Yesterday was some kind of day to celebrate Wales, and I asked the teenager in the house what they did to celebrate since they have an interest in languages and had recently been studying Welsh language online.
“You mean for St. David’s Day?” They replied. I was surprised they knew — but then they’re often surprising. “What are you supposed to do?”
“I dunno. Maybe make a point to use W as a vowel?”
What did I do? I worked, using some increasingly rare time recently, on a new piece here that you may see later this month with words by Welsh poet Edward Thomas. But that’s not today. Today is my catching up with a piece that has been in the works for a couple of weeks at least, remaining unfinished as other concerns remand me to only hot takes and short contributions on Twitter.
Those I follow in the British Isles are sharing pictures of buds and first wildflowers. Not here.
Is Sara Teasdale’s “Winter Stars” late then? In my upper Midwest, absolutely not. Monday it snowed, my bicycle which I’ve ridden all winter, is behind a shed door whose jam is frozen completely shut by an icy enchantment after melt/refreeze — and 15 degrees F. this morning certainly won’t let it go. Yet, there’s one other time displacement to account for in this poem, for this is another of Teasdale’s poems about WWI. Particularly in Great Britain, when “War Poets” are mentioned, male citizen-soldiers are typically meant, and few now recall that American poet Teasdale wrote poems about the war. One of those poems is likely her best-known poem (or at least poem title, since Ray Bradbury borrowed it) “There Will Come Soft Rains.” So lovely and complete is that dystopian vision within itself that I suspect it never occurs to readers today that she was writing it in the context of WWI.
“Winter Stars” has the same strengths of not seeming to be stuck in time or current events. Indeed, folks have written about the poem and thought the blood flowing and wars mentioned within its lines are metaphoric tropes. Alas, as I considered this poem during this past February, the anniversary of the still ongoing invasion of Ukraine provided a corresponding all-too-actual simile. Here’s a link to the full text of Teasdale’s poem.
Teasdale’s night stars are then, like the sure-to-come soft rains of her other poem, a meditation on what endures when suffering, violence, and human vanity can change everything else. I was particularly taken with the next to last quatrain in Teasdale’s poem, remembering as I read it her guarded and constrained by illness childhood looking out a bedroom window at the immortal stars and the mighty Orion, the hunter, who could change and master things.
In the poem, it turns out that Orion doesn’t change things, rather that desire to change things is the constant. Teasdale would leave her sick-room childhood in St. Louis, find some brief success in New York. That older Teasdale is the writer of this lyric. Armies can march, hunting changeable borders to be drawn in blood. Teasdale seems to somehow fatalistically know that Orion and winter never leave, they only blink, they’re always there, the hunter and the prey.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Sara Teasdale’s “Winter Stars” is below for many of you. No player to be found? This highlighted link will open a new tab window with a player so you can hear it too.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States, a harvest festival with elements of a more general event for gratitude. Those who wish to emphasize the gratitude aspect will often decry that Thanksgiving has become too connected with the Christmas shopping season. Their criticism would be: how inappropriate that a day to count our blessings is the day to launch a month of acquisitions and striving for more to give or get.
Earlier in this frankly troubling week for my family, with losses, stresses, and dissatisfactions, I happened upon a photograph from Twitter user Gary Hornseth, who specializes in archived photos and scans from my region. As I glanced at it, I first noticed that it was a very nice urban nightscape shot. The photographer, either freelance or working on a newspaper’s staff, was able to get a long exposure and the right amount of what painters call chiaroscuro to make the high-vantage-point monochrome shot eye-catching. The archivist’s note didn’t tell us who the photographer was, but they say its source was the November 23rd 1949 edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper.
I don’t know who the photographer of this midcentury downtown St. Paul shot was. Fine work.
But then the next thing intrigued me. Hold it, I know that section of St. Paul Minnesota. I worked for 20 years just a couple of blocks away from that corner later in the 20th century. There — that must be the church spire next door to where my coworkers and I worked for a radio network. Back then, from the 4th floor or the roof of my workplace, nearly the same viewpoint on the night was on offer. The streetcar that runs down Wabasha in the old photo? That would be ancestral to the light rail that eventually ran down the street by my work. I looked closer to see what else I could find in the photo. Oh look, there are Christmas decorations spanning the street. Many cities and towns used to string them between light poles for the season, and there they were, like a Minnesota Bedford Falls, arrayed across Wabasha. I checked a calendar. Just as today’s 23rd of November, the day this photo appeared was the eve of Thanksgiving.
And finally, I saw the one thing that drew me furthest into that picture. At the left margin of the photo, silhouetted in a lit window on the 4th floor of an office building, is the single human figure in the shot. Not enough detail to say who they are, just their unmistakable human form. A cleaning person, night watchman, midnight-oil-burning worker, or business owner? Could it even be a writer such as myself? Because they are not so blurred in the photo’s long exposure, we know they were standing still, looking out for a good moment. To look out at the night on a settlement of people, especially from a high vantage point, is to have a thought, or the experience of something that may be more encompassing than an ordinary thought. Here then, as I would have seen decades later, are people and their creations, their government, their religions, their workplaces, their schools, their hospitals, their arts, their businesses. All of them have someplace to be or someplace to be lost from, something to celebrate or something that does not fit them. The gap in time from 1949 to now, is something like a lifetime of moving through those states, even on one corner in St. Paul Minnesota. To someone my age, that doesn’t seem that long.
In conclusion, that’s the real and balanced Thanksgiving, the one of all of us satisfied or unsatisfied, grieving or gathering, living in justice or injustice, may observe.
I wrote today’s piece you can listen to below after viewing that photo. It started somewhat prose-poem-like, which I revised more toward prose. It’s a couple minutes longer than most of our Parlando Project pieces and I didn’t have much time to put together a performance of it, so I decided to go word-jazz, working as spontaneously as a one-man band could do so. I quickly ran through the piano part, worked with percussion samples to get a drum track that worked (easily the longest task), and then played the fretless bass part. The spoken word story recording was one pass, not perfect, but close enough considering the time I could devote to this. You can hear it with the player gadget below, and where that gadget isn’t displayed, with this backup highlighted link.
I hear that today is something called National Radio Day. I read that on social media, which I suspect in turn will be a strange artifact to be explained to unformed young people of some yet undisclosed future. After all, as I write tonight I have doubts I’ll be able to convince any current young people of the romance of radio.
I grew up midcentury in what was supposed to be the TV age, but TV was a very constrained and arid thing then. TV was usually one set in the living room with maybe 3 or so channels receivable. It signed off in the evening, came back on with the dawn, and presented one thing at a time under the control of a schedule that could be memorized by its viewers. Radio may have been the old tech, but it was richer, stranger, more able to surprise with chance. Kids had their own radios, cars had radios, and the talking/singing boxes continued all night — and radio was never stranger than at night. Small local stations were required to dim their watts and disappear at sundown, and then certain stations would appear like the night stars, receivable across the countryside with varying reception. In my tiny Iowa town I ran an antenna wire out my window to an apple tree branch outside. The radio’s tubes glowed and Chicago and WLS were certain. KOMA in Oklahoma too. Detroit and Tennessee sometimes.
To be honest, I don’t recall hearing the famous super high-powered mid-century Mexican X stations. Maybe I did for moments — listening to the radio at night meant that stations would sometimes drift in and out, so I might not have heard every call sign. One of those stations, XERB, had a DJ and program director who was too unremarkable as his given name Bob Smith, and so became Wolfman Jack. At XERB he had an on-air compatriot named Fat Daddy Washington.* But today’s piece isn’t about the Wolfman. It’s about Fat Daddy Washington.
You see it’s not just those night-time radio signals that jumped around and changed with the stars. Just as Wolfman Jack had been Bob Smith, and “Daddy Jules,” and “Roger Gordon and the Music of good Taste” as he bounced around formats and jobs; Fat Daddy Washington was not some longtime hepcat, but a kid just a few years out of St. John’s University, a Roman Catholic affiliated college tautologically located in Collegeville Minnesota. “Washington” had worked at the college’s radio station under his real name Arthur Hoehn.
Now let’s zoom in on the “Summer of Love” in 1967. For some reason Hoehn headed back to his old school in north central America from its southwest corner, driving in a sharp new Thunderbird. There’s a story there I’m not privy too. Was he going to impress old schoolmates with his newfound flash — a not uncommon move? That doesn’t sound like the unassuming Arthur I later knew a bit. Was he possibly out of a job at the X? Plausible. When he arrived back in Collegeville, he ran into one of those schoolmates, a guy named Bill Kling who wanted to expand and professionalize the college radio station.** Kling later told the story that Hoehn unilaterally offered to help out. Kling joked years later that he wasn’t even sure he paid him at first. However, Hoehn was also recalled as what became Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media’s “first professional DJ hire.” Since the Collegeville station played classical music with news breaks, I’m not sure that Hoehn’s Fat Daddy Washington mic-time at the heavily R&B oriented X was much featured in their early pitches for funds.
Earlier in this century, MPR/APM employees tried to ID all the people in this early staff picture posted at our headquarters. The only ones I knew from my time were Michael Barone (2nd from left), Arthur Hoehn (3rd from l) and Gary Eichten (5th from l)
By the time I worked alongside Hoehn his regular gig under his given name was working the overnight shift as the host of a classical music program “Music through the Night.”*** If nighttime is the right time to maximize that romance, I’ll still tell you that when I’d actually run into Hoehn it wasn’t romantic. Radio in the flesh rarely is, and nighttime shifts are no place to dress for success or to put on a show of supercilious professionalism. Hoehn would likely be wearing comfy wild-print Zubaz lounging pants and a nondescript open collar shirt. We’d likely nod at each other knowing we each had a job to do.
When broadcasting live (as Hoehn did) the radio host is near alone even in larger stations and networks, and they can expect that most of their listeners are also sameways singular. There might be someone in the next room asleep or another driver in some light-pool car transiting the passing lane, but the listeners are each alone with the host and his record’s vinyl voices, like-black pianos, and sleep-breathing strings. They may be listening to you to try to fall asleep, they may be listening to you because they just don’t want to go to sleep right now, they could be in love full of bright energy, or just out of love and wanting company, they may be working a night shift like you, they could even be — as I watched my father-in-law one night — in a hospital bed awaiting death with the radio murmuring the needle-dancing angels of this side of life.****
Though some old folks reading this will remember this with me on Radio Day — young people, you likely didn’t/don’t live this. Yet I’m writing this more for you. I’ll allow that this is likely as imaginary as any fantasy world for you. But this went on once upon a time. The feeling of the romance of radio, intensified by nighttime, was as real as any current or future fantasy is, and so this has the value of any fantasy tale, as an exercise for imagination, and as a demonstration that shared fantasies can dissolve into air like dew after dawn.
When my coworker Arthur Hoehn died in 2011, I thought: there are a number of songs about DJs, but the music these song-celebrated DJs play is inevitably jazz, r&b, or rock. What about the man alone playing orchestral instrument music, likely in recall/remembrance of those classical “dead guys” compositions, while most of the world sleeps for a few hours in the little analog of death. Is that goth or what?
A performance of the song “Arthur Hoehn” I wrote is below, recorded soon after Arthur’s death. You can play it with the graphical player if you see that, or with this alternative highlighted link.
*Wolfman Jack the nighttime DJ was featured as a romantic mentor to the kids in the movie American Graffiti, and parlayed that role into a larger TV and radio broadcasting career in the 1970s. It’s a point too large to deal with in a footnote, but some white DJs in this time-frame took on portions of Afro-American argot and signifying. Given that American popular music in general has done likewise before and after Wolfman Jack and Fat Daddy Washington, I’ll leave this as a footnote.
Here’s a link to blog post about XERB, with a contemporary flyer saying of Hoehn show “’Fat Daddy; Washington, one of the heaviest swingers in the world, presents 9 tons of soul and is a real “mama’s’ man.”
**Several other Collegeville student-station alums were part of the early MPR/APM core. Longtime news program host Gary Eichten was another. Pipe organ enthusiast Michael Barone too. And another who cut his teeth hosting classical music only to break from that into a unique combination of oral story-telling mixed with musical variety: Garrison Keillor.
Coincidentally, I’ve just realized that I believe my High School English teacher Terry Brennan who introduced me to Keats, Frost, Donne et al in my tiny Iowa town was just out of St. John’s too. If so, it’s highly likely that he was an overlapping classmate of some of those folks. Odd to put that together decades later!
***Eventually this program with Hoehn hosting was syndicated live around the country via satellite (yes, they used satellites, not the still nascent Internet, to do that then). One of the national listeners who sent a fan letter: Joan Baez. Baez also worked in the Sixties with Peter Schickele, who I met in my first month at the network headquarters.
****Other famous overnight DJs? Alison Steele “The Nightbird” was the overnight FM rock DJ in the late 60s-early 70s on NYC’s WNEW-FM and had no-less than Jimi Hendrix as her recorded praise-singer. A British guy in the American southwest conned his way onto the air as an experienced DJ (he wasn’t) during the early days of the British invasion in the early 60s. He broadcast on “KOMA in Oklahoma” one of those “clear channel” stations that I could reliably get in Iowa at night, though he had the early morning shift there. His air name was John Peel, and he went back to the UK and worked for pirate Radio London with the “London After Midnight” show which in 1967 became “The Perfumed Garden” launching many an underground rock group in England with his eclectic playlists before a subsequent long and influential broadcasting career. I’ve never even heard air-checks, but musician/writer Tony Glover had an overnight “underground” rock show on KDWB in Minneapolis during the Sixties that some recall with fondness.
A little contrast here in poetic fame from Shakespeare to a poet who’s equally unknown under each of his names: Joseph Campbell/Seosamh MacCathmhaoil. Most of his poetry was published under that first name, not the Gaelic version, and so I’ll use it today, even though I’m always obligated to say “No, not that Power of Myth guy.” Over the years this project has promoted the idea that Campbell deserves wider recognition. Here’s a brief version of that case.
Belfast born, Campbell was active in the Irish cultural revival at the beginning of the 20th century, and like Yeats, he seems to have crossed paths with the London-based Modernist poets circle of T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, and Ezra Pound in the years before WWI. His involvement with the militant wing of Irish revolutionaries also grew during this time.* After Irish independence he lived in America for more than a decade, while continuing to promote Irish culture; but he seems to have stopped publishing his poetry after the establishment of the Irish Republic. Late in his life he returned to Ireland and died there in 1944 where his ghost continues the task of becoming largely forgotten — at best a footnote, and often not even that.
Well, most poets are forgotten, even in a country like Ireland that does a better job of revering them than most, but here are some things that attracted me to Campbell: he worked effectively in the folk-song part of the Irish cultural revival, collecting, writing, and adapting song lyrics.** And his take on page poetry included both that folk song tradition — and uniquely among his Irish generation — a handful of very early poems in the pioneering English-language Modernist style that would be called Imagism.
In fact, I’ll put today’s piece up against any of the more famous short Imagist poems widely anthologized, I think it’s a masterpiece of the form.
Here’s the lyric video of the performance.
I find “Night, and I Traveling” a hugely affecting example of direct presentation of a thing and a charged moment in time. Like Imagist poetry in general it does expect the reader to pay attention, as the poet did, and to supply from within themselves the emotional charge the presentation represents.
Campbell was a country walker in Ireland, and the door he observes while walking in the night is likely of a small rural dwelling, plausibly little more than a hut. The door is open. Perhaps the peat fire inside has gathered smoke. Perhaps the occupant is expecting someone to return. Let us also remember, this is more-than-a-hundred-year-old rural night. The ambient light he’s sees in the dark has a landscape context of moonlight at best. There’s a gleam of some porcelain dinnerware inside, perhaps the most valued possession in the hut, perhaps a dowry or wedding item. The poet hears the only occupant, a woman, singing, in the ambiguous, but I think rich phrase, “as if to a child.” Note this single simile in the poem. He could have written “to a child.” He did not, leaving the implication that I take: that there is no child — the child is dead or gone. Campbell passes on “into the darkness” and the poem ends.
Seven lines, and this poem slays me. How much is packed in there to an attentive reader: the poverty of the colonized Irish, the depopulation of those who needed to leave to survive, their meager treasure (part of which is song), the closely-held personal losses.
Yes, poetry such as this requires your attention to work. I ask for your attention to this poem and to Joseph Cambell.
*This revolutionary involvement seems to have been the proximate cause of Campbell’s literary career stalling. In the aftermath of Irish Independence, the Irish Civil war broke out between factions of the new Irish state. Campbell ended up on the losing side and was imprisoned for a while. Despite my admiration for Campbell’s poetry, I’m not an expert on his life or the political issues of the Irish Civil war. But these events seemed to traumatize the writer, and it’s not hard to imagine that politics and associations from a sectarian war might have caused him to be written off by some in Ireland.
Today’s re-released Parlando piece from our early years is “Crepuscule” by American poet E. E. Cummings. This is certainly a passionate, ecstatic poem, isn’t it! Looking back at what I wrote about it in 2018, I was then taking the main meaning of the poem to be a portrayal of falling into a Surrealistic dream state. In the same post I confessed I hadn’t remembered that Björk had performed a version of this poem that seemed filled with erotic desire.
Rereading and reconsidering, I’m more unsure which is metaphor and which is meaning — and I think that’s often a good thing in poetry. We’re in one of those gestalt drawings created with a spell of words. We could be in the transport of desire, and it is like unleashing a spectacular dream: flowers are not just colorful, but burning with color. We will be still in bed, yet leaping with sleep-closed eyes. And so on.* It’s difficult to not feel the erotic pull of the text. For a dream, the mystery is very much of the flesh. Mouths, thighs, bodily curves, fingers, lips…is it dream as sex or sex as dream?
Three ways to hear my performance of E. E. Cummings “Crepuscle:” there’s a player gadget below for many, and there’s a backup highlighted link for the others. Want some dream images flowing behind the words of a lyric video? That video is above.
*The most mysterious line has lovely word-music: “with chasteness of sea-girls.” I’m assuming a reference to nereids, sea nymphs, but I’m unsure if the poet’s speaker is becoming one, or trysting with one, in the rush of their dream. If water spirits, perhaps gender fluidity is a subliminal?
A longish one this time. I’ll try to make it worth your while.
In the places I go it has been hard to escape Joni Mitchell and the 50-year anniversary of her breakthrough record album Blue this month. Mitchell is one of those artists like Emily Dickinson* or Thelonious Monk who people contemporaneously recognized as someone on the scene, someone whose work might appear at hand or gain mention — but then decades afterward the level of originality and importance of what they had done becomes more and more clear.
Mitchell’s Blue wasn’t immediately recognized as a classic, successful statement. Musically it’s a bit odd, even by the eclectic field of 1971 recordings. Though “singer-songwriter”** was a growing genre at the time, most of them would present their songs in a full band context on record. Instead, Mitchell’s record is spare, often just her voice and one instrument — and sometimes the instrument is a mountain dulcimer at that! She often used her voice unusually, with quick almost yodeling leaps in service of the originality in her melodic contours, and this was off-putting to some. One thing I remember about listening to Joni Mitchell LPs back in my youth was that the amount of volume in her upper register would rattle the plastic frame and enclosures of my tiny portable stereo’s speakers, producing a very unpleasant buzzing distortion.
To the degree that she was noticed in 1971, that she could be a figure who’s fame might outreach her record sales or rock critic esteem — it wasn’t just that she was a successful songwriter for others who could round-off her corners just a bit to present “Clouds (Both Sides Now),” “Woodstock,” or “The Circle Game” to a wider audience than their author could — it was because she was known as (this gets complicated, stay with me here) as the “girlfriend” of a lot of male rock stars. This got joked about. The now infamous Rolling Stone “Old Lady*** of the Year Award” in 1971, or a joke picture of a purported Joni Mitchell LP with a song listing of: 1. Crosby, 2. Stills, 3. Nash, 4. And Young.
Do those of my generation remember that? Did you laugh? I did. That’s part of the complication, but then I believe sex is only funny when you’re risking doing it “wrong” — and it is best if it’s funny some of the time. Dead serious and entirely secret? We might as well sign up for Brave New World industrial reproduction or efficient devices shipped in plain brown wrappers.
That said, now-a-days that 1971 behavior toward Mitchell is now viewed as belittling and a case-study in patriarchal attitudes in the “counter-culture.” Which it was. In the era’s defense I’ll say that the times were groping (should I revise that word?) toward an imperfect but different attitude toward sexual relationships. Just exactly what women would have to say about this wasn’t the first or second thing on the official list of speakers, alas.
It just so happens that Mitchell spoke up anyway, and mixed that with a kind of music which might have seemed just a bit odd or imperfect then, but now is seen as effective, important, and original.
And now it’s time to play Frank’s favorite history game. Folks are thinking about Joni Mitchell and 1971’s Blue here in 2021, but what could we see if we rebound off that 1971 time and look back 50 years from then?
Well, they do tilt their berets the opposite way. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Joni Mitchell
The poetry fans who are still with this post were wondering when I’d get to Edna St. Vincent Millay. In 1921 Millay had broken out as a young poet to watch, partly by that “being on the scene” presence in New York City in the era around and just after WWI, and by famously losing a poetry contest with a poem that many (including the contest’s winner) thought was the best of the lot. That poem was then featured in her debut book-length collection, and now it was time for the “difficult second album.” She planned that second collection to be what was to eventually become her book: Second April, a title that suggested that plan. But she was having trouble with her publisher, and eventually another collection came out ahead of it, just as the 1920’s began to roar: A Few Figs from Thistles.**** It’s a fair analogy: that book was Millay’s Blue. And like Mitchell’s Blue people noticed the author’s public persona not just the poetry. Millay became the exemplar of “The New Woman” of the 1920s, who were sometimes finding patriarchal marriage a doubtful institution, and flaunting disregard for traditional arguments financial and domestic for that. Speaking openly about erotic feelings. Creating their own art rather than settling for standby muse duties.
I’m not sure if even an incomplete list of Millay’s lovers was known to a general poetry reading public 100 years ago, and one can’t quite imagine Poetry magazine naming Millay “The Old Lady of 1921,” but the persona in A Few Figs from Thistles gave us that adventurer in love character that makes Millay and Mitchell echoing artists. But the original edition was a thin volume, chapbook length, and from things I’ve read this week it seems that Millay worried that it wasn’t substantial enough while Second April’s publication faced continued delays. A second version of A Few Figs from Thistles was hurriedly planned and issued, and some of the additions were standout poems in the collection as we now know it, such as the one I use for today’s audio piece: “Recuerdo.” Here’s a link to the full text of that poem if you’d like to follow along.
In her heyday of the 1920s Millay’s Modernist milieu and outlook wasn’t always reflected in her poetic diction. This may have helped her readership who were not yet used to, or appreciative of, free verse or other experiments in expression. Robert Frost or William Butler Yeats would also retain a poetry audience in this time with lovely metrical verse that expressed the modern condition, but Millay was (to my mind) not consistently as facile with metrical verse and more often fell back to fusty 19th century syntax and language,***** but she could also rise above those limitations. “Recuerdo” is an example of that. It has an effective refrain expressing two contradictory and relatable emotions: “tired” and “merry.” Those emotional words are contained solely within the refrain. The rest of the poem progresses in the Modernist/Imagist style: things and events are described out of order, and in a common Modernist trope in a mixture of tones and importance. How many love poems include a phrase like “smelled like a stable?” Yes, this is largely a love poem — why it even touches on the aubade formula of the pair’s night being interrupted by the dawn — but look again: love (or sexual desire) as a word or even as a direct description is not mentioned once! Yet many readers can sense and feel the limerence of erotic love all through the poem intensely. That is there in this objective and fragmented depiction. Remarkable!
But that absence does allow for some ambiguity. Is there some level of inconsequential going-through-the-motions experience available in a reading of this poem? Or at least some sense of transience in the experience, which after all is framed by the title which means memory in Spanish? I think that’s accessible there too. Suppose I was to present this poem by inventing a frame that imagines it was written by two drug-addled addicts hooking up for one night and to say that that emotion word “merry” in the refrain has some archaic meanings that are congruent with “high.” Same words, different effect in that frame. Or if the same poem was written with a title like “How I Met your Father.”
Perhaps I overthink things, but the last stanza with the donation of fruit to the older woman who responds with words of gratitude was rich in ambiguity to me as well. An act of Christian charity, mixed in Modernistically with other random events and sights? Seems likely, but if I’m traipsing around tired and tipsy with my night’s hot flame and somehow, someway we’re carrying two dozen minus two each of apples and pears, their value isn’t exactly gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Is the older woman’s “God bless you” a simple expression of thanks or an implied suggestion that maybe the two younger lovers might want to kick in some spare change, which they consequently provide? Given the push-pull of political radicalism and romance in Millay’s work, can we be sure she doesn’t intend to portray something of the limits of the gesture to the old woman?
How many are thinking then that I’m an unromantic old cynic who has misunderstood and harmed this poem? Is there another group that says I’m not straightforward in my social and political analysis of the situation? Well, my fate is to be doomed to be in both states alternately and sometimes at once. That’s why I like this poem.
One knock against Millay and other New Woman poets of her time once the peak of her fresh fame wore off was that she wrote love poems, not statements about the important, complex issues facing us. Fifty years later, one knock about Joni Mitchell was that she was writing songs about two little people who don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Both of those summary beliefs are incorrect — but then, what is it you are saying: love songs are simple?
Maybe for you. Not for all of us.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Edna St Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo” will appear below for some of you. No player to be seen? Then this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab window and play it. My music today isn’t very Joni Mitchell-ish (though later Mitchell, much past Blue, was a bit into synths). The vocal turned out to be a “scratch track” I kept because it seemed usefully spontaneous, even though I omit a few words in the poem’s text inadvertently.
*Dickinson wrote much of her work in the 1860s, and a small group of people knew of some of it though almost nothing was published in her lifetime. I speak here of the Dickinson that existed at the turn of the century after several volumes of her poetry with regularizing edits had been issued. Today she’s taught as one of the great American poets. Back when I was in school she was a charming slight oddity that seemed to fit in with some of the small, short poems the Imagists/Modernists produced in Millay’s time.
**Years ago I wrote a humor piece where I called this 1970’s trend “Singer Sewing-Machine” artists because so much of their ethos had airs of “back to the land/rent a house in Laurel Canyon/sew hippy blouses and embroidered patches on your jeans.”
*** “Old lady” and “Old man” as in “My old lady” were usages borrowed from what were the old-fashioned/outdated terms for wedded partners. Used in the more fluid arrangements by young people in the mid-20th century counter-culture they were supposed to be ironic statements of: partnership at least for now. Mitchell’s song on Blue“My Old Man” is an encapsulation of that moment.
****Back when I first presented a poem from that collection that so many of you liked this spring,“First Fig,” I was unaware of the origin of that book’s title. I wonder if my father who memorized Millay’s short poem but also studied to become a Christian minister in the Millay era would have known that Millay’s book title is from Jesus’ words in Matthew.
*****Her admirers can parse this as a Modernist use of older “ready-mades” which are being modified in the context of her 20th century verse.
Let’s pickup the countdown of the pieces that drew the most listens and likes over this past winter. Each bold-faced listing is a link to the original post on the piece in case you’d like to read what I wrote back then, and those original posts will also contain links to the full text of the poems used.
7 Thursday by William Carlos Williams. Quite often when reading through early 20th century Modernist poetry, I repeat my surprise of how plainspoken and outwardly simple some of it seems. This poem by Williams is one of those. There’s not a single word in it that would be unfamiliar to a grade-schooler. One need know no complex allusions to anything other than ordinary life. Not all his contemporaries wrote like this. Wallace Stevens will pleasingly stump us with his love of obscure words, T. S. Eliot will ask us to consider how history rhymes its myths, and William Butler Yeats will make English sing with beautiful and metrical word-music. Against that sort of thing, this poem by Williams may seem ordinary. As ordinary as a Thursday.
There’s only one bit of word-trickery in it — and having no other in this short poem should invite us to ponder it: that unusual use of the common word “carelessly” in the context of “I remain now carelessly/with feet planted on the ground….” Carelessly? Huh? How many quick readers would slide over that and not notice anything out of place! In the opening of his poem Williams has told us his dream has come to nothing. Is this dream one of our ordinary nighttime hallucinations or a strong and potentially life-changing imagination for the course of things? He doesn’t say and may perhaps mean either. His stance on this? Back to observing the world standing simply and unmoved with both feet on the ground, “carelessly” in the sense of “without a care” regarding that; with the sense also that the overlords of guilt and ambition or the lure of more surreal and spectacular verse are saying he should care and he’s going to ignore them.
In place of that care, of that “tyranny of the shoulds,”* Williams offers us ordinary life, ordinary words, the meditation of breath. That resilience and carelessness, those two steady feet able to stand up to the sky, is this song. You can hear it with a player gadget that may appear below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.
6 I wake and feel the fell of dark by Gerard Manley Hopkins. What a combination this makes with Williams’ poem that it happens to sit next to in our countdown! Hopkins’ poem has its speaker also awakening from a non-productive dream “Hours I mean years, mean life” — this dream is clearly both a nightly and a life’s dream. And he’s in the opposite of careless: roiled with distress and self-disgusted guilt over it.
What a combination this makes with Williams’ poem…
The language here is extra-ordinarily charged. Some of us have had such a self-castigating night, but few of us could express it in such a tight compressed form as a sonnet that moves musically and emotionally. Hopkins’ feet are not firmly on the ground at all — he’s rolling and tumbling as the great American floating Blues verse has it — and that’s the nature of Hopkins’ song.
This is the distress half of the engine of the Tao. We may more easily recognize it quickly as great poetry, and should, though without some balancing aspect it cannot long whirl.
My performance of this greatest of his “Terrible Sonnets” can be heard with this hyperlink, or in cases where it appears, the player gadget that may be below.
Collar styles of poetry, a retrospective. William Carlos Williams, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and William Shakespeare
Well, the jury’s still out on that one. It is always so with art, as art happens in the present when we look, read, listen, hear. That’s a large part of what this blog is about: encountering stuff written in various ways and times and seeing what we can make of it in the immediacy of a musical performance.
“Sonnet 97: How like a Winter hath my absence been” is neither the calm meditation after a dream’s failure nor the roiling disgust our first pair of poems had. Instead, this sonnet is all about the ambiguity. What kind of ambiguity? Shakespeare will pick several. One of the basest tests of mental state is “oriented to time and place.” This poem certainly isn’t — that’s its most pressing point. Is it winter, summer, fall, or spring? Can’t say for sure. The purportedly male authorial voice dons rhetorical drag and speaks of his sonnets as if they are birthed from a poetic womb as if the addressed “fair youth” is the only begetter in a very patriarchal metaphor for these sonnets. And what’s the true nature of the relationship between that authorial voice and the fair youth being addressed? Complicated. Author as vassal of the ruling class?** Lover? High-minded patronage? Some of all? Well, that’s Shakespeare’s song for us. This hyperlink will play my performance of it, or if you see it, you can use a player gadget that may appear below.
*The phrase is psychotherapist and author Karen Horney’s, whose mid-20th century work may still have something useful to say about us today.
**It was while dealing with this sonnet that this aspect of the “Fair Youth Sonnets” first occurred to me. I assume it’s occurred to others, but not being a Shakespeare scholar I can’t say who or where.
Once more let us look at winter-come darkness and see what we see there, this time through Gerard Manley Hopkins and one of his “Terrible Sonnets.”
The name “Terrible Sonnets” is not a review, though I’ll confess that on first hearing of them, that between Hopkins oh-so-British sounding triple name with an extra schoolboy snicker due for the middle name on top of that, that I too wondered what meaning I’d assign to that word “Terrible”. No, my teachers assured me, terrible in the same way that wonderful and awful can be synonyms in strict derivation English.
No, these are poems that have a good scholarly reputation, and some general readership yet today. If there is disagreement about them, it’s not about their worth or poetic quality, but rather if they show Hopkins in a profound spiritual crisis or in a clinical depression. One can find a number of essays online and elsewhere that argue for either, or perhaps both. Either way, this is the night darkness as we often think of it. Yesterday we had Joseph Campbell making a case for a mysterious outward darkness, the exact nature of which is just out of our understanding. Hopkins darkness in contrast is totally intimate. I find it interesting that both of them were writing in Ireland, then still a colonial possession. Campbell may be expressing his country’s subjugation and its ancestors’ sorrow at that in his poem. Hopkins, in turn, was a patriotic citizen of the empire that ruled over Campbell’s country. That’s not a frame I’ll follow up on today due to space, and because Hopkins wrote these poems in the late 19th century and there’s no way to start a Tweetstorm that he can read back then.
Hopkins, about to be pwned for complicity in colonial exploitation, before everyone realized: wait, 1885, no iPhones.
Here’s another frame, another one with roots in colonialism and subjugation. In America we have a form, the Afro-American Modernist form forged around the same time that some white Americans were over in London helping create and popularize Imagism. That form was called “The Blues,*” and to some degree that indigo name has let it be casually and incorrectly considered a sorrowful song. And yes, a lot of bad and sad things are spoken of in The Blues, but it’s generally from a stance of: “Look what’s happened to me, what’s been done to me, the absurdity of it—but I’m still here to tell you about it.”
Today’s piece, using Hopkins’ Terrible Sonnet “I wake and feel the fell of dark,” is not a Blues. But despite the harrowing statement of the inside of this poem’s speaker’s experience, it shares one thing with The Blues that makes it outstanding: “I wake and feel the fell of dark” is full of energy. The description of the state inside the poem is cascading and vivid, coming at you so fast that it seems all at once. If this is depression being described, it’s not the mode of depression that is numbed beyond caring, but the depression that actively calls out and hates the depressive portion of the speaker’s mind. In this way, it shares something with The Blues, it can be cathartic. And indeed, some sufferers of depression (like too, some religious seekers) find the Terrible Sonnets worthwhile as a voice in darkness that can remind them that there are others who’ve felt and seen the same things.
I’ll risk trivializing Hopkins’ revered poem by pointing out two trivial things I noted in looking at the text, as few commentators on Hopkins’ work choose to sink to mundane levels. The section “I am gall, I am heartburn…bitter would have me taste: my taste was me” seems to me to me to be on one level a symptomatic report of the experience of nighttime gastric reflux. And in these days of 2020, with lots of long nights this year before this day of Winter Solstice, Hopkins back in 1885 was prophet enough to speak specifically of our popular pandemic baking fad of homemade sourdough bread in this poem’s line 12!
*The Blues of course is a varied and mutating form whose essence exists beyond the bins carrying that label in record stores or playlist names on your phone. I use it as a name because it’s one that coalesced for the art form at the time it emerged around 1900 in America. I stand to be corrected by my betters in these matters, but I believe the Blues essence remains a vital part of Afro-American expression, and from that, American expression in general. I’m an American musician, and the notes are mostly black.
What do we see, what do we learn, what possibly do we gain here in the upper parts of the northern hemisphere from so much nighttime at the beginning of a cold and snowy winter?
Some might say we learn endurance, a sense of obligation besides the dark and ice to carry on. Or a concentration, winter solstice as the fasting of light. But night is a filter, a frame, offering another way of perceiving. So, I went looking for poems this month that might allow you or I to look at darkness and see differently. One of the strongest and strangest poems I found was this one by a little-known Irish poet named Joseph Campbell.*
I’m trying to gather more info on Campbell. He was born in colonial Ireland in 1879 and died 1944 in a now independent Ireland. Most of his available poetry was published before WWI. He was imprisoned in the events surrounding the Irish Civil War of the last Twenties** (he was aligned with the losing side) and afterward he lived for a couple of decades in the United States. Shortly before his death he returned to Ireland and died there. I’ve read one of his book-length collections of poetry and parts of two others, all of which predate Irish Independence and the Civil War. I find him a striking poet worthy of more interest. Most of his poetry is brief, rhymed lyrical poems, using short metrical lines, such as today’s selection. One collection, Irishry, contains incisive small character sketches of Irish life at the turn of the 20th century. Another, The Gilly of Christ, has elements of Christian mysticism. Inherent in many of the poems seems to be a speaker who has spent time hiking about the country, and in this regard, Campbell reminds me at times of Edward Thomas with his attention to the book of nature and the landscape. While he likes rural and sometimes peculiar words, his language is clean and modern without the taint of worn-out 19th century leftovers.
There are also a handful of poems I’ve read in the collections so far that are very much in the style of the early Imagists, and this is striking because they may date to around the same time as their initial ground-breaking experiments. I so far know of no direct connection between Campbell and the largely London-based pioneering Imagists, but like his Irish contemporaries Yeats*** and Joyce, Campbell seems to be an early Modernist voice regardless of his use of rhyme and meter for most of his poetry.
Here’s today’s piece with chords in case you want to make sounds in the winter night
Today’s Winter Solstice relatable piece “Twilight Fallen White and Cold” mixes his modes a bit to produce an interesting effect. It’s on one layer a jaunty nature poem, almost nursery rhyme simple. This seems an easy effect to achieve, but particular to moderns, it’s not. Subtly mixed in with the “child in cradle, lamb in fold” comfortable lines are misty undercurrents. Well, yes, those trees are a bit ghostly in fading light and cold mist. Yes, birds are on the wing, but also “Black-winged vampires.” What? No, there are no vampire bats in Ireland.**** And in the last line of the second stanza we meet “rath and burial mounds,” the former a word that has an Irish meaning that an modern American reader might slide over. No, the burial mounds aren’t explicitly angry, a “rath” is the remains of an earthen-walled stronghold dating back to Celtic chieftains. The poem final stanza intensifies that hold and call from the indigenous past. Though Campbell is depicting an Irish landscape, these rounded-over and landscape-worn earthworks bring to mind the areas of North America in my native Midwest where indigenous people built similar structures.
But the most mysterious part is repeated as a refrain to make sure we don’t miss it: “Wounds of Eloim/Weep on me!”
The darkness of coming night may be mysterious, but this is more so. I don’t know exactly what Campbell is getting at there, other than the effect of mystification assuredly delivered. Eloim, which I believe in a variation of “Elohim,” is word that will not become less mysterious if one researches it. It appears to be a Semetic language family word for gods. In the Bible the word appears to have taken on several meanings. The Abrahamic Semites are famously monotheists, and they will use the word to refer to the multiple gods of the other tribes—but even though the word is plural, they will use it to refer to their own, singular god, or to the ambiguous angels that are not human but are also not plural gods. At some point, I believe post-Biblical times, this association with angels has led the word to be used at times as synonym for heaven.
Does that help us understand what Campbell meant to ring out multiple times in his poem? Not exactly. I gather some sense of a lost past, of a suppressed culture, is being invoked, but the mysticism never reduces itself to a “this stands for that, it’s just a code to be broken” level. That may increase its power, and it certainly increases the strangeness of this poem.
Returning to my original question, what might the darkness, our winter-come overwhelming night portion teach us? The example of this poem says that I shouldn’t answer that question quickly and simply—but that I should ask it.
*As I have to say whenever I mention Campbell to anyone: no, not the American Hero With A Thousand Faces and “Follow your bliss” Joseph Campbell. This is another guy. The Irish Joseph Campbell also used a Gaelic name, Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil which would have given him a more secure doing-business-as cultural brand, and near the end of his life a pen-name of Ultach.
**Until this year I was entirely ignorant of the events of the Irish Civil War and now only know the summary story as reflected in things like this Wikipedia entry. I am, so far, unacquainted with Campbell’s political beliefs and actions.
***Like Yeats, Campbell seems to have been a committed cultural nationalist, seeking to use the arts as a way to uplift his country’s prestige and as a foundation for independence from colonial status. Like Yeats he also seems to have been involved with theater and as a song lyricist. One tidbit I found, which may be related to the mysterious element in today’s poem, is that he may have been the source responsible for a broadside folk ballad “Reynardine,” being performed in a version by several British Isle folk-revivalists later in the 20th century as a tale of a “were-fox” rather than in its original guise as tale of a bandit. Here’s two of my favorites versions, one by the incomparable Bert Jansch, and an unaccompanied one by the equally special Anne Briggs.
****Maybe St. Patrick and Van Helsing teamed up to take care of that?
It’s time to count-down the audio pieces that you liked and listened to here most this past autumn. But before I get to the count-down I’ll mention that new pieces are getting harder for me to produce for a number of reasons. As of now, I still plan to produce some additional examples of what the Parlando Project does: combining various words (mostly poetry) with various original music (as varied as I can make it). Still, given the over 500 pieces already posted here, there will be a lot to explore while you’re waiting. What are those pieces like? Or unlike? Well, our quarterly top-tens are one way to see.
In each of the listings below and in the coming days, the bold-face titles are also links to the original posts where the pieces were presented in case you’d like to see what I wrote about them then.
10. The Poetry of the Root Crop by Charles Kingsley. I love coming across a remarkable poem I’d otherwise never come upon unless I was working on this project. “The Poetry of the Root Crop” is largely unknown, and its author Charles Kingsley is too. No one seems to care much about his poetry, and even his lonely web biographic sketches barely mention it. I remember one I read saying his poetry was “competent.” Oh my. We poets are claimed to be a grandiose lot, and “competent” is a pen-knife between the ribs, not even a public execution. Kingsley the man is also lesser known, particularly here in the U.S., which might be unfair and yet favorable to us enjoying his poem. Considering Kingsley as a thinker and active force in his time has me going over this project’s many presented authors and recalling that while many had ideas I could agree with, they are often mixed with other prominent ideas and convictions that appalled me.
Poems can be about ideas, though they are not the ideal container for them as such I think. We are blessed that “The Poetry of the Root Crop” isn’t a manifesto, though it uses some cultural markers as part of its scenery. What it is, what poetry is, is an apt container for communicating the experience of experience. Kingsley’s experience of a graveyard and/or garden can change how you see the thing yourself. To have that transference between minds isn’t merely “competent” I think. If you don’t see the player gadget to hear this piece, this link will also play it.
9. No Common Ground by Dave Moore. Oh, how I miss having more of Dave Moore’s voice here. The pandemic has separated many artists, and performers most of all. How cruel this illness has been to have one of its earliest American super-spreading events to be through a group of people singing with each other!
So, it’s ironic that Dave’s piece that found so many listeners this Fall is about our chosen separations, one that I thought particularly apt for our current year when I reposted it on November 7th. The player gadget for “”No Common Ground” is below, or as an alternative, this highlighted link for those that can’t see the gadget.
8. Back Yard by Carl Sandburg. I think it likely that Carl Sandburg had some ideas I don’t agree with, but I don’t look for them too hard, because I’m so grateful for the feeling of fellowship I often feel with him. “Back Yard” too is not a manifesto, though it’s not hard to see its experience of the experience of an urban immigrant night as a statement by a son of a Swedish immigrant. Part of what I plan when I return to new pieces here is to talk a bit about our experience of the common ground of darkness as winter solstice approaches here in the Northern Hemisphere, and while Sandburg talks here of summer, his night somehow holds more than broad daylight can.
“Back Yard” has continued to draw listens since it was first posted here two summers ago, and this September, as summer was leaving us, there was another strong spike in listens. My stats tell me I have listeners here who are approaching summer solstice below the equator, so this one is right on time for you.
Oh, there are a few words you’ll hear in the background that aren’t Sandburg’s. Some other angel’s alchemy from the common ground graveyard/garden of Kingsley’s poem perhaps? You can use the player to hear those night voices, or this alternate, highlighted link.