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.
I risked taking the charm and playfulness out of Emily Dickinson’s ghost poem last time by trying to puzzle out exactly what she saw. I won’t risk that today. This next poem in our Halloween series was written by a poet, Sara Teasdale, who wrote some complex adult love poems — but with this one she portrayed a child’s wonder. Well, a child with a little taste for tea parties with witches, but still.
Sara Teasdale. Want to come to my tea party?
Teasdale was roughly a contemporary in her childhood in St. Louis with T. S. Eliot, but Eliot decamped for Harvard and then Europe — so as far as I’ve been able to find out, the two poets never met. I think Teasdale’s poem requires no further explanation, so I’ll just urge you to listen to it below. And here’s a link to the text of the poem if you’d like to read that.
Another simple musical accompaniment here, this time just some acoustic guitar. You can hear Sara Teasdale’s “Dusk in Autumn” with a graphic audio player that many will see below. However, there are ways to read this blog that won’t show the player, and I also provide this highlighted link to click, which will allow those who don’t see the player to access the musical performance.
Each quarter I like to look at the pieces here that have received the most listens and likes. It’s time to look back at this year’s spring, and so I’ll be doing that this week. However, I once more need to report that it’s become increasingly hard for me to desire to create new pieces for this project. I say that partly as an apology to those who do enjoy the weird mix of the known and unknown writers whose work I present here, and partly as a statement of the cold facts of our time and how it impacts this artist. Perhaps I’ll write a post about this at greater length soon, but I don’t want to stand in the way of those of you who enjoy what the Parlando Project does. I appreciate you too much.
And too, part of these Top Tens is not just to point out what you liked, but also to help new readers and listeners understand this project beyond the one piece they find here from a web search or something you found linked-to on your social media feed or another blog. We have 460 audio pieces posted here in a range of musical styles and authors.
So on to our countdown, starting today with the 10th through 8th most liked and listened to piece. The bold title is also a link to the original post where the piece was first presented if you missed that earlier.
10. The Old Nurse by Frances Cornford. One of the constraints of this project is that so much of it requires my own voice, which has its limits of which I’m aware. From the beginning Dave Moore has been a great boon as an alternate contributor here, but age and Covid-19 is making that difficult. This spring my wife Heidi Randen has been good enough to take time to contribute her voice a couple of times, and this piece received enough response to just make it onto the Spring Top 10.
“The Old Nurse” is by little-known British poet Frances Cornford. I’ll write more about her soon, but this ghost story requires no introduction or framing to be effective I think.
9. Morning by Sara Teasdale. This project loves the subject of poets whose work needs to be better known (or known in a different way.) Teasdale’s a good example of this. She’s a contemporary of T. S. Eliot (and grew up in the same town and neighborhood, though there’s no record they ever met that I’ve found) and for a time, just as Modernism was arising as a poetic movement in English around the years of WWI, she was recognized as a substantial writer.
And then she fell off the barrel of the canon while others got launched into the circus catch-net of remembered poetic artists. Was this because she was a woman, or that she wrote rhymed metrical verse? The former reason is important, the later not completely unimportant, but I’ve come to think a large part of this is that she wrote short, lyric poems. “Lyric” in this sense does not mean she wrote words to be set to music (though her poetry is extraordinarily amendable to that.) Lyric means that her poems tend to be short and present “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” That phrase, one of the definitions of pioneering Modernism in English, soon became honored more in the breach than the observance. Big subjects, tackled by big poems, often anchored once more in allusions to substantial cultural markers beyond our eternal instant became the ideal in the 20th century. Teasdale didn’t do that, it wasn’t in her range.
Our complex instants in time became a forgotten subject.
So, this project asks you to pay attention to the complexity of Teasdale’s spring moment.
Carl Sandburg and coven with a satanic familiar at his shoulder strike a chord for lyric poetry. Let’s sing along: “See the U.S.A. with your Chèvre, hey….” And guitarists: an interesting voicing for C minor 6 with a 9th in the bass if you sound the open D string.
8. Monotone by Carl Sandburg. Sandburg isn’t exactly a case like Teasdale, though like her, he also is less honored now than during his lifetime. He was able to write long poems on big subjects, eventually becoming known for a multivolume biography of Abraham Lincoln that retained portions of his long-form poetic style. Where he became less rated as an important poet, it was due to his apartness from a later high-culture and academic-oriented school of poetry that viewed his work as insufficiently formed and shaped, as too unsophisticatedly straightforward in expression. The prose-poem looseness of his free verse became just as out of style as Teasdale’s verse.
All of which obscured the Imagist Sandburg, just as dedicated to the “intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” as Teasdale. Like Teasdale, I feel that these now less-remembered shorter poems of Sandburg deserve more attention and consideration of their complexity.
I don’t plan ahead with this project much, which has it’s benefits and costs. Often one piece sort of kicks off the idea for the next one and so on. That was the case with doing my roll up of last year’s section of “The Waste Land” for National Poetry Month, and then following it up with a very short poem by Sara Teasdale, T. S. Eliot’s contemporary in growing up in St. Louis Missouri.
But I had looked at doing another Sara Teasdale poem other than her “Morning.” I even went so far as to write a sketch of the music I would use. I liked what I had there, but “Morning’s” striking compression made it more of a contrast to Eliot.
This project has a lot of inefficiencies like that, poet’s collections I read or skim and then find nothing that inspires me to go further. Ideas for musical combinations that don’t quite bear fruit. Poems that jump out at me as compelling, only to find that they aren’t in the public domain and therefore free to use. Ideas that seem sound but get pushed aside by other ideas that step in front of them.
Given the extraordinary work that I put into this project: selecting my own texts, researching what to say about them, and then composing, playing and recording multiple musical parts, these inefficiencies could trouble me. I certainly don’t want to increase them, but I’m somewhat comfortable in them. Like a meditative walking maze, there’s something in the time and indirectness that lets other thoughts in.
The Official Moon of Shelter in Place. None of you stand so tall. Pink Moon is going to get you all.
I’m continuing this project in a time of a global pandemic, which doesn’t aid efficiency either. Luckily so far, I haven’t had to deal with any family members or friends suffering from the Covid-19 virus. In their place, there’s the toll of artists who have succumbed to it. It’s been a tough week for that. Bill Withers, who in his too brief time singing through the music industry, produced songs and performances of them that could carry this troubled workman through his clocked-in days. Adam Schlesinger, a songwriter after my own heart who liked to jump and mix genres. Hal Willner, that most underappreciated functionary in the arts, the impresario, who melded other artists into projects many and wide, projects often aimed (as this one does) to celebrate other artists. And then John Prine, the singing mailman from the outskirts of Chicago, who came from nowhere quickly into the Seventies age of the singer-songwriter, and then stayed like a little public park that you knew was always there, visited by yourself, some others, some pigeons, but nothing elaborate and scenic enough to celebrate.
“Become an artist. They are the only profession that celebrates what it is to live a life.” – Viola Davis
When something, someone, goes away it’s a good time to notice what a sum total of things are. Some people are heroes for one thing they once did. Some have career highlights, a dozen or half-dozen models of importance. Others do things for decades, just doing what they do. Prine’s like that. Here’s a guy that in the decade that got called “The Me Decade” wrote songs that had other people in them. He kept writing, forging his trademark take on the human condition into song after song. No big thing. That’s what he does. Or did, because now he’s dead and you notice something: there aren’t a lot who did that, and we have songwriters and songwriters still who will do something other than that.
Anyway, these thoughts in a pandemic brought me back to this other Teasdale poem, the one I didn’t use, “I Have Loved Hours at Sea.”
It’s a premature, self-elegy. That’s a hard form to pull off, but I think Teasdale does. It’s bitter-sweet, but that’s what we should expect from Teasdale, poem after poem. It can be read as a poem with a moral, a lesson, that we should live our lives fully so that our container of time is fulfilled—but also as Teasdale often does, there’s a gothic undertone to it all: many the blessing she recounts is qualified or undercut and stated by this young poet in a past tense. Here’s the full text of her poem.
So, as you can see with the player gadget below, I decided to go through with performing this second Teasdale poem in a row. I even decided to write and perform a short piece for strings as an introductory lament. In the delay of inefficiencies and skimpy planning, “I Have Loved Hours at Sea” now seems to have a reason to be performed, and perhaps for you to listen to.
It’s easy to figure T. S. Eliot as an English poet—after all, while his “Waste Land” spans history and cultures, its landscape is distinctly English and European—but he grew up in St. Louis Missouri, a middle-of-America river town.
I promised you a different poem by a St. Louis poet last time, and so now we return to the compressed lyricism of Sara Teasdale. Just four years older, and with a family that would have crossed paths with Eliot’s in similar social circles, there’s no indication that I’ve seen that these two ever met in childhood.
And oh how different in some ways this poem of Teasdale’s is. “The Waste Land” is hundreds of lines long. Even it’s third section, which I presented in whole form a couple of days ago, takes over 20 minutes to do it justice. Teasdale concentrated on the concentrated, and her poem “Morning” first published in 1915, is just 8 lines long, and I assay it in less than 2 minutes.
“The Waste Land” is a cathedral of High Modernism, and a poem like “Morning” is what? A little song? A diverting lyric? A small bit of uncomplicated thought or feeling? A mouse in the wainscoting of the sanctuary? A facet light dropped from a stained glass window? In the end we are left with the question of how big is big and how small is small.
One of these cats is not from St. Louis.
But here’s one thing the two poets shared. Both of them suffered from some form of depression. Eliot’s poems are generally seen as a search for meaning. Teasdale’s poems are seen as about a search for love. The former seems grander, the later more feminine. But how different are the essences of these two consolations really?
I am an old man. I haven’t answered these questions. You, reader, may well be younger, perhaps you’ll get further in this?
I went out on an April morning
All alone, for my heart was high.
I was a child of the shining meadow,
I was a sister of the sky.
There in the windy flood of morning
Longing lifted its weight from me,
Lost as a sob in the midst of cheering,
Swept as a sea-bird out to sea.
Before I leave you with my performance of Teasdale’s “Morning,” let me just talk a bit about how I experienced it. Like “The Waste Land” it starts in the spring of April, our U. S. National Poetry Month. The second line may trip off the tongue in song, but it’s a strange one: “All alone, for my heart was high.” One could write an essay on that line I think. My first reading was that the poem’s singer is experiencing heightened feelings which bring forth her sense of aloneness. But it also seems to be an image of feeling a oneness with nature, as outlined in the following lines of the stanza, away from humanness. Uncannily, the conclusion of the stanza seems like the John Lennon anguished lines in his song “Yer Blues:” “My mother was of the sky/My father was of the earth/But I am of the universe/And you know what it’s worth.”
The second stanza tells us in its second line that longing, this aloneness, has been lifted by the flooding experience of this natural morning. The resolution of the final two lines is deeply ambiguous as I read them. The line “Lost as a sob in the midst of cheering”—anyone who has suffered depression, or even a moment of intense sadness, recognizes this image, and I don’t think we can read this as a simple consolation of nature’s largeness. I feel the final line, lovely and sound-rich though it is, is also ambiguous. The sea may be home to a sea bird, but is it home for the poem’s singer?
So only 8 lines, laid sideways, infinity.
You can hear my performance of Teasdale’s “Morning” with the player gadget that should be below. If you’re reading this post on an iPhone or iPad with the WordPress reader you’ll be wondering what I’m talking about, but if you use the box-with-arrow share/action gadget in the iOS WordPress Reader app you’ll see a choice to Open in Safari, and the player gadget and your ability to hear the audio performances will be visible in the full browser.
Thanks for reading and listening. This project doesn’t ask for funds, but if you’d like to help it consider helping spread the word about it, particularly on social media during this National Poetry Month.
The cosmos says we need to get a leap year, and extra day, and yet we put it in February. It was a dozen degrees Fahrenheit this morning, and my bike ride back from breakfast was into an insistent north wind that explains to me that we’re in Minnesota and we’ll probably have a snowstorm or two yet before we can see spring—a spring that sometimes seems too short to form memories.
So, before we leave this month and season, I thought it a good time for a short poem referencing a short month from American poet Sara Teasdale. Teasdale is like Edna St. Vincent Millay, a poet that 100 years ago was thought a leading voice in this country’s verse, after which we spent the rest of the century more or less forgetting or down-grading their place.
When such re-evaluations happen, it’s common to assign them to the refined judgement of posterity, the further assay that separates momentarily sparkly stuff from the for-all-time classics. How does that happen?
One could assign this downward path to Teasdale (like Millay) writing metrical and rhyming verse in their prize-winning years early in the 20th century. The evil Modernist free-verse hordes in this view laid waste to all who dare to rhyme or march to a one-shoe-off beat.
There’s a factor there, sure, but this story doesn’t account for two giants whose statues were not toppled: Frost and Yeats. Nor the monuments on many campuses to canon sitters like Auden and Wilbur et al who were not primarily free-verse poets.
No, I think there are more important factors in this determination, one that is currently under revision in our new century. First, both were essentially lyric poets. “Lyric” in this sense doesn’t mean that they wrote song lyrics. Though of course this project finds them sing-able and otherwise suited to presentation with music, “Lyric” in the literary sense means that their poems tend to be set in the impressions and immediacy of a moment, and their final and considered judgement of that moment is not necessarily explicit. Lyric poems don’t usually have great themes developed with long arguments in verse. Nor do they have narratives the way a novel or story does, were we turn the page to find out what happens next. What happens in a lyric poem—happens! Right then. Right now.
The pioneering Modernists in the years before the end of WWI, those that were or wrote like Imagists, were fine with that. Indeed, this was the point of Imagism. Teasdale wasn’t called an Imagist, but she could write like one, albeit with rhyme and meter. The Imagists didn’t call for the end of rhyme and meter, they called for an end of poems that existed to fill out those forms without the vividness of the lyric.
But post Eliot and the Pound of the Cantos, post the sheltering of poetry inside the academic monasteries which could too easily fall into a rout of poems to be taught rather than poems to be experienced, these poems could seem slight. The Imagists were a fine exercise to break from the past, but they were not, in this outlook, the way to write great poetry.
And here’s the other reason. Gender. The academics were overwhelmingly men and were steeped in the things men were thinking about. And the world of the middle of the 20th century had a lot of concerns that made the concerns of Teasdale and other women poets of the early part of the 20th century seem like the line in Casablanca uttered by Humphrey Bogart “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
For the first part of our double feature: 90 seconds of cinema that was an emotional touchstone to many. Also, mansplaining.
It took the culture until nearly the end of the 20th century to see that part of the world’s craziness was because men were still explaining how it worked to women.*
All that may be too much of a burden to bear for this short poem by Teasdale. But if “February Twilight” was signed Frost or Yeats, I suspect more attention might be paid to her poem. It doesn’t read much like Yeats, but it could pass for the shorter, lyric Frost.
The lyric impulse in poetry survived the mid-20th century when colored with Dada and Surrealism. “See, it’s not me! I’m a serious poet, but I just chanced into this charged moment.”
What does Teasdale experience in the charged moment of her lyric? That it seems like she’s the only one that views this star, a manifest untruth we could explain to her, but which I think she knows as the final line presents. She doesn’t explain this to us, but we can stand in the cold, snowy February and experience it with her.
I’m choosing tambura and acoustic guitar again for my performance today, this time with an organ keyboard part. Click on that player gadget below to hear it. “If you don’t, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”
*Which I’m doing here. Ha Ha! Here’s where one of the principles of the Parlando Project comes in: “Other People’s Stories.” I’m not claiming the exclusive right to mansplain mansplaining, but men speaking up about it has its place and value.
Oh, and explaining has value too. And I happen to like Casablanca as a movie. And defeating fascism might have a value greater than the optimum choice for a snuggle-bunny. And I had huevos rancheros for breakfast. A hill of beans would be meaningful and sustaining to me!
I almost feel like I need to place a warning label on today’s piece: Rated RE Strong Romantic Emotional Content. Thanatopsic material. May not be suitable for those who have not sufficiently worked through issues with self-harm or the experience of self-dissolution.
Modernism had a strong tendency toward a critique and reaction to romanticism and its characteristic expression of emotional content. A man viewed as the founder of its English-language poetic wing, T. E. Hulme, wished to set it on a course of completely overturning Romanticism. But those bylaws didn’t always filter down to every chapter and member of the Modernist International. Readers here know I love some of the early Imagist works which are parsimonious with overt emotional words, even while seeking to charge their images with a fresh immediacy. These poems aren’t necessarily devoid of emotion if the reader has it to supply themselves—but then some Modernists, such as E. E. Cummings, were perfectly fine with frank emotional outpourings.
Sara Teasdale, in addition to being largely forgotten for the better part of the last 100 years, was never officially a Modernist, so there’s no movement membership to endanger and no expectations for her to fulfill anymore. She wrote intensely lyrical and musical verse in plainspoken and non-archaic language. That’s a surface shiny enough, devoid of hermetic imagery, and with sweet word-music that makes it too easy to miss what she’s saying.
Sara Teasdale is sick’n’tired of you mentioning how pretty her poems are
I knew this already, having presented Teasdale regularly here. Still, I had to go through a journey to inhabit and grasp this poem for this project. I collected it earlier this summer, seeking to stockpile a few seasonal poems ahead of time to have some on-the-shelf ideas for possible use.
Here’s the full text of the poem. If you skim through it, it looks like a fairly common poem subject: summer night. It might seem to hit the expected points too: hey, summer, it’s nice at night (maybe even better than the heat of afternoon). Plants, trees green and full, explicit birds. A Moon one can linger with long enough that you feel that if you stay the night you could watch it change its phase.
Teasdale can write a poem that seems like that. That’s a problem. It’s too easy to miss what she’s communicating if you leave it at “That’s pretty.” You could use her writing as a case-study in why some of the Modernist tactics that frustrate (or delay) understanding might not be counterproductive. Teasdale gets misunderstood quickly as one passes over the words, while someone like Mina Loy, Tristan Tzara, or Gertrude Stein causes those who won’t care to read carefully and empathetically to not stop in at all.
As I began to read, really read, “August Moonrise,” to figure out how I might perform the words, the last section seemed dark—and not in the pretty moonlight way. Here are some of the words that hit the notes in her word-music after the poem’s midpoint: bitterness, sorrow, death, wavering, blind, fearful, fire, cold, vanish.
Seeing that, I reexamined the opening half for portents. The swallows are rushing, willfully, together and departing from each other. And is their willful act truly willful? Maybe not, it’s like the movement of dark tree leaves. If that was a spare Imagist poem, or a work of classical Chinese poetry, we’d be confronted with that image, asked on no uncertain terms to deal with it. Here you may think it’s so much minor scene-painting.
The scene-painting gets even more painterly next. Sunset, moonrise. The final palette: “a deeper blue than a flower could hold.” Is that merely a beautiful picture or a statement of more blue than can be sustained?
Teasdale’s singer in the poem is drawn in (note, she goes “down,” descends to it, even though the preceding birds, trees, sunset, moonrise are all things normally above the horizon) because it’s her, or because it will become her. The poem reaches—if only briefly—a quasi-orgasmic happiness. One line here: “I forgot the ways of men” is so rich in ambiguity. I could read it three or four ways easily.
This happiness, this intoxicated leaving of all but the senses (however brief) is portrayed as a consolation. Consolation for what?
And then we enter that section that is so full of darkness, loss, imperfection. Is this section spiritually sublime or just harrowing? I think you can play it either way, though I suspect it works best if the other choice is kept as an undertone. Compare this to Laurie Anderson’s childhood account of Buddhist Midwest night skies and the non-necessity of self, the archaic trials of the Lyke Wake Dirge, or to a searing inventory of imperfection, almost a suicide note.*
Teasdale’s concluding couplet is so searing I think it must be performed understated. The crucial word in it, “theft,” says she doesn’t feel in control of this loss of control. Isn’t that frightening? Spending several hours with this text this week, fitting it to music, performing it, thinking about it was a journey, from “Oh, a summer night poem” to a consideration of the sameness and the difference of exceeding the self and end of the self.
So, am I out on a limb here, thinking this a major poem by a too overlooked poet? Has the seeming conventionality of its setting (subverted as it may be), the gender of its author, the musicality of its expression, the unabashed romanticism of its sensibility obscured our view? If this was Rilke translated from the German would we read it differently? If this was Yeats with swans instead of swallows would it matter? If a Cubist ran it through a copier a few times and then cut up all the lines and reassembled it, would we stop long enough to think about it? The issue of Teasdale’s membership or non-membership in Modernism might have seemed germane in the mid-20th century, but to a significant degree it’s immaterial now.
Well, I’ve done it again. Talked about the words so long that there’s no time to dance about the architecture of the music. Thinking about what I said above, I could have cut up and obscured Teasdale’s words rather than a straight recitation I recorded, but the choice I made has its strengths too. I did try to undersell the sensuousness of the lyric in hope it would cause the listener to consider it differently, but the opposite choice works too, for I’ve discovered this gorgeous and emotionally effecting choir setting of “August Moonrise” by Blake Henson that had me in tears this morning. See my comments last post about how my limitations as a singer and no access to alternative skilled singers focuses my composition into other modes.
I intentionally avoid apologizing for my work. I think that’s a good practice. If you think you should do better, do better or do different, instead of talking about it. My approach to “August Moonlight” with a skip-footed motorik beat and an ominous and fateful tone in the reading and music certainly contrasts with Henson. I could even imagine that hearing Henson’s work after considering Teasdale’s darker undercurrents intensifies it, as it did for me today. You can hear my version with the player below. Don’t see a player gadget? Then use this highlighted hyperlink to play it.
*There was a point in the production of this piece that I seriously considered abandoning my presentation of “August Moonlight” because of this. Once I could see that element was present in the work (as it is in Teasdale’s life), I felt it shouldn’t be denied if I was to perform it. Many artists deal with feelings of self-harm and because “All artists fail” in the sense of imperfection and producing things farther, rather than “Something nearer your desire.” I hesitate to present work that might feed into that, particularly with a beautiful and romantic sheen to it all. In the end I decided that Teasdale is illuminating that, and if I presented it so that you can consider its danger, it could have value. Henson’s setting makes a choice to emphasize the perception of beauty, the singular hour of atonement, which also would have answered this concern.
A single work of art can inspire and be reformed by others as it lives—or rather, if it lives, as there is no choice in the matter. No work of art once it has escaped its creator lives for one moment more except by this process.
There’s a fair chance that someone coming upon this post via search for its title will believe it’ll be about Ray Bradbury’s work of the same name, and I will touch on that story, but short as Bradbury’s 1950 story is, this project is about the compression, sound, and stepping-order of words, as in poetry; and Bradbury’s story is also not clearly free for us to reuse. But Sara Teasdale’s poem, “There Will Come Soft Rains” meets all our requirements.
I’ve presented Teasdale’s words here several times, and it’s possible that I could have discovered her work (as I have many others) because of the Parlando Project. But it just so happens, I discovered Teasdale on a Tom Rapp record, long before this project began. Rapp sang Teasdale’s “I Shall Not Care” in company with a passage of Shakespeare. Yes, as a short-lyric poet, Teasdale can stand up in that kind of company.
I probably need to turn in my SciFi credibility badge, but I don’t recall reading Bradbury’s famous story before today, so I now know Bradbury’s story because of Teasdale’s poem.* I’m sure this is in reverse of many.
I suspect Bradbury is also the vector by which Teasdale’s poem was included in the Fallout video-game universe. As with Bradbury’s “Soft Rains,” Fallout is set in a midcentury-modern sense of the future, and it’s not hard to fit Teasdale’s 1918 poem into that. Indeed, many read Teasdale’s poem and assume that it’s explicitly post-apocalyptic. However, Teasdale wrote and published this poem near the end of World War I, and the poem’s final sentence conditions itself with a “would,” however definite it is about that natural world’s indifference to mankind’s existence and its wars. She could only be speaking of the landscapes of the WWI battlefields—settings that still bear the scars of the trenches, tanks, bombs, and burial grounds of that war still a century later. WWI’s depersonalized industrial warfare, aerial bombardment, and chemical weapons did open up some thoughts of wider casualties from modern war, even in a pre-atomic age.
Teasdale’s WWI poem is now read as something of a pioneer in presenting that idea of an apocalyptic post-war future. Several years later, but still pre-World War II, came H. G. Wells Things to Come a novel and then movie, and Stephen Vincent Benét’s story “By the Waters of Babylon,” and that later could have been part of the inspirational universe Bradbury drew from for his own story that adds another I to the post World War series.
All these: Teasdale’s poem, and Bradbury’s, Benét’s, and Wells’ prose, explicitly use war’s casualties as the measurement of mankind and his civilization’s impermanent nature. Today we might add our insults on nature itself as another potential cause for self-destruction.
So today, let’s revisit Teasdale’s spring poem of indifferent beauty. It’s short, as is my musical presentation of it. The player to hear it is below. After you click on it, can I remind you, just as briefly, that this project would appreciate more readers and listeners. I’ve focused my energies on researching, creating, and writing about these pieces—and so a great deal of the audience growth over the past few years has come from folks like you passing on the word about this.
*One thing that puzzles me is the explicit days that Bradbury sets his story in, their calendar-ness framing his narrative: August 4th and 5th. Bradbury’s story (set in the year 2026) seems very much based on the particulars of the 1945 atomic bombings of August 6th and 9th that ended WWII, and I see that the dates were subject to some rethought on his part (the original publication had the story begin on April 28th.) Teasdale only set her poem in spring, but in his specificity did Bradbury want to imply some the-last-days-another-choice-could-be-made point in choosing August 4 and 5?
Sara Teasdale wrote some of the saddest love poems I’ve ever read.
Less-well remembered than she should be, for a time about 100 years ago Teasdale was the most popular and esteemed love poet in America. In 1918 she won the Pulitzer prize for a new collection of her poetry, labeled right there on the cover with the title “Love Songs.”
Harriet Monroe, the founder and editor of Poetry, the indispensable American poetry journal of the day, said of Teasdale “She was as delicate as a lily, but under the white-petaled perfume one felt in her presence an impassioned intensity of feeling which her brief lyrics were then beginning to express.”
So, what did Teasdale know about love? More and less than you might expect. Born in 1884 in a wealthy and religiously conservative St. Louis family, she was protected and sheltered* until she was nearly 30 when her poetry career took her away from St. Louis to New York and Chicago.
As her poetry expresses, she dearly wanted to fall deeply in love, but she also wanted the independence to write, and though she moved in bohemian circles during a time of great social change, she’d internalized some of her family’s conservative values.
Romantic stories revel in love triangles, but Sara Teasdale, the woman who’d get the Pulitzer Prize as a love poet was about to deal with a love rhombus. She was crushing on a young poet she admired, John Hall Wheelock. She told Wheelock he was “The greatest living poet.” He wasn’t, though he was flattered. Wheelock, like Teasdale’s family, was a bit of a blue-blood, and he respected Teasdale’s poetic talents, but he was not interested in marrying her.
Then there was Vachel Lindsay, a literary phenom of the time, who had vagabonded about the U.S. trading his poems for meals and then bootstrapped that into touring the country’s speaking halls giving flamboyant readings of his chanted poetry. Lindsay, unlike Wheelock, wanted to marry Teasdale, and he plied his troth by dedicating books of his poetry to her**, but the reserved and sheltered Teasdale was both intimidated by his bluster and worried about his ability to provide the kind of stable home that would allow her to continue writing.
Who’s the fourth rhombus side? A St. Louis businessman, Ernst Filsinger. Like the other two, Filsinger appreciated Teasdale’s poetry, and like Lindsay he wanted to marry her. Problem solved? Well, Teasdale wanted to be deeply, mutually in love, and she wasn’t sure she loved Filsinger that much.
Tuning up for her Pulitzer-winning “Love Songs” Teasdale was tempering her intonation with three men.
Wheelock says that Teasdale asked him to decide who she should marry. “You know Vachel. I want you to meet Ernst. And I want you to tell me what to do. Which of these two good men should I marry? Should I marry Vachel Lindsay, who’s a genius and whose poetry I love? Or should I marry this fine, tall, dark, good-looking businessman who seems to care for my poetry?”
Wheelock may not have been the greatest living poet in 1914, but he seems a sensible sort of guy.*** He says he told Teasdale she must make the choice. She replied that no, he had to tell her which to marry, that she wouldn’t blame him if anything went wrong. OK, he said, he didn’t see her being happy with Lindsay “I don’t think you are one who could live in the kitchen doing all the housework and scrubbing the floors.”
She married Filsinger.
The next year she published the poem I used for today’s piece “I Am Not Yours” in a collection titled Rivers to the Sea, whose title came from a poem by Wheelock. “I Am Not Yours” also appears in her Love Songs collection that won the Pulitzer.
It’s possible to read this poem quickly and read it as a crush poem, a supple lyric about being madly in love with someone, where the title and opening phrase is poised rhetorically in the moment before love’s inevitable consummation will occur, as a poem written by someone who realizes her autonomy, but is willing to submit it to overwhelming passion. Teasdale’s poetry was not just prize-winning, it was popular in its time. Someone might read this poem at a wedding. It’s likely that Teasdale, who wrote this the same month as she married, wrote it thinking of hers.
Go ahead, listen to it now. Here’s the player gadget.
So how did things turn out for the Sara Teasdale love rhombus?
Wheelock lived until 1973. In his memoir of his life in publishing he said that the best way to edit poets is to not edit them. “If a person needs to have his poems edited, then he’s not a poet, because poets are perfectionists, and by the time they get through with all their agonizing work on a poem, either they’ve ruined it by revising too much or it’s the way it should be.” He’d tried to apply that principle to Teasdale’s marriage choice.
Vachel Lindsay may have been too odd and flawed to ever last long, but the Eliot and Pound wing of cultured expatriate High Modernism crushed him by the late 20s, and the mid-century New Criticism could barely bother with the effort to find the grievous lapses in good taste in his “higher vaudeville.” In 1931, depressed by his inability to keep his debts at bay as his touring revenue dried up, he drank Lysol and killed himself.
At first Sara Teasdale’s marriage seemed to work. Filsinger allowed her to concentrate on her writing, but she eventually felt the loss of not being lost in passion. In 1929, while Filsinger was overseas on a business trip, she headed west to a state with easier divorce laws and informed him by telegram. By the Thirties, Teasdale’s lyricism and complex emotional content fell out of favor with High Modernism/the New Criticism too.**** The poet who had won the Pulitzer Prize for a book called Love Songs felt unloved and forgotten. A little over a year after Lindsay’s death, she took an overdose of prescription meds and died in a filled bathtub.
And Ernst Filsinger? No one cares for the biographies of businessmen much after they die. We are not likely to sing the book he authored Exporting to Latin America to music decades later. His obituary claimed he gave the first transatlantic after-dinner speech by radio in 1929, speaking from Berlin to the National Foreign Trade Council sitting in Baltimore. Who now notes what he said? He died in China in 1937. In his memoir, Wheelock says he heard Filsinger too committed suicide, but I have no confirmation of that. Is it possible that he, Prufrock-like, heard the mermaids singing, but pointedly, personally knew they had, at least once, sang for him?
Even if we largely ignore it, we store away beautiful things like prize-winning lyric poetry, so we can read and hear what Sara Teasdale wrote the month she married. Listen again to “I Am Not Yours” or read it here. Looking to be the I that is I, but longing to get lost in love and knowing she was not, speaking of her light, a mere candle lit at noon, and asking for it to be plunged, put out.
As you read this, I tell you again that the first duty of an artist is to survive
Love poetry if it’s any good is as varied and complex as love is, as life is. Sara Teasdale wrote some of the saddest love poems I’ve ever read.
*Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Teasdale also had some kind of long-standing (and hard to diagnose via remote historical methods) illnesses. This only increased the family’s protectiveness.
**Another admiring poet who dedicated work to Teasdale was Witter Bynner. Bynner was gay.
****Teasdale was born in St. Louis only four years before T. S. Eliot, even if she seems like she was born to a different generation, one both before and after Eliot. Their families, though Midwestern at their birth, shared similar New England backgrounds, and Teasdale attended a private St. Louis prep school founded by Eliot’s parents, and that was located next door to Eliot’s home until he was 16. One wonders if the two young poets were aware of each other as children, but Eliot left town at 17, Teasdale’s sheltered upbringing reduced the chances of social interaction, and Teasdale’s family were staunch Baptists while the Eliots were Unitarian.
Oh, and by the way, that Prufrock of Eliot’s first great poem? Prufrock was the name of another St. Louis businessman. If Eliot considered other name options from his St. Louis youth, Filsinger was less iambic as a name. Teasdale could have sounded its own connotations, but it wouldn’t fit with measuring with coffee spoons.
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.
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.
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.
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.