Here’s a mysterious poem by Carl Sandburg that makes its mystery in an unusual way. I think it may have been written for a child or for children, but by accident or design the matter of the poem makes a different sense as I read it now.
What makes me think it was written with children in mind? There’s the repetition of the idea of spelling these two short, common words in the title, neither of which are “spelling demons” that are difficult for adults to spell. And then further repetition in saying the two words “Good Night.” It seems something between a lullaby or a book like Goodnight Moon, beloved of parents seeking to ease their child to sleep. The middle of the poem has three episodes of things gloriously becoming gone and away, as if being left for sleep and dreams.
This is where the poem now seems to take on a layer that I’m unsure was part of Sandburg’s intent in 1920 as I read it in 2020. He starts with fireworks—which are firing all about me on this Independence Day night as I write this post. Besides the noise—and noise normally has a note-length and measure—a visual aspect which a fireworks display is notable for is its short duration. Those colors and light against a night sky may be stunning, but they are short. They are memories almost from the moment they burst.
And then comes two other short episodes: a steam train and a steam boat. The steam train on a moonlit night is moving of course, but its spume of exhaust is also leaving skyward. Likewise, the river steamboat is moving past a geography leaving the sound of their steam powered horns carrying across the fields they are not as stationary as.
Carl Sandburg. From the size of it, that microphone looks like it could be steam-powered too.
Sandburg the boy would have known those two steam-powered things. A child in 1920 could know them too. They were the ordinary things of freight and travel. In a few decades these steamers would be obsolete and all but extinct. 1920 is a little too early for Sandburg to know that. When he wrote his poem they were moving and gone. Now they are gone and gone. Carl Sandburg is gone too of course. And if he told this poem to his children? They grew up, aged, and are gone too. Many ways to say good night. Many ways to spell good night. Many ways, all leaving. Oh! the boom! The red and yellow, the blue and gold spreading and tailing! Ah! Many ways, all leaving.
*Unless you’re reading this on the WordPress Reader app on an Apple phone or tablet, which for some reason can’t show the player. If you switch to viewing frankhudson.org in the Apple Safari browser, you’ll be able to hear the music. Alternatively, the audio pieces are available as a podcast in Apple podcasts. Thanks for reading and listening!
A few posts ago I said I was holding back some material, going instead with other pieces that weren’t quite as dark. One of the pieces I was holding back was this one: Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night.”
This is often thought of as Frost’s most harrowing poem, even though it achieves that effect descriptively, largely without explicit emotional terms. Some of its tropes have become standard “Noir” features since the poem was written making the nighttime despair, loneliness, and alienation especially easy for modern readers to “read.” Here’s a link to the full text if you’d like to read along.
So, we have the poem’s speaker (let’s call him Frost for the rest of this) walking alone at night in a city in that time which is past late but too dark to be early. It’s raining. He meets only one other person, a watchman, and avoids him. He hears but two things: his own steps, and at the poem’s high point, someone else’s voice. The poem ends with him noting a “luminary clock,” and a remark casual or crucial he says it indicates “the time was neither wrong nor right.”
The incident of the cry in the third stanza is the key moment in the poem, the most telling. It’s so quiet in the rain (so not a full-on stormy gale or thunderstorm) and the cry is so far away that Frost stops walking because the sound of his footsteps is the loudest thing in the night city. He wants to make out that cry, which I think is “interrupted” by his own solitary footsteps. And what does he discern in that cry? That it’s not calling him back or bidding him leave either. Whoever he’s walking to get away from, it’s not their voice, but he wants to know if it is.
This incident is highlighted too because the poem opens with the idea of constant walking: Frost says he walked past the city limits and back. I’m hitting a muted low string on the guitar in my accompaniment to try to suggest that footsteps effect, that Frost is in motion even if he doesn’t know where he’s going.*
The last external thing Frost notices in the poem is the incident of the clock. Interestingly he uses an odd adjective for the lighted clock: “luminary” rather than “lighted” or “luminous.” I assume Frost would like us to think of the clock as an auspicious authority, a luminary, not just lit. I should also note that some see the clock as the moon in this poem. I don’t. I think if he’d wanted to depict the moon he’d say so. The lit clock face is moon-like, so I can understand that alternate reading, and what with its “unearthly height” Frost likely intends that overtone at least.
The poem is often read as a depiction of depression, and there I’ll agree as well. Depression is experienced by different people in different ways, but the situation here is familiar to me. Depression can confuse your judgement and ability to weigh things. Frost can walk all night because he is in some dispute with someone else (that voice he interrupts his steps to hear) but he’ll never figure it out even if he walks the entire dark city. He may step between self-pity and wanting to be seen as right, and self-abnegation and judging himself irrevocably wrong, but that only gets him out and back again. The luminary clock hands down it’s judgement: Frost, you’ll not figure it out tonight, which means you could return again to this night walk some other night—but it means also that one will be able to return, or turn elsewhere. Over time one may come to understand better that old acquaintance, the night. Roughly 30 years after writing this poem, Frost as a then old man said this to an interviewer “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”
In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”
Some see today’s poem’s luminary clock moment as an existential consideration of suicide. The clock (or moon if that’s your reading) somehow prompts or symbolizes the decision that this night is not the time for that decision. There’s another way to read “neither wrong nor right,” that the clock** indicates only a moment as time, and Frost’s realization about life is that it goes on, that it moves like this poem’s night walk, that that is its meaning: it’s movement.
Let me just say a bit about the poem’s beautiful structure. It’s a sonnet, and it’s a format I’ve used a bit myself lately: four tercets and a concluding couplet rather than the Shakespearean three quatrains and a couplet. But Frost has used Dante’s terza rima scheme of interlocking rhyme in the stanzas, and this knotted interlocking reinforces the endless walking and knotted thinking. And as one more music-of-thought feature, the poem ends with the first line—it walks out and back again just as the poem’s Frost does.
The player gadget to hear my performance of “Acquainted with the Night” is below. I wouldn’t decorate such a lonely poem with anything more than a single electric guitar this time.
**Yet another plausible meaning for “neither wrong nor right” would be that the traditional clock face might say half past four in the most deserted time of the night, just as it will say the same half past four when 5 PM quitting time approaches in the daytime afternoon. The clock’s face is ignorant or unreliable in that regard. It may be saying it’s time to end this night walk as the night is ending and life and people will return soon at dawn, in the same way it would be saying that it’s time to leave the work of trying to figure out the knot of the dispute before the poem starts, to clock out of the work of the night-office where that question was being worked on.
Frost’s poem doesn’t identify the city the walk is taking place in. For those that hold to the clock theory, London’s Big Ben has been suggested as the clock tower. John Timberman Newcomb in How Did Poetry Survive? suggests the clock tower of the Metropolitan Life Building, which as the tallest structure in New York City when completed in the early 20th century was a lighted timepiece of unearthly height. Many smaller cities of this time would have had prominent courthouses or main transportation terminals with lighted clock towers too.
For the moon theorists, the time is usually assumed to not be the time of day but a more general “time,” though it’s fairly easy to tell the time at night with a full moon (it’s overhead at midnight, like the sun is at daytime noon). However, “high moon” midnight would not likely be as deserted as the night walk time described in the poem.
This should be embarrassing to admit, but I’m not that familiar with Pablo Neruda’s poetry. This project is a great motivator to fill in such gaps. English translations from Chilean Neruda’s Spanish exist, but there may be no better way to become truly familiar with a poet than to translate them yourself.
As 2020 began, I saw a list of some works that came into public domain status on January 1st. Neruda’s Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) was one of those 1924 books that are now free to perform and use.
Published when Neruda was 19, it has reached a large audience for a poetry collection: the Wikipedia article says it’s the “Best selling poetry book in the Spanish language ever” and gives overall sales as 20 million copies. These are poems of erotic love and desire, and that subject no doubt helps its popularity. I think it’s safe to assume that some of the sales would be love-token gifts.
“If you see her, say hello. She might be in Tangier…” Pablo Neruda’s 1924 “Blood on the Tracks”
I’ve only translated one poem in the series completely: the final love poem. But on a cursory examination this collection of poems is an example of a genre that if presented as a sung recording would be called “a break-up album.” That is, it’s an expression of the author’s experience of a romantic relationship that has come to an end. It’s a common enough trope that many singer-songwriters have one in their catalog, and most of the rest could support a playlist to create one in effect.
A problematic element in the break-up album, sung or printed, is that the hard-end of a relationship tends to leave the writer who gets to document it a number of not always elevated states: self-pity, anger, hopelessness, revenge, grief, confusion, sorrow. By definition, the singer is “working through this.”
The former beloved likely appears, but they often don’t get a very well-rounded portrayal—the author’s pain is the side that gets sung. Sometimes you get Blood on the Tracks, and other times you get “Ballad in Plain D” from Another Side of Bob Dylan. Where’s Neruda, who was a few months younger than the Dylan of Another Side when Twenty Love Poems was written, in this continuum? The poet’s beloved here is referred to mostly in the sense of her absence in this final poem. Not much is said about who did who wrong and in what ways, and by this it’s a universal poem.
Universal can risk banality. Against this danger Neruda arrays considerable musicality in his poem. It’s not a strict form like a villanelle, but repeating lines and phrases work like that form and remind us of the stuck-ness and the self-mantras at the end of a relationship. From my start at a couple of other poems in the series, the whole collection seems to be full of sensual imagery, but this last poem, so full of loss and lack, challenges this tactic.
Neruda wrestles with that right from the start, saying in one of the refrains that the dissolution has caused him to be able to write “the saddest lines” and he then immediately launches into some of the most elaborate images in this poem:
‘…The night is full of stars
And the dark stars on the horizon are shivering’
The night wind swirls the sky, singing.”
Yet the rest of the poem is not consistently in this voice. Alternating with the more striking images are lines you, I, or the next person might say at the end of a relationship. This may make the poem more inviting to those not ready for a full-on array of Surrealist images.
This also made it easier for me as a translator. I feel my task as a translator of surreal images is to make them vivid for speakers of contemporary English, and that leads me to feel I should understand even the most hermetic image to render it as well as I can. I’ll often spend a long time on just one phrase, one image. What is the poet’s mind, however disassociated from convention, sensing, seeing, in this?
As a performer, my other task was to invest this poem about the end of a passionate state with appropriate emotion. How much to understate? How much to state with extra conviction or extra doubt? What I lack in skills there I can try to shore up with music. The composition’s core is an acoustic guitar part that while it isn’t exactly based on a drone tone, doesn’t have the kind of progression that takes the listener on an irresistible linear route. I let my strings sing with the bass guitar part, an instrument that can portray a heart-sob better than most. Standing in for the stars, the night winds pushing clouds, the distant singer, and the lost beloved is a high melody part off in the right-channel distance.
The player gadget to hear this performance in English is below. If you’d like to hear the poem read in the original Spanish, you can find that here. Normally I’d provide the full text of the poem—in this case, my fresh English translation—but this one is rather long on the page. I’ll post it separately if I get some requests for it.
We’ve come to the winter solstice, the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere, much more night than day where we live. But it’s also the season of lights: extra holiday lights decorate homes, Christmas markets, and some streets. Some are the lure of commerce, some the lure of religious worship. Some lights say that the desecrated temple can shine again. Some are an abstract decoration set against the dark and grey.
Dave sings below: “Seen from space the earth is glowing…luminescent as a cinder…”
This has probably gone on at some level since we discovered fire. It could be illusion or illumination, but the lights are our human communication with the dark. We know the dark is larger, we know the dark will return—but we still want to speak our piece.
A few years back Dave Moore and I recorded a performance of a song he wrote: “Lights (There Is No Darkness).” I improvised two longer guitar solos in the performance, neither of which are in any hurry, but I’ve come to rather like them along with Dave’s loping, chiming keyboard part. There’s a longer night to decorate, so why not share it here today I think.
The player gadget for “Lights (There Is No Darkness)” is below.
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 to “The 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.
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).
Like Frost’s “Stopping 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.
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.”
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.****
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.
I almost feel like I need to place a warning label on today’s piece: Rated RE Strong Romantic Emotional Content. Thanatopsic material. May not be suitable for those who have not sufficiently worked through issues with self-harm or the experience of self-dissolution.
Modernism had a strong tendency toward a critique and reaction to romanticism and its characteristic expression of emotional content. A man viewed as the founder of its English-language poetic wing, T. E. Hulme, wished to set it on a course of completely overturning Romanticism. But those bylaws didn’t always filter down to every chapter and member of the Modernist International. Readers here know I love some of the early Imagist works which are parsimonious with overt emotional words, even while seeking to charge their images with a fresh immediacy. These poems aren’t necessarily devoid of emotion if the reader has it to supply themselves—but then some Modernists, such as E. E. Cummings, were perfectly fine with frank emotional outpourings.
Sara Teasdale, in addition to being largely forgotten for the better part of the last 100 years, was never officially a Modernist, so there’s no movement membership to endanger and no expectations for her to fulfill anymore. She wrote intensely lyrical and musical verse in plainspoken and non-archaic language. That’s a surface shiny enough, devoid of hermetic imagery, and with sweet word-music that makes it too easy to miss what she’s saying.
Sara Teasdale is sick’n’tired of you mentioning how pretty her poems are
I knew this already, having presented Teasdale regularly here. Still, I had to go through a journey to inhabit and grasp this poem for this project. I collected it earlier this summer, seeking to stockpile a few seasonal poems ahead of time to have some on-the-shelf ideas for possible use.
Here’s the full text of the poem. If you skim through it, it looks like a fairly common poem subject: summer night. It might seem to hit the expected points too: hey, summer, it’s nice at night (maybe even better than the heat of afternoon). Plants, trees green and full, explicit birds. A Moon one can linger with long enough that you feel that if you stay the night you could watch it change its phase.
Teasdale can write a poem that seems like that. That’s a problem. It’s too easy to miss what she’s communicating if you leave it at “That’s pretty.” You could use her writing as a case-study in why some of the Modernist tactics that frustrate (or delay) understanding might not be counterproductive. Teasdale gets misunderstood quickly as one passes over the words, while someone like Mina Loy, Tristan Tzara, or Gertrude Stein causes those who won’t care to read carefully and empathetically to not stop in at all.
As I began to read, really read, “August Moonrise,” to figure out how I might perform the words, the last section seemed dark—and not in the pretty moonlight way. Here are some of the words that hit the notes in her word-music after the poem’s midpoint: bitterness, sorrow, death, wavering, blind, fearful, fire, cold, vanish.
Seeing that, I reexamined the opening half for portents. The swallows are rushing, willfully, together and departing from each other. And is their willful act truly willful? Maybe not, it’s like the movement of dark tree leaves. If that was a spare Imagist poem, or a work of classical Chinese poetry, we’d be confronted with that image, asked on no uncertain terms to deal with it. Here you may think it’s so much minor scene-painting.
The scene-painting gets even more painterly next. Sunset, moonrise. The final palette: “a deeper blue than a flower could hold.” Is that merely a beautiful picture or a statement of more blue than can be sustained?
Teasdale’s singer in the poem is drawn in (note, she goes “down,” descends to it, even though the preceding birds, trees, sunset, moonrise are all things normally above the horizon) because it’s her, or because it will become her. The poem reaches—if only briefly—a quasi-orgasmic happiness. One line here: “I forgot the ways of men” is so rich in ambiguity. I could read it three or four ways easily.
This happiness, this intoxicated leaving of all but the senses (however brief) is portrayed as a consolation. Consolation for what?
And then we enter that section that is so full of darkness, loss, imperfection. Is this section spiritually sublime or just harrowing? I think you can play it either way, though I suspect it works best if the other choice is kept as an undertone. Compare this to Laurie Anderson’s childhood account of Buddhist Midwest night skies and the non-necessity of self, the archaic trials of the Lyke Wake Dirge, or to a searing inventory of imperfection, almost a suicide note.*
Teasdale’s concluding couplet is so searing I think it must be performed understated. The crucial word in it, “theft,” says she doesn’t feel in control of this loss of control. Isn’t that frightening? Spending several hours with this text this week, fitting it to music, performing it, thinking about it was a journey, from “Oh, a summer night poem” to a consideration of the sameness and the difference of exceeding the self and end of the self.
So, am I out on a limb here, thinking this a major poem by a too overlooked poet? Has the seeming conventionality of its setting (subverted as it may be), the gender of its author, the musicality of its expression, the unabashed romanticism of its sensibility obscured our view? If this was Rilke translated from the German would we read it differently? If this was Yeats with swans instead of swallows would it matter? If a Cubist ran it through a copier a few times and then cut up all the lines and reassembled it, would we stop long enough to think about it? The issue of Teasdale’s membership or non-membership in Modernism might have seemed germane in the mid-20th century, but to a significant degree it’s immaterial now.
Well, I’ve done it again. Talked about the words so long that there’s no time to dance about the architecture of the music. Thinking about what I said above, I could have cut up and obscured Teasdale’s words rather than a straight recitation I recorded, but the choice I made has its strengths too. I did try to undersell the sensuousness of the lyric in hope it would cause the listener to consider it differently, but the opposite choice works too, for I’ve discovered this gorgeous and emotionally effecting choir setting of “August Moonrise” by Blake Henson that had me in tears this morning. See my comments last post about how my limitations as a singer and no access to alternative skilled singers focuses my composition into other modes.
I intentionally avoid apologizing for my work. I think that’s a good practice. If you think you should do better, do better or do different, instead of talking about it. My approach to “August Moonlight” with a skip-footed motorik beat and an ominous and fateful tone in the reading and music certainly contrasts with Henson. I could even imagine that hearing Henson’s work after considering Teasdale’s darker undercurrents intensifies it, as it did for me today. You can hear my version with the player below.
*There was a point in the production of this piece that I seriously considered abandoning my presentation of “August Moonlight” because of this. Once I could see that element was present in the work (as it is in Teasdale’s life), I felt it shouldn’t be denied if I was to perform it. Many artists deal with feelings of self-harm and because “All artists fail” in the sense of imperfection and producing things farther, rather than “Something nearer your desire.” I hesitate to present work that might feed into that, particularly with a beautiful and romantic sheen to it all. In the end I decided that Teasdale is illuminating that, and if I presented it so that you can consider its danger, it could have value. Henson’s setting makes a choice to emphasize the perception of beauty, the singular hour of atonement, which also would have answered this concern.
I’d planned to move on from Carl Sandburg, but I couldn’t lose my train of thought.
This weekend I got a book I’d ordered, “Christmas on the Farm” by illustrator and writer Bob Artley. Why such a book in the dog days of summer? Well, three weeks ago I attended a memorial service for an uncle of mine, Lew Hudson, who’d been a friend and co-worker of Artley decades back at the Worthington Daily Globe newspaper, and I noted that Lew had written a preface for this book.
Artley’s book has charm aplenty. It’s a memoir of his winter childhood on a family farm in the 1920s. I decided I would use the stories in his book to try to locate the farm of his childhood. And thanks to our modern Internet-hosted maps I did, by following an illustration and accounts in the book that the farm was between Coulter and Hampton, north of the road to those towns, north of the railroad (it looks like it’s a rails to trails bike path now), and north of two farms on either side of Spring Creek. In personal memories we travel in time, but modern tech makes virtual travel in space objectively accessible.
It’s not exactly next door to the Iowa farm town where I grew up (60 miles away) but the countryside would be close. And the 30 years difference between his time and mine? Not so much to me these days.
That got me thinking about little Midwest towns, and I saw this short Sandburg poem in my notes from summer reading and I decided to work it up.
Last post I mentioned my theory that Sandburg’s Whitmanesque mode, those broad catalogs of observations in his longer poems, have caused him to be remembered as a 20th century imitator of Walt; and that did him no good, as the High Modernists were only grudging acknowledgers of Whitman’s breakthrough style. When long Sandburg poems overshadow the short ones, what he thoroughly intended to be Imagist poems are instead seen as slight, one-dimensional miniatures, not charged moments in time.
“Neponset, the village, clings to the Burlington railway main line”
So, let’s look and listen to “Pods” as if it could be what Sandburg intended it to be. Yes, its core is a natural, real, and present image, not written as a simile, just yoked together by poet’s observation. The village of Neponset is like a peapod on its railroad line, one of many, too easily cast as having no concernable uniqueness (the cliché is “as alike as peas in a pod”). Given that it’s written before commercial air travel, the passing passenger train is there to reinforce that Neponset is “flyover country.*” Notice that the poem avoids almost all adjectives and sentiments, so we should notice the one striking one it does use: those passing, unstopping trains are “Terrible.” How so?
Well, they’re loud, big, massive, and they shake the peapods on the vine, they even shake the town “slightly.” Are those trains modernity and time passing Neponset by? They and their sleepers in their cars might think that so. Yet, peapods will not mind, they will continue their cycle—so why not the like thing, the village? After all, the poem in its sparse word-count (39 words) wants to connect with a repeat of “slightly” and linked tremors that the earth (planet or ground? No matter, essence either way) is also shaken. The “movers and shakers” are really only shakers here, their moving is no different that the pea vine’s revolving cycle of seed to seed. The sleepers in the train are too peas in a pod.
Naw pard, ain’t thinking of going off on vacation. Gotta roundup those peas and drive’em to LeSeur.
Musically, this one has lots of synths, though now that I’ve reminded myself how to play electric bass again, I used that instrument to form the vine of this tune. There are two electric guitars on this track, but their signals are so modified that even I find it hard to pick them out from the keyboard synth parts. Vocally, I decided to let the last few lines, our passing trains, our unaware sleepers podded in their Pullman cars, repeat their cycles. Here’s the text of Sandburg’s poem, and the player to hear the performance of it is below.
*Why does Sandburg want us to know the limited (a train that makes stops at only the large cities) is going to “the Rockies and the Sierras?” Why not Chicago or Los Angeles or San Francisco, or even (as in another Sandburg limited train poem) Omaha? I wasn’t sure. Unlike the Midwest’s rolling hills, these are places of majestic natural heights invisible to Illinois townsfolk. Are these Mount Olympian ideals? I know that train companies were promoting trips to these scenic areas as vacation destinations, so our passengers may be more carefree in their travels than those remaining in the rural town. This could also be Sandburg the journalist fact-checking Sandburg the poet? The Burlington Route didn’t have through service to the West Coast, and Chicago (where this limited would have originated) is only 120 miles from the little village of Neponset, and so not exotically far away.
No time or money for a train ride to the mountains? Early 20th century VR: the stereoscopic viewer!
My guess is that there’s an issue with Sandburg’s more expansive mode, present in some of his work, Whitmanesque in character and scope. The Pound and Eliot school of Imagism wasn’t much on Whitman, charging him with lack of craftsmanship and concision. And then there’s the issue of cultural affinity, which while outside the text, is important. Of the above, only Lowell was from a wealthy background** (and Flint’s childhood seems positively Dickensian) but they all saw themselves as culturally elite. Most were familiar with classical languages, some had Ivy League educations (though none were Oxbridge, save for Hulme who was thrown out after a bit more than a year for rowdy behavior), most had spent time in Europe , even Williams, the most American-focused of these.
Sandburg? Born working class to two immigrants in the Midwest***. Drops out of school at age 13 to go to work. The jobs he had in the first 40 years of his life were modest in prestige, but varied in location and nature. Coal-heaver, farm laborer, Army private, milk-truck driver, political organizer, bricklayer, “The Front Page” era urban journalist. What T. S. Eliot knew about the whole of literature, Sandburg knew about the whole of working-class work and life.
One could make one mistaken generalization from Sandburg’s biography, that like Whitman self-advertised himself, he’d be “one of the roughs,” a man whose art would be artless and as unconcerned with the niceties of aesthetics as the correct fork for which dinner course. But just like the lazy assumption that there’d be no poets in foxholes, the idea there are no aesthetes who punch a clock is bogus. Sandburg’s early work is as concerned with Modernist beauty and style as working-class dignity—and he is very concerned with working-class dignity!
Is today’s Sandburg piece, “Back Yard” an Imagist poem following the three Imagist rules? Let me paraphrase them:
Direct treatment of the thing: that is, the focus in the poem is on the image itself which will be described, instead of the image being a decoration and figure of speech within the body of a poem more concerned with its moral or message for which the image is only a “like” illustration. Conciseness: no extra words, and though not stated, it’s corollary is no less-apt words used only to make the rhyme. And freer rhythms: word-music, like sound-music, is not required to limit itself to only extraordinarily regular and repetitive rhythms.
Direct treatment? The outdoor, summer night scene is just that. One is hardly aware here that it’s an image, it seems like simple reportage. Is it merely the “hardly news” that on a summer night if one is outside, perhaps sitting on an open porch, you’ll hear and see other people outside too?
Concise? Pretty much. It’s not In A Station of the Metro, or The Pool, or The Red Wheelbarrow, there is some re-iteration in it, even a single line refrain, but even by the standards of lyric poetry, this is a short poem. The elements of the scene are evoked, but there’s little extravagant or showy description. One element that many Imagist poems share (though never a formal rule AFAIK) is that colors are used to simply describe objects, though since this is a moonlit night scene the colors are more monochromatic.
A follow up question: how minor and mundane is “Back Yard” really? I can’t claim it’s a poem of great originality—but that’s not the job of every poem, and this is more a poem of the continuity of change, a moment of shared perception, not a striking new vision.
I think its intent, in it’s just over 100 words, is for us to see a chain of life in a Chicago night early in the 20th century; and in its everyday exactness, state those things that might link to a night tonight where we live today. The silver moonlight in the scene seems almost a preservative, everything is frozen in that direct moment. In my night tonight it may not be an Italian boy with an accordion, but Mexican music from the back yard at the end of the block. The couple Sandburg says will marry next month, are now-dead grandparents of people as old as I am. An old man has fallen asleep in the late and waiting moment, his back-yard cherry tree’s fruits held in a moonlit unmoving until his eyes close. He will likely pass on sooner than the marrying couple, and his dreams and those long-ago cherries will be returned to the place that dreams, fruit, and poems go and come from.
The poem closes with a perennial thought delivered in the scene’s description. The clocks, the poet relates, say he too must go. The clocks say that to all of the characters in his poem, and by extension to us, his audience. Sandburg, the artist, the poet, has the job like the moon to fix this moment in silver. Was he thinking here of the silver of his brother-in-law Edward Steichen’s art photographs? What does he mean by the poem’s closing line? What are the “silver changes?” My best understanding is they are the endless succession of such fixed moments. There will be more and more silver changes, a great richness, even as we are entirely not there.
Fancier than my back yard: “Nocturne-Orangery Staircase” (1908). Sandburg occasionally collaborated with his brother-in-law and pioneer in fine art photography Edward Steichen.
For the performance of “Back Yard” I decided to intersperse some other night moments, sung as commentary on Sandburg’s poem. You can hear it with the player gadget below. Want to read along? Here’s the text of the poem.
*Yes, Imagism is only a label, a piece of sticky paper put on some writers and writing. But because Imagism was so vital to the formation of English poetic Modernism, excluding Sandburg, “The Forgotten Imagist” from its usual ranks was part of how he was diminished in the late 20th century. The artistically-chosen stark simplicity of Imagism was admired, but similar directness in Sandburg was seen as populist simple-mindedness. For an example, here’s a long review of a late 20th century biography, where the dagger is that Sandburg’s poetry was “dumbed-down Whitman” and the charge seems to be that he was a pretentious yokel who was also a phony who pretended to be a yokel.
**I’m of the impression that Eliot and Pound’s family had at least upper-middle-class wealth too, but my informal memory is that some estrangement or streak of independence led them to live outside their families’ wealth.
Another short break in the Dave Moore series to present an unabashedly ecstatic poem by E. E. Cummings.
The kind of Modernist poetry we often use here rarely presents itself like this, as the early 20th Century pioneers tended to be a downbeat and skeptical lot, even before the great tribulation of the First World War. Cummings isn’t the only exception, but a poem like this is so extraordinary in its exuberance that it will always stand out.
Lipping flowers…the ecstatic poet’s self-portrait in pencil
As a page poem, “Crepuscule” is laid out on the page in staggered lines sans punctuation, something Cummings may have picked up from Apollinaire, but the syntax isn’t as jumbled as some E. E. Cummings poems. It actually reads fairly easily once I lined-out the dismembered sentences. The images are surreal, though written before official Surrealism, and paradoxical sensations and states come one after another. Can one gather what is happening in the poem beyond the welcoming of sensation and exploration?
Cummings’ “Crepuscule” as a page-poem.
The title is “Crepuscule,” an antique word for twilight, and so the poem is set in that proverbial border time. The poem goes on to either explore sleeplessly and fearlessly in the unknown darkness, or launch itself into the imagination of dreams, which surreally complete and supersede the “mystery of my flesh”—at night exploration, or dreams, at once, indistinguishable.
I didn’t see this until after I finished performing it, but I suspect the poem may have bookended images near the start and at the end, the twilight beginning with the swallowing of the sun, the ending with the moon setting the teeth (on edge) with the metallic bite-taste of the moon.
As sometimes happens when I compose the music for these pieces I find out or remember that others have done this before me. As soon as I saw the title I thought immediately of Thelonious Monk’s instrumental composition “Crepuscule with Nellie” and the idea was planted to use piano in my music for this. I did end up with some piano, but I reverted to guitar, my home instrument, to express the unrelenting long line of this poem that leaps into the bothness moment of twilight.
Embarrassingly, I had forgotten that Björk had performed all but the last part of Cummings’ poem as “Sun in my Mouth” on her album Vespertine. Björk brings big time sensuality to Cummings’ words, bringing out the eroticism that was always there, not just by her commitment to the performance, but by ending on and repeating the “Will I complete the mystery of my flesh” line, bringing fleshiness to the mystery. But this is a poem of the borderline, and the flesh is also hymned to complete a change to something else.
My fearless borderline tonight is presenting this music which would have difficulty reaching the level of originality of Monk or Björk. To hear my performance of E. E. Cummings’ “Crepuscule,” leap into the ripe air by clicking on the player below.