The Little Ghost

Tom Rapp is a singer-songwriter whose work I love, and whose 1972 joint setting of a Shakespeare and a Sara Teasdale poem is one of the inspirations for this project. Rapp had a favorite story about the earliest days of his overlooked career: while still a child he entered a talent contest in Minnesota. The story varies. He may have performed an Elvis Presley song. He finished second or third. Another Minnesota singer, a similarly young Bobby Zimmerman,* finished fifth. The Zimmerman kid eventually went on to have a career that outpaced Rapp’s.

But then, Rapp would always add, it was a baton twirler who finished first.

American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay is another poet who began writing and publishing early, sending poems to magazines when she was still a teenager. At age 20 she submitted one of her grander early poems to a literary magazine’s 1912 poetry contest, and that poem “Renascence”  oddly created considerable publicity when it didn’t win but finished fourth. She was a young, poor, rural kid and some said she should have won on the merits of her poem—even including the guy who won the contest, Orrick Johns. As with Tom Rapp, you may have to be a reader of blogs like this one to have some sense of who Orrick Johns was.

If you ever loose a talent or poetry contest, consider that baton twirler.

Millay suit and tie

Just kids. Whiten the background and Sinatra the jacket over one shoulder, and you’ve got that Robert Mapplethorpe/Patti Smith’s Horses cover a few decades early

 

After the contest and the brouhaha, a benefactor saw to it that Millay could attend college, and a few years later this other early poem of hers, “The Little Ghost,”  was included in her first poetry collection. “The Little Ghost”  isn’t the grandest or most incisive poem Millay would write, so even though I’ve done many Millay poems here, I had overlooked this one until I saw it this month over at the Fourteen Lines poetry blog.

My reaction is shared by most who encounter this poem: it’s charming and only a little bit chilling. Yes, there are a few mildly annoying inverted word order make-rhymes, but it’s the little details that make it work I think. That the ghost seems to enjoy the poet’s garden-work (gardening inherently partaking of the life-death-life cycle), that she enigmatically shows no sadness at being dead, that she (though immaterial) is gracefully careful of the poet’s favorite plant, that she walks away (though a ghost, and a ghost of a child) with the substantial while insubstantial bearing of a great lady.

There’s no redrum, no haunted charge to the living, no absolute-zero temperature of next to death. Millay doesn’t even make the revelation that the child is a ghost a held-off-for-the-big-surprise-reveal—that fact’s in the title and the first line. Still, in the moment the poem lets us experience, the poet doesn’t yet know what we know. That’s the little chill.

Some readers have said that Millay intentionally or otherwise put her own past childhood self in as an undercurrent of this little ghost, and that reading works too, though I don’t know that’s a secret meaning that one must get to fully enjoy the poem. What with the garden setting, and that annual reincarnation, I do get some sense of spiritual kinship between the poems living speaker and the ghost.

Did that inform the music choice? I am back in my South Asian mode today with hand percussion, tambura, and harmonium. The instrument in the right channel that sounds vaguely South Asian is an ordinary electric guitar, one with a vibrato arm that lets me get a bit of that characteristic pitch waver.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Little Ghost”  is right below.

 

 

 

 

*Zimmerman changed his last name to Dillon and then to Dylan. My late mother-in-law used to tell the story of meeting Betty Zimmerman at a function decades ago, and as mothers in those olden days were prone to do, they got to talking about each other’s children.

“You may have heard of one of my sons. He’s Bob Dylan.” Betty proudly said.

My future MIL Maxine came back with: “Who’s Bob Dielan?”

When she told me the story some years later, she explained “I didn’t know! I didn’t have much time for music back then.”

Endless Circle

Here’s another poem by the lesser-known American poet Genevieve Taggard. Taggard was sometimes classed with a group of woman poets of the first part of the 20th century, all of whom suffered from the rise in the 1920s of “High Modernism” that held that longer poems with elevated metaphors referencing prior literature and art were the mark of seriousness in poetry.

Robert Frost* was able to hold out against this to some degree, but most female poets had a harder time of it. Three poets I’ve presented here multiple times: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, and Elinor Wylie all suffered from this change in the culture. Before this change in our last century’s Twenties, they were all prize-winning American poets, and all had achieved a reasonable degree of readership and fame. Somewhere nearing 100 years ago, all of these figures started to be classed as writers of unserious work: merely pretty verse. By the second half of the century when I went to school none were taught in my classes. Not part of the canon.

The poet, professor, and blogger I’ve referenced here earlier this year, Lesley Wheeler, recalls the term “The Songbird Poets,” which exclusive of it’s dismissiveness seems apt to me. The whole idea of poetry as song rather than an impressive castle of elaborate and complex images was in retreat—but all of them could write the kind of short poem that sings off the silent page. I can’t resist turning up the volume on them for this project.

Was their gender part of the downward reassessment? No need to make too fine a point about it: yes. To the degree that the critics and canon formers had an objective criteria, it was to see an excess of emotional content in their work, and they wished for a poetry where rote sentimentality was reduced or eliminated entirely and where overt emotional language was replaced by states revealed in those complex and often academic images.

But one can’t take emotional content out of art, whose whole Unique Selling Proposition is to transfer the experience of experience between one mind and another.  Those who’ve followed our yearly April dive into that High Modernist checkpoint T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  know that it has a harrowing emotional core, so harrowing that Eliot himself seemed embarrassed by it later in his career. By the time I was introduced to it in the second half of the 20th century this aspect of that medley of lyric poems was absent in the syllabus.

I maintain that song, the word-music of a poem, its structure, order, and how it rhymes its observations, can (just as much as some cool classical image formulating an objective correlative) powerfully contain and convey emotion. “The Songbird poets” were vastly underappreciated for the complexity of their examination of emotion and the human condition. Let us judge these means again as we look at Taggard’s poem. We may be able to look at these works and see what the previous generations couldn’t appreciate: The form her verse takes here is integral to the impact of this poem.

Endless Circle Text

 

This is a poem that holds itself in a mysterious balance, a Mobius loop of a story fulfilling its title. My reading of it is that it’s a love and death poem that portrays neither as final by its spare and graceful text. As I understand it, it opens with lovers under a tree, who by the second stanza have aged and edged into a death, a transition they mark “laughing and leaping” as if rebirth into youth.

The first verse is then repeated, and I’m feeling it ambiguously. Are they a new generation of young lovers under a tree, fated to love and weep, or has the poem’s singer moved on to a new love, a new desire fated to end in weeping—or are our lovers buried under the tree now, their spirits recalling life?

I don’t always know where the musical accompaniment ideas come from for this project. Sometimes I realize after the fact that I’ve been channeling some musical idea subconsciously. After I finished the mix on my performance of Genevieve Taggard’s “Endless Circle”  I suddenly realized that I may be musically recalling The Incredible String Band, a Scottish group from the weirder fringes of “The Sixties.” I admired their asymmetrical and unafraid to wander song structures and their wide-ranging combinations of various instruments, but I’m always hesitant to recommend them to others because their vocals are (like mine often are) more than a little pitchy.

If that part of my music here bothers you, today’s piece will then. This piece called out to be sung, even if mine is the only voice I have available to sing it today. The player to hear “Endless Circle”  is below.

 

 

 

*William Carlos Williams also fought against this, but he seemed to have felt this academic turn hurt his work’s standing. Marianne Moore is a conspicuous example of a woman who was able to buck the trend by writing every bit as cool and hermetic as any of the Modernist men. Frost himself seemed to write fewer of the short lyrics that his early books featured and turned to longer blank-verse narratives. And another Parlando Project favorite, Carl Sandburg, mixed in longer, more Whitmanesque epics, and turned to his Lincoln biography.

Over in the British Isles I don’t think things worked out quite the same. Why this might be is too long a subject for this post, much less a footnote.

**If you want to read a long impression of what it’s like to listen to an Incredible String Band Sixties album with an open mind and an ambiguous conclusion you could click here: “Makes Syd Barrett sound like Neil f’ing Diamond” it says. Or if you’re too young for that writer’s simile to hit home, think of the weirdest chronic-infused hip-hop mix tape you could imagine, only it’s played by two white guys and their girlfriends on a shed-load of acoustic instruments instead of samples and loops, and autotune clearly hasn’t been invented yet. Or if you’re brave, you could take the adventure and listen to one of their records yourself. Yes, an excess of “canyons of your mind” hippie naivete in the lyrics too, something that Taggard’s form and concision here contrasts with, but there may still be some charm in their work since there’s little danger of it taking over the world these days.