Red Rooster

Here’s a poem and poet with a mystery.

“Red Rooster”  was written in 1917. It’s an Imagist poem, a good example of how this pioneering school of poetic Modernism might present things directly, without nearly as much scholarly allusion as later Modernism was prone too.

The same year this poem was written, its poet was published in Poetry  magazine, the beacon of mainstream American Modernism, alongside poems by Ezra Pound, Vachel Lindsay, and William Carlos Williams. Three years later the author had a collection published, containing over a hundred poems. Poetry’s editor, Harriet Monroe, speaking from her post-WWI maps-being-redrawn time, called that book “This miracle” and “A richer promise for the new age than may be read in treaties and decrees.”

Other reviews? That book-length collection had a forward by Imagist Amy Lowell who said of the work:

When one reads a thing and voluntarily exclaims ‘How beautiful! How natural! How true!’ then one knows that one has stumbled upon that flash of personality which we call genius.”

So, immense promise, now an assay of genius—though Lowell also cautions that within the collection “Inadequate lines not infrequently jar a total effect…” That first book went through at least seven printings and two other poetry collections followed shortly thereafter.

Go ahead, drop down to the bottom and listen to “Red Rooster”  now. It’ll be interesting to encounter it before you know more about the author.

Red Rooster

Willie Dixon & Howlin’ Wolf said ”No peace in the barnyard, since the little red rooster been gone.”

 

 

Who was the author, the poet with the mystery attached? Hilda Conkling. How come you (likely) haven’t heard of her? Well, we discussed “Donald Hall’s law” here last year. Hall said that most poets, even most poets who win awards and are published in the usual ways, are forgotten by 20 years after their death. There’s that. And Conkling had a short career, no more new poems from her after 1924, though she lived until 1986. But here’s the most significant reason: Conkling wrote “Red Rooster”  when she was seven, her first collection was published when she was ten, as her output was already dropping off, and she gave up creating poetry entirely at age fourteen. A teenaged poetic legend like Arthur Rimbaud would be Sophocles writing Oedipus at Colonus  in comparison.

Both Lowell and Monroe considered Conkling’s age, and both thought the case of Hilda Conkling might tell us something about childhood and poetic genius. The case for pre-adolescent children creating art has been argued a great deal since then. Art critic Herbert Read encouraged thorough arts education for school-children in the 1940s. Kenneth Koch taught classes where children were exposed to poetry and urged to write it. Koch wrote a couple of books to encourage this in the 1970s, and by that time the idea of arts for children was spreading out generally. In the early 1980s Dave Moore and I had heard so much of this that Dave (raising a precocious Hilda-aged child himself at that time) wrote an LYL Band song called “Kids”  where the indignant child artists claimed, “we’re the natural poets, so shut up…” But despite that subsequent educational movement, Hilda Conkling is still a strange case: she started at age four, by the story, spontaneously, not as a pre-school exercise. Her father left Hilda’s mother around the same time, and Hilda told her mother that she’d composed a poem, which she then recited to her as a gift. The poems over the next decade followed the same process. Hilda’s mother was a writer and college literature professor who had exposed Hilda to books and music from an early age. One assumes Hilda learned to write later in childhood, but she would always recite each new poem to her mother, who would write them down.

Your first thought may be same as mine, that Hilda’s mother composed or helped to compose the poems. That’s possible, even probable, though the mother denied this, and said Hilda was always careful to correct any mistaken transcriptions. Amy Lowell deals with the issue by pointing out the childish elements in some of the poems as proof that they were genuine. But that speaks not at all to the idea that the mother improved or regularized the poems, or that some poems, even if they had a germ of an idea from the daughter, had elements that the literature professor mother further developed. It’s not hard to imagine an aiming-to-please daughter accepting some of what the mother transcribed and read back to her, even if it wasn’t what she had said, because she liked her mother’s changes, or didn’t want to disappoint or displease her.

The other accepted plot point in this story is that Hilda’s mother asked Hilda to write down her poems herself as Hilda turned 14, and then Hilda’s poetry stopped. That argues for the importance of the collaboration both as motivation and as conscious or unconscious editorial assistance. There are theories that Hilda may have had a disability which made writing her poems down difficult for her, but no additional life-evidence is offered to indicate that. The suggestion that Philistine and patriarchal society may have pressed the creativity out of the child has been offered. No one seems to have considered that Hilda might have continued to write poetry after age 14 but kept it to herself (a not-uncommon teen-age practice).

So much to wonder and doubt in this story—but we’re left with the best of the Conkling poems, such as “Red Rooster.”  Could what’s good in it be unintentional? In the opening observation of the rooster, the metaphors have just the right taste (comparing the irradiance of the bird’s feathers to wet rocks and to boat hulls seen through water). The poem’s turn and development in the last few lines seems even more remarkable. The rooster as symbol of masculinity is time-honored, but we’re ¾ way through the poem before we leave objective and immediate observation to have the rooster characterized as both proud and foolish, and foolish like unto Joseph leaving his family with his “coat of many colors.” The concluding couplet is just great poetic invective. Did a seven-year-old write that, intuiting not just the nature of the conflict in her home, but a vibrant, time-resonating metaphor for it? Was Hilda a 20th Century Mozart, or a prolific creator that sometimes landed a lucky strike? Or was it help from a wronged-by-a-man ghostwriter/mom? As a reader I don’t care. “Red Rooster”  doesn’t read as unintentional, as a random combination—but then again, we readers are great pattern-seers, as anyone who’s worked with things like automatic writing or cut-up discovers.

My best guess is collaboration, a child and an adult seeing and sharing the world together. That, like this poem, could be extraordinary too.

Here’s my performance of “Red Rooster.”  Give a listen to it with the player below.

 

 

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To the Roaring Wind

Fifty years ago I picked up a copy of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens  in a college bookstore. It was a paperback edition, and looking at the price, I can see why I might have selected it. The cover says $1.45 if you can believe that. Cheaper than a record album, and chock full of more strange words and mysterious lyrics than any batch of LPs that might sit in a dorm room in 1969.

Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens

Yes, $1.45!

 

I’d probably run into a few Stevens poems before then, but my actual teenaged poetry bookshelf had no other entire volumes from Stevens early 20th century Modernist cohort yet. After reading it, I immediately set out to write poems that looked and sounded like Stevens for the next few months.

That edition started off by reprinting Stevens’ first collection, Harmonium,  from 1923. And now after a pause of decades, works from that year are now in the public domain and available for presentation.*

So now 2019 is here, and 1923 is freed for reuse. By sad coincidence, I learned last night that David Shove who organized a long-running and well-loved monthly poetry reading series had died on New Years Eve. And so that evening I started reading Harmonium,  until I finished it this morning, thinking of David Shove and his dry humored manner as he would introduce poet after poet to an audience, and how I’ll miss that. The obituary said that the monthly reading that would have happened tonight may still go on, but to my shame, I couldn’t face a crowd of people tonight.

I learned last night that David Shove who organized a long-running and well-loved monthly poetry reading series had died on New Years Eve.

Unlike crowds, with art you can allow your feelings to shake and settle into a form. It’s a smaller group, just yourself and sound. So I plugged in my Telecaster and started working on a droning riff to accompany the last poem in Stevens’ Harmonium, “To the Roaring Wind.”  Supporting the guitar I played—well, why not—harmonium, double-tracked cleanly and through a fuzz-box. I then improvised the vocal tracks using Stevens’ words as best as my voice would allow today while thinking of David and those readings.

Wallace Stevens is the Lemony Snicket of Modernists, in love with unusual words, and in the 13 words of “The Roaring Wind” one is “Vocalissimus.” Heard in passing it may remind you of “vocalization,” but someone with an education in Latin has supplied a further, more exacting, explanation.

If souls hover around, David Shove and those that sound with him, this is for them. The rest of you with mice and screen-fingers can hear “The Roaring Wind”  using the player below.

 

 

*A somewhat complicated story, but in the U.S. a law was enacted in 1998 that changed the term of copyright long after the works were created. For a few commercial properties this extended their revenue potential, but for a large portion of poetry and other non-commercial work it only helped make them largely unavailable for re-vitalization.

Gacela of the Dark Death

Here’s a piece using a fresh translation I made this month of a Spanish poem by Federico García Lorca. I’m sure there’s much to say about Lorca from those that know his work better than I do. That group of Lorca admirers includes many other artists whose work I respect, so it’s about time to present something by him here.

I’m told that a Gacela is a traditional Spanish form, but that Lorca’s poem follows the form only in spirit. Because Lorca was executed during the Spanish Civil War, not long after this poem was written, some view it as reflecting his experience of the war, but I get the impression that death elements were present in Lorca’s work even before the war. While encountering this poem in order to translate and perform it, I came to believe there’s a compound commentary on human mortality and more here.

Federico_Garcia_Lorca

Federico García Lorca, a poet with open heart dreams

 

The poem opens and closes with a refrain that ends with a strong, bloody, and yet ambiguous last line carrying the image of a boy wanting to cut his heart. I chose not to overdetermine that image because I believe its ambiguity should remain. It could be an image of desire, or of self-harm, or emotional outreach—so let it be any or all of those things.

The middle portion of the poem, which I chant rather than sing, has a tone in my reading that has humorous elements, even if that seems to go counter to other readings of the text I found. When this section starts with what sounds like folk aphorisms about the dead, I take them as dark humor. In the next line “No quiero enterarme de los martirios que da la hierba” I decided for the only time in my translation to intentionally make the image stronger to American readers, by making the hierba, the grass, “leaves of grass” to connect to Whitman and his great image forged in the American Civil War. I can’t be sure, but I spent a long time on that stanza’s moon with a snake’s mouth image, “la luna con boca de serpiente” and what with the punch line about that mouth always working before dawn got me asking the question if this was a vampire image, which I decide to refer to sideways by determining that fangs were what serpent’s mouth means. Consistently in this stanza Lorca is giving us death images, but he’s also saying he doesn’t want to hear them.

I think the next stanza is meant to be humorous too, starting off with the wanting to sleep (perchance to dream?) for a moment to maybe as long as a  century—but “pero que todos sepan que no he muerto,” “let everybody know I’m not dead” as I translate it. Yes, like Hamlet he wants to compare sleep and death, but he’s playing with it. I’m at a loss if the “pequeño amigo del viento oeste,” “little friend of the west wind” is referencing something. It sounds almost like a children’s story or lullaby. I think this stanza’s concluding line is so wonderful that it transcends mood and attitude: “soy la sombra inmensa de mis lágrimas,” “I am the immense shadow of my tears.”

This stanza’s concluding line is so wonderful that it transcends mood and attitude: “soy la sombra inmensa de mis lágrimas,” “I am the immense shadow of my tears.”

The final chanted stanza before we return to the sung refrain also seems to me to be playing with death. Are we meant to take the insects here as accomplices of the grave’s earth? But this sounds like a boyish schoolyard dispute “He threw ants at me!” And what’s with the scorpion claw? As a northern North American I don’t deal with actual scorpions (hey, tropic readers, let me tell you about black flies…) but isn’t it the stinger that’s the weapon? I’m left wondering if there’s some idiom here that I just don’t know, even some kind of schoolboy pestering like unto a “noogie.”

And then the poem returns to a variation of the refrain, mysterious, beautiful, and I think serious. As to the intent of the poem, I felt I could perform the mystery and commit to the humor I found in the middle section without knowing the poem’s heart entirely. I think you can listen to it the same way. It is a darkly playful meditation on death? A comment on the outbreak and casualties of a civil war? Or is it a longing for childhood life and adventurous dreams? Or a love poem to a young man in Lorca’s life at the time the poem was written? Walt Whitman could sing all those things together, so why couldn’t Lorca?

I felt I could perform the mystery and commit to the humor I found in the middle section without knowing the poem’s heart entirely. I think you can listen to it the same way.

Musically, I sought to contrast the two refrain sections from the poem’s middle one. I was going to play my nylon string guitar for a Spanish flavor on this. Sadly, when I opened its case this week I found that its bridge had come completely off the top. Oh well, my battered Seagull Folk guitar had to stand in. My orchestration brings a bassoon part forward.

You can hear my performance of my English translation of Federico García Lorca’s “Gacela of the Dark Death”  with the player gadget below.

Self-Pity

Like Thomas Hardy or James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence is another writer remembered more as a novelist than a poet, though he published multiple books of poetry in a variety of forms in the early 20th Century.

He’s hard to place in the various “schools” of poetry of his time. He was published in Imagist anthologies, but he is also sometimes grouped with the Georgian Poets who eschewed free verse, though he often wrote free verse. He sometimes wrote compressed epigrams like the one I present today. “Self-Pity”  looks like a Modernist short poem on the page, but it doesn’t aim to work like most of those poems on the reader or listener.

DH Lawrence  by Bynner

1923 photo of D. H. Lawrence by Witter Bynner

 

Oh “Self-Pity”  uses all the devices of poetry, save for rhyme. It’s loosely iambic with anapestic moments in meter, though the line lengths are uneven. This is consistent with much free verse, which still wants the beats of the words to be felt, without lock-step marching drills. It has a vivid image (the frozen, falling bird). It has a repetition (“sorry for itself”).

Why then does it seem different from other Modernist poems? Contrast Lawrence’s “Self-Pity”  to two other contemporary-to-it very short poems: William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow  and Carl Sandburg’s Fog”.  “The Red Wheelbarrow”  puzzles readers to this day about its message, other than it wants the wheelbarrow to be clearly real. I think it’s about the beauty and dignity of work and its tools, but perhaps I’m wrong. You may not draw any meaning at all when you first hear or read “The Red Wheelbarrow.” “Fog”  attracts immediately with its metaphor of silent fog and haunches-poised cat. It may seem to you at first a show of how metaphor cleverly works. “Wow, fog and a cat, I never thought of them together. Cool.” It’s only if you hold the poem longer in your mind and heart that you may ask why the fog/cat is at the harbor, that it’s not a pampered pet, but a feral or work animal.

“Self-pity”  is more directive. Many who hear or read it will get the point the first time. Yes, that frozen dropping bird is a vivid image, but it doesn’t lead off the poem, it comes after half-way, and it’s meant to work not as something the poet saw, but as an imagined image to illustrate his point.

Which way is the right way to go about it? That’s for you the reader/listener/writer/performer to decide. The Internet tells us some folks find the direct and pointed message of “Self-Pity”  helpful to them. I myself could stand to be reminded of it sometimes. Literary poetry of the 20th Century gradually made the decision to go with the non-directive imagery way, not with the more frankly didactic aims of Lawrence’s poem. Current writers and readers will get to re-decide this issue for our maturing, teen-aged, century.

“Self-Pity” was used in a Hollywood depiction of military training.  I imagine a Pythonesque skit where John Cleese or Graham Chapman submits other poetry to raw recruits. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked!” “Suppose an opponent comes at you armed with plums. So sweet. So cold. What would you do?” or “You are a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

 

 

What do I think? After all, this is the Internet. I must  have an opinion!

I’m eclectic. I don’t want poetry, or any art, to always work in the same way, to stop surprising me. If I could send myself back and offer advice to Lawrence on his poem, I’d tell him to spend more time on that bird before he tells us what the bird means. By not giving me the sense that a real human stood cold or bundled up or on the warm side of a window and watched that instant, that small bird, ruffling their feathers to hold what warmth was still there before the perch became its last, the poem loses potential power for me.

Thomas Hardy may have imagined his winter darkling thrush entirely as a useful image, but I feel that encounter with his bird. I’m convinced Rilke actually looked at an amputated and archaic torso of Apollo and wanted to see its present state fully before he delivered his reaction. I think Lawrence wanted to make a point, and that bird was a useful slide in his deck.

But that may be sentimentality on my part, and too much of that can be stifling and predictable. And perhaps the poem would loose some of it’s epigrammatic power. How often we see by opposition.

Musically, I spent a good deal of time on the drums/percussion for this track, trying to pull out the vibe of “Self-Pity’s”  meter. With the rest of the music I tried to balance my reaction to Lawrence’s resolution while transmitting the assertion of the epigram itself. To hear it, use the player below.

 

Archaic Torso of Apollo

New Year’s is a time to look at where one’s been and to look anew, to make resolutions and changes. So, let’s look anew at a 110-year-old work by Rainer Maria Rilke.

That’s appropriate, because Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”  is about looking at something old, something that many others have looked at. And Rilke’s poem too has been read and listened to by many, both in it’s original German and in several translations into English. Each translation differs from the others as there are several problems of understanding and reconstruction into a new language that each translator had to solve. So I started by doing my own English translation, working with Rilke’s German words and trying to understand what he’s getting at.

What’s the over-riding observation about the statue that is Rilke’s subject? That it’s broken and incomplete. This is past obvious, but because Rilke spends some time in this brief poem talking about how drawn he is to it, I think it’s possible to misunderstand this point. He says wonder-filled things about it, and this leads many translators and readers to believe that he’s making a case that it’s artistically perfect in some talismanic way.

Torso of Apollo

Worst New Year’s party ever. Woke up without head, arms, legs…

My reading is that he’s making a contrasting case. This is a legless and headless statue. Rilke makes us see right off that the head is missing. Describing that missing head Rilke uses the German word “unerhörtes,” unheard—which we take in the sense of “unheard of.” Translators have translated it into “fabulous”, “legendary”, and so on. There are certainly good German words for those things, but Rilke chose otherwise. Does he want the double meaning that this statue of the Greek god of poetry and music is missing its ability to hear?

What do I make of the remarkable, surrealist-sounding image near the start of the poem that the missing head is surmised to have eyes ripened like apples? Everyone is struck by the audacity of it, but what does it mean? I don’t think Rilke means this in a René Magritte way, as even a small apple is too large for an eye socket. My wife had a suggestion: ripened apples eventually fall and rot, just as the head has been harvested or fallen from neglect.

Magritte Son of Man

Eyes ripened like apples, René Magritte’s way.

Another hard to translate line is the poems eighth, which dips down to the naked statue’s beltline and makes reference to genitals that should be there if we were to continue in the path of the gaze. I suspect the statue has been fractured above them. My translation breaks with most others on the following “beast’s pelt” reference. Some translate that fur as a wonderous quality of the entire remaining stone torso, which seems to make no sense imaginative or otherwise when referring to Greek statues of Apollo*. My translation reads the German as saying that the wild beast’s pelt is missing, that is to say that the statue ends above the pubic hair. So blind, deaf, headless, and also without his sex organs.**

What’s left after these amputations, this incompleteness? First, Rilke is drawn to this torso. He is a poet, and Apollo’s the god of poetry. He’s also spent a couple years working as a young assistant to the great French sculptor Rodin, so statuary is an interest. I think what he sees as still there is the soul, the heart, the essence, which he portrays as that mysterious flame-like glow in the marble and the remaining curves that smile at the damage.

Which brings us to the poem’s notable surprise ending, which I won’t spoil in my explanatory text if you don’t know it already. I think Rilke is drawn to this torso because he senses this soul, that which eternally remains, that which is without borders and broken places, can heal or transcend this: the lack of fulfilled desire, vision, mind, and music. Perhaps he is drawn to this broken statue so intensely because he feels he and his art are broken and incomplete too.

To hear my performance of a new translation of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,”  with its conclusion that many readers/listeners find unexpected, use the player gadget below. And to all the brave readers and flexible listeners here: an exploring and improving New Year!

*Rilke may not have known it, but something else was missing on that statue. We have become accustomed to viewing classical Greek statues as glowing white marble, aesthetically we may have even absorbed the idea that this monochromatic paleness is the timeless ideal. However, the Greeks painted their statues, even the nudes got skin tones and hair color. Oh, and they were Southeast Mediterranean people with interchange with Africa and the Middle East, those skin tones weren’t pasty white, as examination of pigment remnants on classical Greek statues reveal.

**Of course, I must be modest. My knowledge of German (like my knowledge of French and classical Chinese which I’ve also translated here) is lacking, which can lead to translation errors. The only skill I can bring to this is that I read, perform and write poetry.

The Darkling Thrush

My teenaged son is proud of his mastery of modern youth slang and enjoys the idea that his parents and their generations will have no idea what such terms mean. This is of course part of the utility of language: it not only binds people together, it keeps them apart.*

No matter, new times and new experiences enjoy making fresh and untarnished words to describe them. Words must have their pleasures, even when we don’t quite understand everything someone is saying. Take Thomas Hardy, a man who wrote what may be one of the last poems written in the 19th Century, after he had spent 61 years in it. Published on or around New Year’s Eve in 1900, today’s piece is “The Darkling Thrush.”  In Hardy’s poem, as an old man looks at the changing of a year and century, we have the reverse of my son’s joy: old words from an old man.

Thomas Hardy Moustache wax abuser
Careful with the moustache wax Tom, you’ll put someone’s eye out!

 

“Darkling”, “coppice”, “spectre”, “bine-stems”, “lyres”, “outleant”, “illimited”—we meet the first one in the title, the second five words in, the third at ten words. Even if I was to quiz educated Americans, I doubt most could define the majority of these words, and I’m unsure how much better modern British residents would do.**

Coppicing is a European method of managing tree growth, in which mature trees are cut off to allow fresh shoots to continually propagate. Spectre is more known now as a trademark applied to laptops and James Bond bad-guys, but is an English word for a spirit or ghost. Bines are not vines to the knowledgeable horticulturist (bines twist their main stem around things to tangle and climb, vines use special parts of branches to hitch themselves up). Lyres are not supporters of disreputable political movements, but a stringed harp. Illimited is just another, rarer, form of the word unlimited, and I think Hardy may have chosen it because it starts with a sick word, ill, but also puns on illuminated. The titled adjective, darkling is a handy way to say it’s occurring in the dark. Although it’s a little-used word, like illimited, the sound of it brings to mind something else, the smallness of the title bird, as in duckling,  and darkling’s sound also lets us see dusk rather than deep night, when we can still see the winter thicket Hardy sets his poem in.

But outleant is the real mystery word. A short web search finds no online dictionary definitions, no examples of its use other than in Hardy’s poem. A simple deconstruction of the word’s parts would make it, inverted, saying “leaning out.” And that’s what it probably means. There’s textural evidence as it ties back to the poem’s second word, “leant upon the gate” to the coppice. Yet, did Hardy intend to infer two other close words in this word’s sound? Out-lent, a sense that the haunted and dreary winter scene of the poem is owned by the old, dying century and is lent out only to the present? Depending on pronunciation of the printed word’s “ea,” it could conceivably be pronounced out-lent (and Hardy does rhyme it with “lament.”) Does he also want us to hear a closeness to outlearnt, and that the old century’s corpus of belief has been superseded (by newer scientific discoveries?) That would be consistent with Hardy’s beliefs.

Perhaps this is my weakness as a reader, translator, performer and poet myself. If I sense an image is possible, I want to see it, hear it, perform it. Bare winter bines twisted around a copse of brush wood as a corpse leaning out of a coffin may be grisly, but it’s not to me a strong image.*** Even if it’s abstract, the second sense, that of this bare and haunted landscape being the cemetery plot owned by the old century of which we are only visiting seems stronger. For others, the sense that new knowledge has killed off the old beliefs (outlearnt) could be a choice. I can’t know that Hardy intended this ambiguity by choosing this unusual word outleant, but I, the reader, put it there.

The title calls attention to the central image, yet another messenger bird in British poetry, to go with the nightingales and skylarks of Keats and Shelley, poets of Hardy’s now dying century. I like that Hardy lets us see the bird, and it’s frail, gaunt, and -ling tiny, and that we can see feathers fluffed to best insulate its frame, which the wind is disputing.

So, there was Hardy, around New Year’s Eve, using his old and odd words at the end of an old century. For us, Hardy’s oncoming one (the 20th century) has now closed itself. Will things get better or worse in our new year? Something in us wants to foretell at every ending—yet even looking backwards, we have trouble making a simple better or worse judgement. Here, the battered bird, the darkling thrush, says better. Hardy says he knows he doesn’t know.

He knows he doesn’t know is the realist’s version of hope.

Anyway, one of the joys of combining poetry with music is that you don’t have to take a test on the words to enjoy the piece. My pompatus of a performance of Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”  is available with the player below.

 

 

 

*Right now he’s very generous in this however. He want’s me to know these words so I won’t be left out.

**Before looking them up, I knew spectre and lyres for sure and I was fairly sure about darkling as an adverb, then taken to adjective. I had ideas (some from context) on the others—and in the case of coppice, my ideas were wrong. My son knew spectre and lyres and defined darkling as “a creature of the night” for which I’ll give half-credit. In the case of bines, I told him I learned how bines were different from vines, and he told me “Sure they are! Vines are 7 second videos.” (That last was a joke on his part.) My wife, a fine word-smith, also got 2.5 (“Bines, it that like a wood-bine?” got half-credit as understanding was there, even if a good dictionary definition it wasn’t.)

***Saplings and bines and “sharp landscape” would indicate a skeletal image is intended, but bare bones are not particularly scary or intense compared to rot and decomposition, much less animated brains-hungry undead. Hardy doesn’t mean scary so much as long-dead I guess. Interestingly, Hardy had a direct graveyard experience to draw on here.

Longfellow Goes Beat

I live in one of the northernmost states in the U.S., a place where winter cannot be denied, and so we must make our treaty with cold and snow. Some will even claim it makes us better persons—hardier, accepting of the Zen of difficulties. Still, if Minnesota has inherent Buddhist elements, it doesn’t lessen my attachment to a shelf of warm clothes.

When I think of Buddhism I do not think first of ancient and overseas masters, but instead of the Beat Generation writers of my youth, the mostly men who reacted to the growing abstractions and high-mindedness of High Modernism with a return to immediacy and intimacy. The Beats could be seen as beaten-down by something, past the chance of winning a warm success, but they also asked that the word be understood as short for “beatific.” Allen Ginsberg explained: “The point of Beat is that you get beat down to a certain nakedness where you actually are able to see the world in a visionary way.*”

Like many things that meet America, Beat got absorbed and its rule-breaking became a style, a fad, a fashion, a look, a required attitude received with only enough meaning to make the accessory match the outfit. Every time I read to music here, I fear I’m seen as wearing a costume, playing a role.

Gaslight Poetry Cafe

Not quite as portrayed on the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the legendary New York Gaslight coffee shop

 

So, what’s this got to do with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—the square’s square—the man who wrote poetry that poets of the last 100 years find worthless?

Let me put Longfellow in a laboratory and see what we find. My lab: it’s a jazz club, probably downstairs, past the gray concrete curb turning winter white. It’s darkened enough inside the room that it’s sometime, night—but what year? The crowd is burbling, so’s the coffee machine. Wait staff are delivering and clearing tables, setting a tray on the bar for a moment to let another pass, talking of nights-off. A couple in the darker corner are nearly making out and can’t hear the band for the sight and breath of each other. A writer at a table closes a notebook, nothing more is in it today. The room is small but fairly full, about half talking their own talk and about half looking at the low bandstand, the quartet.**

The bass and drums begin, the guitar comments and the piano-player chords on the side. The bearded man steps to the mic, sheaf of paper in his hand.

“Snow-Flakes***”  he announces. Is this beatific? Is this visionary? Maybe it is, he looks that way. He is a strange cat: saying words “doth” and “bosoms”—like Lord Buckley perhaps. If he was translated into Chinese and then back to English, the Beat element would be clear; but even as it is, the words are beautiful, and he lets them slowly stay there that way, “This is the poem of the air.”

The drummer is still slapping the snare with his brushes, as the bearded man at the microphone gestures onward to the band, with a slight roll of his hand. His face changes. The vision’s past, is there a resolution? “Psalm of Life****”  he says.

This other poem is confrontation to everything we’d expect in this club for those who listen here and think about what they heard. “Mournful numbers,” are told on this stage every night, and he’s dissing them right off, and he ceases to pause his words now. The dance of the snowflakes becomes a march of “Let us, then, be up and doing.” What is this? The must be shoveling and stuck car after the beautiful, sorrowful snowfall?

He ambles off as the band riffs for another couple of minutes. What does this strange combination of poems mean? A snow-flake satori in a field, and then a command to earnestly strive. Yes, this Longfellow is a strange cat, even here.

My performance of Longfellow’s “Snow-Flakes”  and part of “A Psalm of Life,”  is available with the gadget below.

 

*In the course of the long influences that led me to doing this project, a local Iowa rock band of the late Sixties, “Emergency Broadcast System,” would open their 1968 sets with the singer speaking a good portion of Ginsberg’s America  over the band riffing.

**I recorded this on Christmas afternoon, first laying down the drum track and playing my Bass VI, an odd instrument that adds two higher pitched strings to the conventional four-string bass, instead of adding lower strings, the more common variation. I used this higher range to play the repeating, descending riff that occurs throughout the song. I played guitar around this rhythm section and then played the block piano chords. As a last step, I figured if I’m going to impersonate a jazz quartet I might as well go all-in and put in some fake club ambience. Maybe this did come from binging The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel  this month with my wifeor from nights at the old Artists Quarter in St. Paul and listening to Sunday at the Village Vanguard  by the Bill Evans Trio too many times.

***This one goes out to Mary Grace McGeehan of My Year in 1918, who thought of this poem when she thought of Longfellow. It’s one I’d overlooked until she brought it up, and what a graceful lyric it is!

****I performed only about half of this once well-known poem of Longfellow’s here. Several phrases in it were mottos for my grandparents’ generation, and my parent’s generation passed them on to me in occasional speech under a thin varnish of irony to preserve them. As a result, both the poem’s claim that “Life is real! Life is earnest!” and it’s command to “Let us, then, be up and doing” have remained with me.