London In July

This is another time where I present a piece by a lesser-known writer, though one who seemed to be on her way to overcoming artistic and social obstacles in the 1880s. Amy Levy was something of a prodigy, publishing work in her teenage years, achieving admission to Cambridge (only the second person of Jewish heritage to do so), and then while in her 20s carving out a career in journalism, fiction, and poetry. A feminist*, she had made connections with the cadre of those that would soon be called “New Women,” and Oscar Wilde was impressed by her keen powers of social observation and sharp concise prose.** In quick succession she wrote and published two novels and two books of poetry that seemed well enough received.

Of course, she had obstacles, not just the universal ones of art, but the additional burdens of anti-Semitism, misogyny, and what appears to be a lesbian orientation, which only makes her achievement as she reached the age of 27 seem just that much more impressive.

Amy Levy

Amy Levy “Talkative, good-looking in a way, and full of the restlessness of the unhappy.”

 

At that point she had completed another novel, and in the summer of 1889 she was working on reviewing the proofs of her third book of poetry “A London Plane Tree.”  The poems, if not exactly avant-garde, were spare and modern enough that they wouldn’t sound outdated in the coming century.

A London Plane Tree

The front piece of the original 1889 edition of this book of Levy’s poems. Does anyone know what structure is pictured?

 

Today’s piece, “London In July,”  is from that collection. It’s a love poem, a common enough subject, and its language is plain and unshowy, but consider what is being described. It starts by saying that the poet thinks her senses are “cheating,” that they cannot be relied on to represent reality. “All the people” she sees in London (presumably men and  women) appear to her as having one person’s face.

The second stanza/verse hints at what face she’s seeing on everyone. It’s just a dirty-patina urban London summer day, but against this background, among the millions in the metropolis, she sees only what she must see: her beloved. She reminds us, her beloved is a London resident, she doesn’t leave for a country stay even in the heat of July.

In the third stanza, this situation has become a puzzle, a maze, and the size of the city a “waste,” as she only wishes to be were her beloved is.

And the city’s crowds, wearing the beloved’s face, are mocking the poet. Crying out to others in the crowd and market, yakking on about perhaps where they’d like to be rather than in the hot city this July: beside some rural stream, or at the seaside. The poet concludes: I’m not leaving, this city contains her. Hidden somewhere in its essence and hot summer, there is my beloved.

Perhaps the most striking thing, beyond the hallucinatory picture that is being painted here***, particularly to audiences in 1889, would be the same-sex desire that seems plainly part of this poem.**** That’s masked by having me perform it.

So how did audiences respond to that? How did Amy Levy deal with that response? Alas, that’s masked too. After completing her review of the proofs, but before the book was printed, she died by intentionally inhaling coal-gas in her room as the coroner judged it: “Under the influence of a disordered mind.”

I once again remind you that the first duty of an artist is to survive.

For a fairly simple musical concept I had trouble realizing the performance of this one. A pair of violas and three violins establish the cadence of the piece, playing unison lines in various registers, but then the electric bass plays a line that doesn’t consistently relate to the bowed strings key-center or root notes. I was trying for an unsettled rub between the bass and the strings. At one point I had an acoustic guitar part that tried to tie those two parts together, but I couldn’t execute it well enough, and conceptually I think it may work better to leave the contrast between the bass and strings unresolved. I’m past the point of deciding now, you decide. To hear it, click the player below. The text of the poem, is here.

 

 

 

*Her first major work was a poem presented in the voice of Xantippe, the wife of Socrates who appears there to have founded mansplaining alongside philosophy.

**Among her crew: Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl) and Beatrice Webb, a founder of the Fabian society and the London School of Economics. She met Thomas Hardy and during the summer of 1889 she met Yeats who wrote later that Amy Levy was “Talkative, good-looking in a way, and full of the restlessness of the unhappy.”

***Part of what drew me to “A London Plane Tree”  was a description of the poetry within as being an early example of Symbolist poetry in English. In terms of poetic language, I can’t quite see that yet, but some of the mood and sensibility in the pieces connects.

****Other than a frankly lesbian reading (which seems supported by biographical info) the only other reading I can see would be an esoteric one, similar to those that see a level in “The Song of Solomon”  where the beloved is an incarnation of Israel or a state of union with the divine.

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Memory of June

As promised, here’s a love poem, one written by Claude McKay the Jamaican-born poet and writer who worked for many years in the United States. McKay sort of bridges the gap between Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Harlem Renaissance for Afro-American poets.

Like Dunbar, Fenton Johnson and Anne Spencer, his poetry was written early enough to be included in James Weldon Johnson’s pioneering 1922 The Book of American Negro Poetry.  Like Dunbar, McKay could write a smooth metrical/rhymed poem in the 19th century style, but like Fenton Johnson he often set his poems in distinctly urban settings: the northern U. S. cities that were the terminus of the Great Migration of southern Afro-Americans during the 20th century. Alas, also like Fenton Johnson and Anne Spencer, his published poetic work seems to have fallen off by the late 20s, though McKay’s prose career continued throughout the 30s.

Claude McKay

Claude McKay

 

One of the poems James Weldon Johnson included in his anthology continues to be one of McKay’s best known, his sonnet “If We Must Die,”   a passionate ode to desperate self-defense that doesn’t once specifically mention the white race-riots, lynching and other terrorism that was a cardinal problem for the civil rights movement between the abandonment of Reconstruction and the middle of the 20th century. I find this an interesting choice on McKay’s part. I’m certain many readers of “If We Must Die”  understood in McKay’s time exactly what he was writing about, even to the specifics of it down to names, places and horrific details. But that’s not in the poem itself, unless you count the “O kinsman” address in the 9th line and the external knowledge of who that might be defined via McKay’s skin color. Is McKay’s choice intentional? By omitting his race and context, which his readership largely knew anyway, he’s saying self-defense isn’t a thing to be granted to or earned for Afro-Americans somehow, but a fundamental human right to be self-asserted. McKay had many other poems in which race is mentioned after all—makes it seem all the more to be a choice.

By choosing to state this universally, “If We Must Die”  has even engendered an unverified factoid that Winston Churchill quoted this poem in a speech during the most desperate days of WWII—but all that is in war and ugly violence, and I promised you a love poem, and “Memory of June”  is that—though it has one somewhat ambiguous phrase that might make it part of a struggle.

Here’s the text of McKay’s “Memory of June:”

Memory of June

 

Did you spot it? You should know I’m not about testing you; you are to only score yourself here. I didn’t see it the first time I read it either. Do you think it’s the phrase “your brown burning body” celebrating mutual Afro-American love and desire? Well this is poetry, a pleasure, not bomb-defusal, feel free to hold for that. It is a pretty poem, a romantic one, isn’t it?

The subtle, ambiguous line I eventually noticed is earlier: “For one night only we were wed.” McKay is now widely assumed to have been gay, though he never “came out” and nothing I’ve read so far tells me why this is now assumed as known.*

Let’s assume this is so. It is also safe to assume that few readers of the poem when it was first published in 1920 knew this, other than those in McKay’s intimate circle. Now the course of love is complex. Many nights of love are singular for many reasons. And Afro-American couples accrue special challenges. But McKay chose “wed,” the thing that gay couples were officially denied until late in my lifetime.

McKay might well be using the same tactical move as he used in “If We Must Die”  in a different context, one where a then more secretive circle would read this poem differently from the common reader.

So here we are in June, a traditional month for weddings and also gay Pride month, and I present Claude McKay’s “Memory of June,”  a love poem, not another poem about war or violence. Except love isn’t simple, and good love poems aren’t.

The player to hear my performance is below.

 

 

 

 

*This sort of ex-post-facto outing without a diary, journal or other unpublished manuscript that would be easily cited if it existed often comes from gossip or oral history—two names for what is largely the same thing, but gay history has fewer paper records to rely on. So, evaluating that isn’t simple, and McKay isn’t notable enough for this to be something I can find quickly.