Poetry in Gray, Part 1

Continuing our exploration of National Poetry Month, let’s open another door. You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension—a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas…

Yes, I’m speaking of mid-20th century TV, and specifically The Twilight Zone.  Once more there is a revival of this series, helmed this time by the talented Jordon Peele. I think there’s something difficult in his task, one that may not matter in terms of audience or financial success, but one that I notice when I look at the old gray-screen stuff from 60 years ago. It’s two of those qualities I look for in poetry: compressed expression and memorability.

If older people remember some of those shows like poems, it’s because they were much more like poetry than prestigious television is today. For one thing the 30 minute drama was a thing. Isn’t this odd? We talk today about ever-shorter attention spans incessantly, as if we ourselves have forgotten that we’ve already talked about that subject—but the predominant television format today is the video equivalent of the serialized novel. Even the basest form of “reality TV’ shows are season-long arcs of hour-long episodes, and most of the prestige shows intelligent critics like to write about unwind over multi-season plots. That’s a valid concept, but it isn’t the only possible one. Those old 30 minute shows had to express the experience and clash of ideas fast, they weren’t about long-form character dynamics, they were about epiphanies.

Do folks feel they remember 21st century television episodes, in a sense they possess them completely as recollections of sensations and apprehensions; in the way that one possesses a poem, even one not completely memorized, where one may hold and carry a key stanza or final couplet in our mind?

There are several Twilight Zone  episodes that seem to have the quality of memorability shared with poetry. For the literary sort, the 1959 first season episode “Time Enough at Last”  starring Burgess Meredith as a man who so loves to read books would be one. The gist of the story is so memorable I’m not going to summarize the plot, because you’ll remember it if you saw it. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth the 25 minutes of your time, and there will be no spoilers here. Only the final (spoilers!) scene is available on YouTube, so don’t go there, but I expect some streaming services will have it.

Instead I’m here to note two small things you may have forgotten, though I have no idea if Twilight Zone’s  creator, producer, and screenwriter of this episode Rod Serling intended these details.*

TS Eliot and Harold Bemis

T. S. Eliot and Harold Bemis played by Burgess Meredith. Two bank clerks who’d rather be reading.

 

First off, Burgess Meredith’s character, Harold Bemis, works in a bank and his marriage is spectacularly dysfunctional. I found it odd that I hadn’t remembered the key scene between the married couple, which is so intentionally cruel and specific as to equal or exceed the empty-hearted offhand cruelty between men and women in “The Waste Land.”  Even if the wife’s character is stereotypically shrewish, the ending of their scene is so heartbreaking that I can’t say why it isn’t more remembered. Of course, the whole sexual politics of this echt-’50s trope of the controlling female denying the freedom of the male should be bothersome, but did the TV show intend to reference the scholarly T. S. Eliot circa the writing of “The Waste Land”  then working in a bank, famously hamstrung by his own dysfunctional marriage?

Probable? I can’t go that far, but it’s more of an outside possibility than you might think. T. S. Eliot was never Tennyson or Longfellow famous, but in the 1950s he was as well-known as a poet could be then**, and poetry was still considered something of a co-equal branch of literature, a substantial part of culture.

And that was the other detail that stood out watching “Time Enough at Last”  again. The couple’s scene revolves around Harold Bemis wanting to sneak a read of a book. A classic novel? A bit of science fiction or fantasy? Hemingway on bullfights and fly fishing? The Second Sex  in French? A hard-boiled detective yarn? Philosophy? History? A collection of “Can This Marriage Be Saved”  columns?

No, it’s A Book of Modern Poetry.  Bemis’ character says of it “This has lovely things in it, really. There’s one or two from T. S Eliot. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Robert Frost. Carl Sandburg.” My ears perked up. That’s the kind of stuff you find here!

Now Harold Bemis is also a stereotype, the nebbish, maybe the idea that the thing his domestic bank clerk life most wants is modern poetry is meant to underline that caricature—that he’s too bookish. It’s not like he wants to anachronistically read The Art of the Deal.  Despite the sadness of the scene, it cheered me, it could also mean to say, even a little, that that is what he needs.  And in any case, Serling at least thought that an audience in 1960 would know these poets in some way, even superficially. If Jordon Peele or someone would rewrite that scene today and his modern Bemis was to speak of Frank Bidart, Tychimba Jess, Peter Balakian, and Gregory Pardlo*** as the lovely things he most wished to read, would the audience read anything in those names?

Well those four poets could well have as much or more to say to us. Why wouldn’t they? On the other hand, I can perform the older poems I use here freely as I encounter them, and it would be a chore to try to get unencumbered use of current poets for my small project. So, here’s my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “At A Window,”  available with the player below, and full text to read along here. All four of the poets he mentions in his scene would have difficult messages that still might console Bemis, all four could write a lovely line, even about harrowing things. But I’d choose this one from Sandburg for him to read aloud.

 

*Serling’s screenplay was based on a 1953 If magazine short story by Lynn Venable. Venable also has Harold Bemis as henpecked and working in a bank, but her story has Harold’s spouse so dead-set against him reading that it’s said he hasn’t ever been able to finish a book, and the only book author name-checked in the entire story is Spinoza. Her scene between Bemis and his wife is told in a much blander flashback.

**Before there was a national poetry month, on April 30th 1956 T. S. Eliot spoke in the Twin Cities, filling one of the largest capacity basketball arenas in the country (somewhere between 14,000 and 18,000 capacity)—not for a mythic men’s Final Four between Eliot, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and Carl Sandburg, but for a solo lecture sure to pack’em in today: “The Frontiers of Criticism.”

***Those are the last four winners of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Unfair! Bemis’ book was an anthology of modern poetry, those poets he longs for all had been publishing for 40 years. But just for contrast, here are the poets who won the Pulitzer in the ‘50s, “recent years” to the 1959 TV screenplay: Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, Marianne Moore, Archibald MacLeish, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Robert Penn Warren, and Stanley Kunitz. Of course, poets in your rear-view mirror may appear larger/greater than they are to contemporaries, and it does look like the Pulitzer committee was more likely to give “lifetime achievement” awards in the ‘50s than they have been in our century.

When I Was a Young Girl

When I look at a more well-known poet or poem, I often find someone else less well-remembered connected with them. This sort of thing naturally intrigues me. Are we overlooking something of interest? Does this lesser-known person change our understanding of the more well-known poet?

I’ve noted earlier this month that Carl Sandburg won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1918 collection Cornhuskers—but that’s not the full story. For some reason, they decided to give out two awards for poetry that year, and another poet’s 1918 work was the co-recipient: Margaret Widdemer’s Old Road to Paradise.

Huh? Who?

I don’t aim this project to literary scholars, who likely know more than I do about the poets whose words I use, but there are indications that Widdemer’s name would stump them too, even those whose field includes the Modernist era. From a look through Widdemer’s Old Road to Paradise  this can be partly ascribed to Widdemer not writing in the Modernist style that triumphed as the century continued. Furthermore, Widdemer’s outlook, though feminist, is middle-class and lacks the bohemian allure of Millay or even Sara Teasdale (the poetry winner the previous year). As time passes, rebels and poètes maudite often retain their outsider excitement while losing their air of present danger, and Widdemer offers none of that. And while I’m hesitant to judge from a skim through one book, a further issue is that she may not be very good.

pre-war-lady-by-margaret-widdemer

Widdemer also had a successful career as a popular novelist between the wars.

 

Particularly for me, and for the Parlando Project, Millay and Teasdale’s words just want to sing off the page. Widdemer’s, though rhymed and following metrical schemes, generally don’t. There is a flatness to subject matter and a conventionality of imagery that fails to grab me as well. I would have loved to have picked up Old Road to Paradise  and found something as interesting as Fenton Johnson, Edward Thomas, or Anne Spencer; but not this time.

Margaret-Widdemer
Margaret Widdemer

 

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. Widdemer seems a level-headed person, and she is writing from a woman’s point of view that has fewer representations in the literary cannon of her era. What little I know of her biography says she worked to advance poetry and literary efforts. Could I find something to use? As I paged through Old Road to Paradise   I marked “When I Was a Young Girl”  as a possibility.

Why did this one stand out? It seems based on a folk song, but while it takes lines and tropes from folk songs, it presents an alternative viewpoint to the songs it borrows from. Since the post-WWII folk song revival, folk song has been even further associated with bohemianism and adventuresome living, even though the traditional texts used most often tell of sad ends.

From its title and often refrained first line, the folk song we can most easily connect with Widdemer’s poem is the female version of “The Unfortunate Rake”  a 17th Century song with dozens of popular folk song variations, including the American cowboy song “The Streets of Laredo.”  With the “When I Was a Young Girl”  title it’s been sung by Feist and Marlon Williams, and back in the 20th Century by Julie Driscoll and Nina Simone. The general plot of these variations is that a young person is dying after a short, intense life of drink and venereal disease. The too short life of pleasure is valorized even if the song’s singer often remarks that they know they are doomed to hell. No wonder this song has remained popular—both sinners and saints, and listeners on a journey from either pole to the other, can find something in the tale!

Widdemer starts as some of these folk songs do, by telling of the excitement of their youth before the song’s present moment, though in her more circumspect telling, the young girl’s adventures are in daydreams and fantasies, including (in another folk song reference), a longing to run off with the “raggle-taggle gypsies.”

I used a minor key melody for this, not unlike that used in the folk song. I won’t spoil the ending Widdemer puts on her version of this story by foretelling it here, but it’s not where that folk song and its variations take you. To hear it, use the player below.