Vegetables dream of responding to you

OK, let’s reveal where the words from the last post, Poetry in Translation,  came from and what I know about their context—but stick around, as this is going to relate back to those 20th Century theories about how poetry works. If you haven’t listened yet read and listened to Poetry in Translation,  this would be a good time to scroll down and do so.

Earlier this month I was making some tea and talking to my son in the kitchen. He asked about what kind of tea I was making. I picked up the box to show him, Tazo Peachy Green tea. I noticed there was something more than an ingredients list and those filled-circle graphs of how much caffeine was stuck inside the individually bagged dried leaves. So, I broke into my Parlando Voice, improvising line break pauses as the early 20th Century Modernists have ingrained in me, and read it to him:

Poetry in Translation from Tazo Peach Tea

Modernist verse in the supermarket?

My son, now a teenager, is making sure that he’s nobody’s fool. “They must be smoking that tea, not drinking it.”

We both laughed.

Modernists a century ago would have liked this. “Found Objects” and use of commercial ready-mades in art and Dada japes were ingrained in Modernism during its avant garde phase. I’d have fit right in at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 if I was to have read this wacky and rapturous advertising copy from the tea box while Hugo Ball played piano.

picasso-bulls-head
Some will see a Picasso sculpture, others will wonder if a bicyclist won’t be able to ride home

But as Modernism moved to the universities, and I. A. Richards’ and John Crowe Ransom’s “New Criticism” solution to the problem of unreliable interpretation became predominate by mid-century, things would change.

Simplifying wildly, the New Criticism suggested that the reader, not just poets and writers, needed to get under the hood and figure out what made poetry run. Inside every poem was the ideal poem, an expression of complex ideas or states of being placed there by it’s writer. The poems surface, though it may have some interest itself, was only the wrapper surrounding this more sublime poem. This bridged over the revolutions in poetic language, by making less important changes in the way poetry spoke, such as the widespread use of rhyme and free verse. John Donne, John Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens—the different music of the words made no difference, the rich images portraying important thoughts could be studied side-by-side.

Imagery became poetry, more or less (yes, meter and sound were still attended to, but they dropped in importance). The original Modernists, including the Imagists, sought to kill off centuries of ingrained and tired imagery that had become merely decorative, and replace it with more integral and concrete images, palpable things. But just as when one finally cleans out a closet, time passing will clutter it again. If images contain the soul of poetry, and if deep reading is the best and proper way to encounter a poem, then complex and hermetic images will offer more of the poetic experience.

There’d been something of a cult of great poetry before, often based on important subject matter or the extent of readership, but as the New Criticism ascended to orthodoxy, the ideal of great poetry became stronger and used new criteria. Poems with densely jammed complex imagery requiring close reading and educational training to comprehend were great. Poems that didn’t do this were highly suspect—and likely harmful, in that they did not reinforce this new critical understanding of the soul of poetry.

As I said last time, this is how I was taught to understand poetry in the midcentury.

How can we return to the box of tea with its peach singing to the cucumber of its deathless desire? The midcentury New Critics presumed the supremacy of the poem and the poet’s intent. Later in the 20th Century new literary theorists arose, and the subjective experience of the reader became the place where the poem existed. The poem means what you think it means, which may be different from what another reader thinks it means. Meanings extracted from even the merest of texts could still be complex and valid. The intent of the author is not important, they could well be mistaken.

Now our singing peach isn’t a joke at the expense of exalted literature, it’s an expression of the woo of consumer culture signifying exotic essence through the appropriation of an ancient amphitheater dramatizing barely sublimated vegetable desires. Or it may be something a tired copywriter churned out on Friday afternoon before leaving work and picking up takeout on the way home to feed the kids.

As I said, I’m simplifying, but for the mid-century New Critics the poem existed objectively deep inside the poem where the poet put it. For the late 20th Century Deconstructionists and their contemporaries, the poem existed subjectively in its readers experience of it and the structures around that.

Coming up, is there a reconciliation between those two views? How will the 21st Century view what poetry is and where the poem lives? Will the cucumber and the peach find a meaningful relationship before they are dried and bagged?

Don’t worry if you’re missing the usual music and words meeting up here, we’ll return to that soon enough too. I promise variety, not predictability. To tide you over, here’s Dave Moore and the LYL Band running through his song, set in the late 19th Century, called “The Green Fairy.” 

Poetry in Translation

I remember reading about this some years back, and found it fascinating then. In my memory it was the American poet and critic John Crowe Ransom who was the teacher, but in searching this week for more detail, the perpetrator named was English poet and critic I. A. Richards. My memory still says Ransom did something similar, but let’s stay with Richards since I can verify it.

The time frame is the 1920s. The Modernists (due to painful copyright laws, the newest poets whose work can be freely used here by the Parlando Project) had begun their ascendency into the mainstream of English language poetry. But the Victorian era, including the later work of the Romantics and the whole of the William Morris/Pre-Raphaelite revival that preceded the Modernist revolution was not that long ago, within the memory of teachers and critics alive then, like the post WWII era or “The Sixties” would be today. The Romantics had been a revolution in how poetry speaks, and those that followed them took different paths from that revolution, and now the Modernists proposed a counter-revolution, once more changing how poetry speaks.

Had poetry, in some Platonic ideal state, it’s essence, changed; or had only the language and form it took to express its inner nature changed?

In such at time, the question of aesthetics, of what constitutes poetry and what are (or should be) its goals and effects, would naturally come to the fore. If one is a teacher, one might examine this by teaching, and so Richards devised an experiment. He gave students at Cambridge, a leading English university, a packet of poems which were without the names of their authors or any context about when they were written—they were even without their titles—and asked the students to write about them, to interpret them. I’m not sure if he presupposed what the results would be, but summaries of the experiment report he was surprised at the results. Their interpretations were poor, and often included what he knew to be misinterpretations. The students often resorted to personal experiences or rote sentimentality to explain the poems. As a result, the interpretations of the poems varied considerably as they missed their mark in different directions.

You might think, “Well, duh!” In subsequent theories of literature all these effects have been explained and codified in multiple ways, but at the time, in the 1920s, this was a new finding. Richards thought this showed a failure of literacy, defined as a kind of higher literacy; not the inability to read basic English, but to read and understand the kind of associative and musical language used by poetry. He spent his life trying to remedy this by teaching. In 1979, while in his eighties, he was still teaching, in China, when he fell ill and died. He wrote a book, titled “Practical Criticism”  setting out ways to properly read and derive the effects of a poem.

John Crowe Ransom and I A Richards

Know your Modernists: John Crowe Ransom, I. A. Richards, and two other blokes who don’t know from The New Criticism

 

But the way I heard of the experiment (and this may have been a subsequent experiment, inspired by Richards, perhaps by Ransom) the packet of unattributed poems given to students to interpret included a range of “not great poetry,” pop poetry as printed in mass-market publications as well as the work of more esteemed poets. And the result was the students couldn’t reliably distinguish the great poets from the hacks.

The challenge of the new poetic language of the Modernists, and the experience of teachers like Richards and Ransom demonstrated in this experiment with unattributed poems, lead to what was called “The New Criticism.”

When, a generation later, I began to encounter poetry in school, “The New Criticism” was by far the predominant idea of how poetry should be taught. At the end of my scattered schooling, new theories were arising, Deconstructionism and the like, and I can still recall professors muttering about its willful misunderstandings and mistaken goals as I struggled for money to pay for one more class that would fit into my work schedule.

Now in this century, I know less what happens in schools, but I sense culturally we’re concerned increasingly with the poet as the container that holds the poem and its experience. Some worry about “Identity Politics” and its correlate would be “Identity Poetry,” where the background, ethnic and otherwise, of the poet is integral to the poem. I’m too busy making art to have a coherent philosophy on this. I can easily envision problems arising from a division of poetry into ever smaller spheres where only the right combinations of ingredients can make or appreciate some work. On the other hand, I’m also suspicious of the motives of anyone who claims to hate Identity Politics or Identity Poetry, while showing no interest otherwise in smashing the walls and peeling off the labels from artists for whom those “stick to that” labels and barriers may not be self-chosen.

Oh my, what a long introduction to today’s audio piece! In honor of Richards and Ransom and their experiments, here’s a piece I call “Poetry in Translation”  for the purposes of the experiment. I’m not going to give you any more context for the poem used, the author’s name or their ethnic identity. I assure you I’m not in this for “gotcha” or obscure literary one-upmanship. It’s short, so give it a listen and see what you think. I’ll be back later this week with more.

In Praise of Not Great Poetry

I’m about to make a point that seems to me to be nearly self-evident, yet I feel the need to make it because I sense a conflicting opinion is the premise behind some commonly made judgements about poetry.

Poetry of course is only one of many arts. In our time, it is one of the arts that feels it needs to justify itself more often. Poetry feels like it’s neglected, marginalized, underappreciated, and there are reasons for it to think so.

Does music do this? One can find defenses for the value of music, yes, but these cries are not the same. Similarly, the other arts that use words: prose of various kinds, cinema, live drama—people will defend their value, but not with the elephant of marginalized dread that advocates of poetry feel they must deal with.

Why is that? I’m going to use a loaded word to describe the cause, one that is likely not quite right, but one that I can’t find a short pithy substitute for: snobbery. There may be a better word. I mean, really, it’s more at a misapplied kind of elitism, but elitism is an even more misunderstood and misused word.

Roman Hruska

Roman Hruska. Is this is a picture of a great modern poet, or a leading voice of
“The New Criticism” who established the 20th Century ideals of great poetry?

 

Roman L. Hruska was a doctrinaire Midwestern conservative who served in Congress in the middle of the 20th Century. His place in history is constrained to one quote. Hruska’s infamous rhetorical thrust, meant to defend a Supreme Court appointment before the Senate for confirmation, was so mockable that it helped defeat that candidate.

I rise today knowing that what I’m about to say risks the same fate.

Here’s what Hruska said about Harold Carswell, who as candidate for the High Court, had been attacked as a mediocre jurist. “Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?”

That too is a misunderstanding of elitism. It is elitism to want the best leaders, the best judges. It is also elitism to desire all kinds of difficult and challenging arts. Given that elitism is sometimes thrown around as an insult in our century, let me be clear, I support that idea. It’s good to desire the best, to even take risks for the best, particularly in the arts, which have fewer direct consequences, and therefore can serve as a “research and development” department for outlooks and thoughts that we may want to experiment with a bit before we apply them to surgery or criminal law.

What does this have to do with poetry’s pervasive feeling of marginalization?

In the last century, poetry continued on an artistic and critical path that diverged from the other musical and literary arts. When any serious critical and institutional focus on the poetic arts were called for, poetry divested itself of all of it’s non-elite branches and expressions. Song lyrics? Not poetry. Popular poems, the kind once memorized by schoolchildren? Not real  poetry. Humorous poems? Humor, not poetry. Verse that is predominantly interesting because it’s musical speech? No. You don’t understand, poetry is about complex language examining difficult to express matrixes of experience. Thoughts and experiences from marginalized or particular speakers? Well, nice that they can speak up these days, but, please, it’s not poetry. Hip Hop/rap? Oh, come on! Get serious.

I can agree with what some literary critics and gatekeepers observe about these forms of expression, but not their judgement.

I too can be bored and uninterested in things that may fall into those “It’s not  poetry” bins. I can also be bored and uninterested in some page poetry which is credentialed and endorsed as serious mainstream literary poetry—you know, the stuff that’s poetry.  I can even change my mind about what I find interesting and worth my attention. I see new things in the work. I live new experiences. And sometimes when I’m listening to some musical speech, I’m seeking a pleasure or relief that’s hard to detail as criteria for greatness.

What if we considered all narrative prose that wasn’t a contender for the greatest novel ever written as, well, not prose. I enjoy a detective novel once in a while. Short stories can be sublime. Should I remind myself as I enjoy them that they are inferior in some criteria for a great novel? I find interest in some of the most austere or minimal modern serious music, but if every time I hear a good three-minute tune that makes a conventional set of chords seem inevitable all over again, should I feel ashamed that I think that’s music?

Can what is “not great” inform something greater? Many of the early Modernists seemed to think so—but it need not be applied like a newspaper clipping to a cubist collage or a folk tune to a symphony, it can be part of a vital continuum of human expression without needing elevation or even a judgment of hierarchy over all else.

I believe it’s a mistake for poetry, so concerned with it’s potential vital contribution to human culture, to feel that it can best survive by severing its cerebral head, leaving its ass and its elbow to wander around as “not poetry.”

Rosemary

It’s been awhile since a new post, what with holidays and family occasions, but here’s another piece, “Rosemary,”  using the words by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Millay was one of the most popular, most often read, poets of the first part of the 20th Century, but the later part of the century gave her less consideration. A contemporary of the Imagists and other poetic Modernists that we’ve featured a lot this year here, and while connected to their world, she didn’t sustain favor with the rise of the “New Criticism” that became the dominant academy in the English-speaking world after WWII.

Reasons? Well, there’s gender. One must assume that played a role. And popularity of the general-readership sort would not have been an asset either, as perhaps only Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson survived being read by a general readership in the mid-century without losing their high-art cred. Why couldn’t Millay have joined Frost and Dickinson in these critics’ esteem?

Millay with books

Millay at work. Other than the lack of guitars, just about the perfect décor.

I think it’s largely a case of her poetry not seeming to have the subject of their criticism: fresh, complex, allusive and illusive, imagery. Frost and Dickinson may have used homey sounding language, but in the end those funerals in the brain and snow, roads and woods added up to something to talk about in critical prose.

The New Critics were an inflection point. Before them, poetry was largely considered musical speech, a container that could hold a variety of subjects, after the New Critics, poetry was about the imagery, how you portrayed things with it. And unless one aimed for satire, such complex rhetorical structures must be in service to serious matters.

And so, there’s subject matter too. Millay’s great subject was love and affection, it’s presence, absence and all the shades in-between. In doing so, she addresses much of life and its condition, but did she receive enough credit for that? Is a heartbroken man a tragic philosopher of fate, and a woman merely a spurned lover? Narrow-mindedness can’t be ruled out.

“Rosemary”  allows us to examine these issues. This looks to be a poem about the death of a passionate love or the death of a dear one. I’m not sure which of those two possibilities is standing for the other, but for an audience, it does not matter as both events are common to our hearts.

I think there is an intent here to conjure a complex world of timeless folk magic. Though written in the 20th Century, it could have been written anywhere up to five centuries earlier. In the title we have rosemary, an herb associated with remembrance even in Shakespeare’s time (Ophelia’s mad speech in Hamlet for example), and in the first stanza we have rushes being scattered on a room’s floor, a custom from medieval times to hide the stink and mess of a less hygienic age, a strewing of reeds that may have included rosemary because it was thought to be something of an insecticide. Bergamot is another fragrant plant. Stink, rot and pestilence are all inferred subtly in this verse that on the face of it seems only a short catalog of flowers.

The second verse adds a rain barrel to catch rain, or is it tears? And what’s with that iron pot. Is it a cauldron? The poems last two lines are in quotes on the page. I was suspicious that the “An it please you, gentle sirs,” line was a quote, and finding out what it was from might be important, but I can’t place that line—if any reader knows, please clue me in.

And at the end of this timeless lament: “well-a-day,” which might sound to you or me like “have a nice day,” but is instead a word that harkens back to Old English, meaning woe-is-me.

What I think we have here is a poem, that read quickly, seems to be a trivial verse about some flowers with a bit of a kitchen scene, but it’s stated with deliberately archaic specifics so that the attentive modern reader might notice that time cannot heal this loss. And each thing in it is an image, though they don’t loudly announce themselves as such.

I’m reminded of my distant relative Susan Glaspell’s famous play “Trifles,”  where the domestic clues hide all the information the dense men seeking important information miss.

The Pentangle

The Pentangle. It’s not fair to compare. There’s 5 of them, and only 1 of me. Oh, and talent.

Musically, I went with bass, drums, two acoustic guitars and my voice for this. I was aiming for an impression of the sort of thing The Pentangle did many years ago. They were better at it, but it was good to try. Use the player below to hear my performance of Millay’s “Rosemary.”

Millay’s Sonnet 43

Edna St. Vincent Millay was another poet who offered little to the “New Criticism” critics who largely set the canon for the 20th Century, even though her career, which covered the first half of the 20th Century, ran almost exactly through the same time as Eliot, Frost, Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens, and even though she achieved significant readership and a level of awards and accolades while living.

What was their problem with Edna St. Vincent Millay? Well her popularity would be a negative in some lights. In this regard, critics are often no different than the record store clerks of my own day, whose estimation of any indie band would inevitably drop as soon as they achieved a widely-played record. And there’s the “her” and “she” problem. The level of disbelief of the idea of a woman artist probably varied among these critics, but literature was still a very male world at that time and unconscious prejudices are a given. But even if we skip those two, frankly illegitimate, factors, there is the issue of Millay’s plainspokenness.

St Vincent

Annie Clark performs as “St. Vincent,” Edna St. Vincent Millay is on the right. Google carefully!
Clark has said the stage name came from a NYC hospital, but if that’s so, it’s a remarkable coincidence.

Odd isn’t that? This value that you might rate highly in friend was held as low regard by the New Critics, who likely thought it common and unremarkable. A Millay poem typically says exactly what it means, right out. There may be images, but they might not pass Imagist muster. They aren’t stark omens whose meaning is felt and then deciphered, they may be more like the illustrative images the Imagists wanted to leave behind. Millay’s all tell and too little show for them.

And Millay’s language often seems stuck in the 19th Century too. Some lyrical poets like Yeats and Frost adopted Modernist tropes and were able to make their rhymed and metrical poems sound more like contemporary speech. Millay sometimes seemed to be reading from a somewhat musty library book when composing her poems.

The most extended image in “Sonnet 43”  is a bare winter tree, which could be a borrowed image, or a homage, and I choose to manifest the later in this performance.

Can our modern (post-modern) age free up some respect for Edna St. Vincent Millay? I think so. With contemporary poets, we now sometimes value plainspokenness. And the cluster of things that Millay spoke plainly and honestly about include love, sex, and desire.

This sonnet was published in 1920, it’s nearing a century old. If we slide over some of the 19th Century “poetic diction” (something I found easy enough to do when performing this) it’s as honest and as nuanced report on the state of a heart as anything written then or now.

And if one must have ambiguities for art’s sake, honesty can contain that too. Some read this poem as bitter, or a lonely-hearts club statement, or as regret for a life that Millay’s time would’ve called promiscuous. That’s not how I understood it to perform it. I think the speaker is recalling an active love life they rather enjoyed. They reveal themselves (honestly) as something of a sensualist. As the Petrarchan sonnet wraps up its octet, the speaker allows a touch of regret about those lovers who turned to the speaker at midnight “with a cry.” What did the speaker offer them? I think the closing lines say some “summer,” a summer that “sang in me”—that is, that summer is not something the speaker intentionally gave or offered, and the speaker doubts that the muses of that summer offering will still speak through her. William Carlos Williams—unlike Millay, following all the Imagist rules—touches also on the caprices of summer and fulfilled desires in It Is a Small Plant,”  but some are more accustomed to a male author speaking ambiguously about the honest incursions and boundaries of desire.

Perhaps this poem benefits with some listeners in being heard performed in a male voice? I can’t say for sure on that.

Among the 20th Century admirers of Millay’s verse were my father (who grew up on the 19th Century Longfellow and the like, so Millay’s 19th Century diction was no bar) and a distant cousinoid of mine, the modern American theater pioneer Susan Glaspell.

I rather like the musical accompaniment for this one. I worked quite a bit on the drum part trying to bring out different colors, and for the bass I was able to supplement the electric bass with some bowed contra-bass, which is one one of my favorite sounds in the world. Ironically, Millay started out wanting to be a concert pianist, and the top line here is one of my naïve piano parts. To hear me perform Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Sonnet 43”  aka “What lips my lips have kissed…”  use the player below.