A Letter to Those Who are About to Die

Certainly not the most self-love inspiring/invest me with hope/promise to give me beauty title for a poem. Mid-century American poet Kenneth Patchen could supply those sorts of things, but in his first book, Before the Brave  published in 1936, he was looking around him, and the things he saw and felt were ominous.

In that collection and this poem, Patchen seems militant and politically committed in tone, though the poems seem too immediate to the times for me to fully decode his advocacy. “A Letter to Those Who are About to Die”  indicates something’s coming, but it doesn’t simply say what. Violent revolt or revolution? Another World War? State-run oppression? Radical social change? If we study history, we know that it turned out to be some all of that. By the time Patchen was writing “A Letter to Those Who are About to Die,”  the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China were at hand or a few months away. Hitler was firmly in power in Germany. America was in economic crisis—and if you were poor, black or another ethnic minority perhaps only a generation away from another country that might be equally troubled, your life was now doubly challenged.

Kenneth Patchen 1939

A photo of the young Kenneth Patchen in the 1930s

 

I know the later Patchen, the pacifist, the poet of love, the painter of illuminated outsider pages, but this was an angrier voice, more desperate than I expected. He was all of 24 and he’d just found the love of his life—but this wasn’t a newlywed world of hope. Could we look back from our perch informed by 20th century history and say he was wrong, that he was over-reacting? No. The ovens, the bombs, the death marches, the battle beaches, the truncheons, the gulags, the lynchings, the public gunshots.

Someone called Patchen’s mid-century cohorts The Greatest Generation. They fought for and against these things, perhaps in roughly equal numbers, and there are claims in all alignments that some of the above list of horrors were necessary to defeat some others also of the above. Objective history can tell us this all happened, even if it can’t speak with one voice on which horrors were justified. As far as I know, Patchen was against all of those horrors, which made him an outsider in his generation. Idealist? Naïve? An individual who opted out from being blamed for history?

I’ve been taken this spring by a song of Andrew Bird’s “Bloodless.”  Bird’s an artist that I’ve previously admired more than I’ve wanted to listen too, but this song has a laid-back Curtis Mayfield/Marvin Gaye groove and heart that I can’t deny, with lyrics about the poets exploding like bombs “And it feels like 1936 in Catalonia.” That feels, in my present, like today’s Patchen poem.

 

Andrew Bird’s “Bloodless” official video.

 

So, even with that title that refuses to be attractive, I’m willing to give Kenneth Patchen a read and a performance, and you may be willing to give it a listen.*

Musically, my band and voice aren’t going to be keeping Andrew Bird awake on those nights when it’s music and not the parallels of the Spanish Civil war that interrupts his sleep. However, Patchen is one of those pioneers in combining spoken/chanted poetry with jazz-influenced American music, including collaborations with John Cage and Charles Mingus and a series of LPs with other musicians issued in the ‘50s. I do not expect or wish to frighten the ghosts of Cage and Mingus, only to honor their, and Patchen’s, independent spirit. The player gadget to hear my performance is below. There is no easy place to read the text of this poem on the Internet, but this link may work for those that want to read along.

 

 

 

 

*By coincidence, the Poem-a-Day from poets.org today is by Fatimah Asghar titled I Don’t Know What Will Kill Us First: The Race War or What we’ve Done to the Earth,”  which title probably equals Kenneth Patchen’s in click-through rate, even though the poem itself might ask us to read the title after the poem rather than before. I sat in a bakery this week and overheard two older white guys, looked my age or a bit younger, discussing the ridiculousness of fears like unto Bird’s and Fatimah Asghar’s these days in America. I wonder what Kenneth Patchen would say if he were to stop by?

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America, A Prophecy

July 4th is celebrated in the U. S. as Independence Day, the day that our congress signed a declaration of independence from the British Empire. I know this project has an international audience. So, why celebrate a provincial event here?

Because the American Revolution was not simply a patriotic event. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that its initial battle was “the shot heard round the world.” What was so singular about it? It was not merely an anti-colonialist act—after all empires have had rebellious provinces forever, and empires always fall—but it was also an act that founded the modern democratic republic. Overthrowing a colonial government, as the American patriots did, is not in itself a remarkable event. I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifices, the risks, they took. I don’t mean to overlook the evils inherent in armed struggle. I won’t today seek to re-litigate the proximate issues of the Revolutionary War, with its details of commercial interests (including, yes, commercial interests in human properties) and debate the best tactics for redress of grievances. No, those are all important, but they are not what makes the American Revolution worth our unique attention today.

signing the declaration

Silent thoughts in the room: What a fine statement of the Rights of Man we sign today! I hope they wrap this up before traffic on the turnpike gets crazy. None of my slaves have learned to read, right? Why am I the only one wearing a hat? I can’t get tickets to Hamilton? I am Hamilton!  All middle-age white guys, when does the prog-rock concert start?

 

Americans did not replace a king with a president for life. They didn’t exchange one dictator for another. They were not, in the end, interested in only replacing a bad man with what seemed to be a good man, and job-done. They instead instituted an imperfect, constantly challenged and constantly changing structure based on human rights and rule by reason and popular consent. The struggles, the risks of the Revolutionary generation were indeed great, but they pale in contrast to the struggles and risks born by the successor generations who sought to maintain and improve those structures. So, this is not a holiday honoring a person, a generation, or a concluding event, but instead, it is one marking a beginning.

Today’s piece was not written by an American, but by an Englishman who followed those revolutionary 18th Century events, but dealt with them on a spiritual plane: William Blake. The words come from his self-created 1793 book America, A Prophecy,  which he wrote, lettered, illustrated, and printed himself. It’s not an account of the actual battles, and its characters are largely his own imaginary beings, but he never lets his visionary eye fall away from what he sees as the core struggle in the events. It’s spiritual—not in sense of its fantastic stage—but in the sense of its divining the essence of the battle: human beings being held back from their potential and dignity by corrupt structures.

America_a_Prophecy_copy_a_plate_08

A plate from William Blake presenting part of today’s song

 

In our worldly plane, the men who signed that declaration were all men, all white men, mostly men of property, and yes, we should remember that some of those men of property’s properties were indeed other men, women, and children. Blake explicitly understood that. In his prophecy, the essence that they are declaring for, the angelic forces that cry for freedom and dignity are for all nations, for all genders. If the American structure had to struggle for generations to refuse slavery and give full citizenship to women, Blake says that, in essence, and in the philosophy of their republican structures and statements, they have already declared those evils as tyranny, even if they don’t perceive that yet.

It’s almost a reverse Faustian bargain, isn’t it? Instead of the devil tricking them to eternal slavery, freedom’s angels have them agreeing to dissolve their allegiance to a bad king—but the codicils they have signed declare for more than that! They’ve put their lives on the line to declare that humans have inalienable rights and that governments must work with the consent of the governed. How entirely can they understand what that entails? July 4th 1776 is a Thursday. Some are no doubt thinking of Friday; the men of foresight, to the possible course of the rest of the war; the wisest, perhaps, are thinking, of what, a generation ahead?

The sections I use from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  are spoken by an angelic character he calls Orc, who personifies the overturning of the old tyrannies. With the limits of our short-piece format I’ve tried to give some flavor of what Blake understood was being overturned by the American Revolution. Musically, it’s a simple structure, though not the most common of chord progressions.  I tried to chant Blake’s words with as much passion as I could in this one-take performance by the LYL Band. If you are in the U. S., enjoy your cylindrical explosives and tubular sausages, but do not mix the two things up. Their shapes are similar, but keep your mind on their essences. The performance of an excerpt from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  can be played with the gadget below.

 

Implications of Fireworks

Today in the United States is Independence Day, a day celebrated with summer cookouts and fireworks explosions. Like many obligatory holidays in our modern age, what we are celebrating becomes obscure. Yes, Americans know it’s Independence Day, but what we think of as we celebrate is a mélange of things.

What makes up this celebratory mixture? We celebrate the warmth of summer, particularly here in the northern parts of the US where eating outside is a special season. Our children are celebrating what still seems like an endless summer away from school. Stores have banners of firecrackers and flags luring shoppers who have the day off from work. And we celebrate a diffuse patriotism affordable because America is a preeminent, powerful nation. Our modern patriotism is not short of convictions—far from it, our country is prominently divided by convictions—but that too is possible by the relative wealth and power of today’s America.

signing the declaration

“Yes, treason against the crown and the divine right of kings, and we could all hang tomorrow,
but  can I add a part about dispensing with the noisemakers? I could use a little sleep tonight.”

But the event we are celebrating is a sharp and definite thing. 241 years ago a group of Americans started an anti-colonial movement, and in the furtherance of that, they soon were to found the first modern republic. Those who did this many years ago perhaps did not know, or even think of themselves as anti-colonialists. Some merely had issues with particular colonial authorities and decisions. Some were indeed bound up in an immense evil of colonialism, human slavery exploiting yet other peoples and nations. Still, we should seek to understand them as their idea became understood through the Declaration of Independence they signed today: that the rights of kings and empires were not heaven’s design—rather, human rights were.

And as their rebellion against kings and empires evolved, it strikingly lead—not to the setup of a new king, or a new, locally-sourced strongman—but to a new form of government, a republic. Once again, these were not perfect men—their government “Of the people, for the people” was at first for white male men of property—but they were men of such devotion to the republican idea that they would not let even the worthiest of their lot become king. That was unprecedented, and even in all the time since, not one in ten or one in a hundred rebellions immediately ends in such a way.

I know not all who read this are Americans, but those are the two remarkable things that we celebrate here in my country today. And of these two things, the second is the most rare, and the thing we must take care to carry within us: that winners are not rightfully kings.

That reminds me, there was another Independence Day tradition, one that has fallen by the wayside: the patriotic speech in the town square. I guess I’ve just revived that. Today’s audio piece is based on another text by Dave Moore, but it’s my music and performance of it. When I asked Dave about “Implications of Fireworks”  a few years back, he indicated it was more or less a diary of his impressions of a July 4th he had experienced. As filtered by Dave’s mind that day, those holiday explosions, cracks, and meat smoke brought different, less celebratory, feelings. If our independence was won with cannon and gun fire—if it’s maintained today by the same, and also with bombs made of seeds of sunfire—it is also must be maintained by, and be for, something more than that.

To hear my performance of Dave Moore’s “Implications of Fireworks” use the player below.