet, too busy with this project…) but having recently translated and performed another poem by Apollinaire, I was reminded how often the English language Modernists looked to the preceding French Symbolists for inspiration.

So, I look. I see lots of sonnets, which is good. I like short poems personally and I aim for shorter pieces here for performance too. And short should make for a shorter translation task. On one hand, I have my unfamiliarity with French other than my il y a longtemps high school. On the other hand, I’ve tackled French Dada and Surrealist work, so a 19th century Symbolist should be no harder.

The hard to translate word here would be: “Oops.”

Turns out Mallarmé focused on esoteric philosophical ideas and the ideal in his art and manner. Maybe the rough English language analog would be Wallace Stevens, but with Stevens I can lay back and enjoy the color and sound of his English language words without having to worry about translating them into another language, and Mallarmé is very compressed and obscure in his tropes. There’s a reason that 20th century Dadaists found him congenial despite his dour and spiritual outlook: in French he may be interesting without one needing to understand what he’s intent about.

The 16 line poem I picked to translate, “Saint”   is an earlier one, one reckoned to be less obscure than later Mallarmé. I’m not sure how much that helped.

I read one report “Mallarmé was…widely considered incomprehensible—the standard joke was to request a translation of his work into French…” I read that several hours into my translation. I laughed pretty hard.

portrait_mallarme_by Manet

You go for the cheap pun Frank. Look here: I wrote “phalange.” Is that not singular? My friend Manet’s  painting of me will enlarge on this point!

 

Mallarmé’s “Saint”  isn’t incomprehensible. It’s even an admirable poem with something to portray about the ideal nature of music. It probably helps if one has some background in Roman Catholic liturgy as one reads it, but imagery requiring a bit of understanding of other cultures can be a feature not a bug.

Here it is in French, in one of three slightly different versions I eventually came upon:

Saint

A la fenêtre recélant
Le santal vieux qui se dédore
De la viole étincelant
Jadis selon flûte ou mandore,

Est la sainte pale, étalant
Le livre vieux qui se déplie
Du Magnificat ruisselant
Jadis selon vêpre ou complie:

A ce vitrage d’ostensoir
Que frôle une harpe par l’Ange
Formée avec son vol du soir
Pour la délicate phalange

Du doigt que, sans le santal
Ni le vieux livre, elle balance
Sur le plumage instrumental,
Musicienne du silence.

Native French speakers: feel free to mock my audacity to render this. For those interested in translation, I’m going to allow you to look over my shoulder as I worked on this. Note: I almost never try to render rhyme schemes or meter from one language to another. Like Stevens in English, this poem sounds lovely in French even if you can’t figure it out. In English I tried to instead vividly render the images, which is my preference in translation, even if it can lead to approximations and out and out bad guesses. And then to put that to some English word-music that may not reference the other language’s “tune.”

Here’s what I came up with:

Saint (Cecilia)

The window frames
The worn fretboard
Of the splendid viola—
Once played music with flute or mandolin.

There’s the pale saint, opening,
Spreading the old book.
Mary’s Magnificat falls out—
Once for vesper or compline.

This window is a monstrance.
She holds her harp, an angel’s
Customary evening wing,
Played by the delicate phalanx

Of fingers. Without a fretboard,
Without the old book, she strums
On the instrumental plumage,
A musician of silence.

First Stanza. This is an extraordinarily difficult image to figure out, and some of the guesses others have made are not a concrete image, which could even be Mallarmé’s intent. There’s clearly an instrument mentioned, a viol (a larger predecessor to our modern viola, and I imagined a viola da gamba, a wonderful “early-music” instrument for which the viol name was used). I rendered it as viola so that moderns might have a more common instrument in their minds eye. I did the same for “mandore” an ancestor of the now more familiar mandolin. Mallarmé may have meant to add an ancient music air to this, and I could have gone the other way with the instrument names (Stevens would have).

One of the chief problems is some read this description as an instrument that’s out of sight (“recélant” can mean to harbor or to conceal—and a window concealing?). Idealist Mallarmé could have intended it out of the frame. But I wasn’t sure, and I’d rather the reader know about it clearly, particularly as it opens the poem. And his description is puzzling—a point made of it being personified as sandalwood for one thing. Sandalwood is a hardwood. You probably wouldn’t use it to make the soundboard of an instrument, which functionally and surface-area-wise would be the main part. But it can be used for necks and particularly for finger/fretboards. Even though Mallarmé repeats sandalwood later in the poem, and there are fragrance and ceremonial connections with the wood and word, I decided to call it a fretboard, to help us see the instrument. There’s another issue with Mallarmé’s description: the instrument is “étincelant” and yet also “dédore.” I decided that the instrument is “splendid” but also “worn” in the area of that hardwood fretboard: i.e. this is a fine instrument that has been well and often played.

Second Stanza. This one is more straightforward. Cecilia is the “sainte pale” (named specifically in early versions of the poem) and she’s opened a book which seems to contain the score of a setting to Mary the mother of Jesus’ famous passage called the Magnificat in Roman Catholicism. I decided to add the “Mary’s” to the Magnificat just to help listeners hear the word as a proper noun. And something happens regarding the Magnificat: “ruisselant.” This word, best as I can figure has a sense of streaming or trickling. At first I thought the image is that the music represented by the score is magically sounding itself as Cecilia the patron saint of music opens the old book. But I don’t think we are to hear music as the poem develops, and so I wondered if the meanings of ruisselant infer running downhill. I decided that the score of the Magnificat falls out of the book, making itself known, but not making a sound or allowing it to be used to aid the music making, just as in stanza one Cecilia is not availing herself of a fine and once oft-used viola.

Third Stanza. Tougher again. This stanza contains the strongest image of the poem, the fusing of an angel’s bird-like wing with the somewhat-like shape of a harp—and Mallarmé wants to stuff other ideas into the four lines too. I decided that the specific and technical term “monstrance” cannot be replaced: it’s a glass altarpiece holder of a sacred object. Wallace Stevens would have loved to have used that word! The obscurity of the word adds some mystery I think, and no simply understandable single word replaces it. With the stanza’s last word I fell into thinking Mallarmé intended to pun on “phalange” (phalanx) which is from the Greek, meaning a massed formation (usually of soldiers or police)—but also fingers, similarly grouped together in disciplined order when playing an instrument. I decided to use phalanx because either words’ use for fingers is somewhat obscure in English (outside of medical usage) but I liked the idea of the delicate phalanx of soldiers or riot troops. But I think phalange may be singular in French, and if so, I may have misunderstood Mallarmé’s intent. My sin is falling in love with the image.

Fourth Stanza. Home stretch! Easier again, and choices already made set it up. In my reading Mallarmé is saying Cecilia has her spiritual intent on ideal music, the impossible music made with the mythical wings of angels and the impossible music made by strumming a bird’s feathers—such a fine image because it works bidirectionally! Actual music has been left behind as once, and not now (“jadis,” twice in the poem). She no longer needs the viola or the score.

She’s become the unheard melodies that idealist Keats says are sweeter than heard ones.

St Cecilia by Carlo Saraceni
CeCe, you’re messing up the form again! It’s a 12 bar minor blues with a 4 bar tag I’m going to modulate counter-clockwise on the cycle of 5ths each second chorus, and then—what you do mean, “Wing it?”

 

 

In performance, I had to resort to heard music so that the estate of John Cage didn’t sue me for plagiarism. I thought I might try to reference the Velvet Underground when it featured the pale saint John Cale on keyboards and viola. But neither the drum part nor the rhythm guitars I settled on had that VU feel. None-the-less I went ahead and created a top line using viola and a keening combo organ.

Last time I repeated the short poem several times so that I could show the different ways it could be expressed. Today’s short musical piece gathers a sort of meditative power if played on repeat. The player is below.