One unusual thing I did this spring to celebrate National Poetry Month was to re-release 31 pieces from the early years of this project. This was a way, despite reduced time and opportunities to create new pieces, to still celebrate and demonstrate the various poems and music combinations of the Parlando Project.
As part of this April celebration, I spent more time that I thought I would creating “lyric videos.” I figured I would just put in a couple of pictures in a video file and place the words to the poems on the screen in time with their appearance in the music, but they got a little more elaborate.
How popular were they? It doesn’t look like YouTube counts as views any plays of those videos from the inside-the-blog-posts thumbnail images, but it does count those who found them on YouTube itself. Given that sub-set it does count, the most popular of the April Poetry Month videos was our Parlando version of Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.”No surprise there: William Butler Yeats’ poetry is welcome to so many ears around the English-speaking world. If I was to look at most viewed posts (a metric I don’t use in these Top Ten lists) four out of the top ten most viewed posts so far this year are concerning Yeats’ poems. Yeats is a Poetry’s Greatest Hits poet.
The most listened to and liked piece this past spring was an Irish poem, but it wasn’t by Yeats. It was one of the April Poetry Month re-releases though, “Night, and I Traveling” by too-little-known Belfast-born poet Joseph Campbell (who also published under the name Seosamh MacCathmhaoil).
I’m partway through a biography of Campbell that was an Anniversary gift from my wife. From it I’m getting more of a sense of the young man who wrote this poem — a poem which is remarkable not just for its tightly compressed and effecting scene, but for being published in 1909 so that it might be counted not just as the work of the first Irish poet to use free verse, but also as one of the earliest published examples of Imagism. It wasn’t until 1913 that F. S. Flint and Ezra Pound published their “A few Don’ts by an Imagiste” and laid out the three famous Imagist suggestions/rules, but before that in London Flint, Pound, and T. E. Hulme had been working out how to radically strip back poetry to a fresh, precise, and direct essence in the months before Campbell published “Night, and I Traveling.”
The chord voicings I used for the 12-string guitar part here are bit unusual.
I now know that Campbell was in London and meeting with those incipit Imagists in that first decade of the 20th century. Alas I don’t know how junior a partner he was in their meetings, but “Night, And I Traveling” is to my judgement as fine an early Imagist poem as the more famous and anthologized ones, arguably a more worthy example because of its empathetic attention to the isolated rural woman in a still-colonialized Irish hut in place of Pound’s damp impressionistic leaf-faced Paris Metro riders published four years later.* The biography, Joseph Cambell Poet & Nationalist by Norah Saunders and A. A. Kelly, reminds us that Campbell liked country walks at night. Campbell wrote: “Night walking — all my best thoughts, I find, come to me that way. Poetry, like devilry, loves darkness.” Devilry? Campbell did write some of the supernatural, and would mix Christian and pagan mythologies —but in this one, this night, he stays in our earthly plane. Am I reading too much into the poem to note the poem’s only simile has the lone woman crooning “as if to child” when there is no child depicted? Is that child dead? Or perhaps emigrated to America?
Not as popular as Yeats on YouTube, but here’s the “lyric video” I did for this piece
You can hear my performance three ways. The “lyric video” is above, an audio player gadget should be below, and this highlighted link is a backup for those ways of viewing this blog that won’t show the player. Thanks again for reading about these encounters and listening to our combinations of music and words.
*Make of this connection what you will: Pound and Campbell would both eventually be imprisoned by their own countrymen for acts during wartime.
A little contrast here in poetic fame from Shakespeare to a poet who’s equally unknown under each of his names: Joseph Campbell/Seosamh MacCathmhaoil. Most of his poetry was published under that first name, not the Gaelic version, and so I’ll use it today, even though I’m always obligated to say “No, not that Power of Myth guy.” Over the years this project has promoted the idea that Campbell deserves wider recognition. Here’s a brief version of that case.
Belfast born, Campbell was active in the Irish cultural revival at the beginning of the 20th century, and like Yeats, he seems to have crossed paths with the London-based Modernist poets circle of T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, and Ezra Pound in the years before WWI. His involvement with the militant wing of Irish revolutionaries also grew during this time.* After Irish independence he lived in America for more than a decade, while continuing to promote Irish culture; but he seems to have stopped publishing his poetry after the establishment of the Irish Republic. Late in his life he returned to Ireland and died there in 1944 where his ghost continues the task of becoming largely forgotten — at best a footnote, and often not even that.
Well, most poets are forgotten, even in a country like Ireland that does a better job of revering them than most, but here are some things that attracted me to Campbell: he worked effectively in the folk-song part of the Irish cultural revival, collecting, writing, and adapting song lyrics.** And his take on page poetry included both that folk song tradition — and uniquely among his Irish generation — a handful of very early poems in the pioneering English-language Modernist style that would be called Imagism.
In fact, I’ll put today’s piece up against any of the more famous short Imagist poems widely anthologized, I think it’s a masterpiece of the form.
Here’s the lyric video of the performance.
I find “Night, and I Traveling” a hugely affecting example of direct presentation of a thing and a charged moment in time. Like Imagist poetry in general it does expect the reader to pay attention, as the poet did, and to supply from within themselves the emotional charge the presentation represents.
Campbell was a country walker in Ireland, and the door he observes while walking in the night is likely of a small rural dwelling, plausibly little more than a hut. The door is open. Perhaps the peat fire inside has gathered smoke. Perhaps the occupant is expecting someone to return. Let us also remember, this is more-than-a-hundred-year-old rural night. The ambient light he’s sees in the dark has a landscape context of moonlight at best. There’s a gleam of some porcelain dinnerware inside, perhaps the most valued possession in the hut, perhaps a dowry or wedding item. The poet hears the only occupant, a woman, singing, in the ambiguous, but I think rich phrase, “as if to a child.” Note this single simile in the poem. He could have written “to a child.” He did not, leaving the implication that I take: that there is no child — the child is dead or gone. Campbell passes on “into the darkness” and the poem ends.
Seven lines, and this poem slays me. How much is packed in there to an attentive reader: the poverty of the colonized Irish, the depopulation of those who needed to leave to survive, their meager treasure (part of which is song), the closely-held personal losses.
Yes, poetry such as this requires your attention to work. I ask for your attention to this poem and to Joseph Cambell.
*This revolutionary involvement seems to have been the proximate cause of Campbell’s literary career stalling. In the aftermath of Irish Independence, the Irish Civil war broke out between factions of the new Irish state. Campbell ended up on the losing side and was imprisoned for a while. Despite my admiration for Campbell’s poetry, I’m not an expert on his life or the political issues of the Irish Civil war. But these events seemed to traumatize the writer, and it’s not hard to imagine that politics and associations from a sectarian war might have caused him to be written off by some in Ireland.
I fear this is going to be one of those bad elegies, one where the writer goes on too much about themselves and not about the person who has died. I’ve already mentioned that I find myself unacceptable and self-absorbed when I talk about myself, and saying that again only digs the self-dug hole I’m going to speak from today deeper.
In the mid-1970s when I moved to Minnesota from New York I connected back up with Dave Moore who I knew from a year in my aborted attempt at college. Through Dave I fell in with a literary group that varied in size and was herd-of-cats led by Kevin FitzPatrick. The group had just started a little magazine they called the Lake Street Review, Lake Street being a long commercial and industrial street that ran east/west through the center of Minneapolis: bars, gendered barber and beauty shops, warehouses, grocery stores, used car lots, a high-towered Sears linked to a rail-freight line and distribution center behind it, neighborhood movie theaters and former such theaters now grinding porn, the recording studio where “Surfin’ Bird” was recorded, a small attempt at a non-suburban shopping mall built on the tract where tractors and tanks were once factory-built, a “hardly a foot we can’t fit” shoe store whose upstairs apartments housed Robert Pirsig when he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Literary magazines generally preferred foreign words, or landscape landmarks like rivers, lakes, or mountains for their names. Yes, there were lakes at the west end of Lake Street, a self-improvement plan for nature dredged out from what had been swampy wetlands as part of a series of landscaped urban parks that circled Minneapolis — but let me be clear to those who aren’t from around here: calling an artistic enterprise The Lake Street Review was something of a provocation. This was a group of working-class writers with a non-academic outlook toward poetry.
The groups earliest meetings were held at a bar, and Dave noted to me that a large portion of the informal membership was made up of bartenders. Let me also set one other demographic fact: this was a group of men moving from their 20s to their 30s. Eventually the membership thinned out, and the remainder continued meeting in rotation in the members homes and apartments.
As the clan leader, Kevin was generally gentle and accepting. A high-school graduate, working in an urban ER, the again’er in me was attracted to the outsider stance, but Kevin also wanted the magazine’s public work to be acceptable to the parents and grandparents of us young men. The 1970s had still extended the “generation gap” of the 60s, so the “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television” you also couldn’t say on the pages of the Lake Street Review. Feminism was mysterious, like women generally were to these young men, but those women were talking about it which made the mystery unsettling. Anything gender-queer was probably beyond the pale.
I liked those folks, but some of this rankled me. Kevin’s desire to speak across the generation gap as a poet was more noble than I appreciated at the time, but I wanted to go much more radically into discussions of sexuality and sexual roles than Kevin did, and what work I shared with the group privately I thought was underappreciated and misunderstood. I skipped off to two other groups sometime in the 80s, only to return to the Lake Street Writers Group after more than a decade away.
By this time the group had become smaller and more fixed in membership and was no longer concerned with the discontinued magazine. Four or five others, interesting writers and persons in their own right, were regulars, and then not; until by the last few years it became a quartet that would meet every month to share and discuss work in progress.
So when that group ended, it was Kevin FitzPatrick, Dave Moore, Ethna McKiernan, and myself. I’m not sure exactly when Ethna became one of the group as it was likely during my sojourn away from it. At one point she was one of two women generally attending, but as we contracted into the quartet, she was the only woman. As we aged it’s possible that this was less of a filter or division, even if it didn’t disappear. Another thing that happened as we condensed: the group had become predominantly Irish-American. Ethna’s father had been a force in the Irish cultural renaissance, something I was almost entirely ignorant of,* and Ethna’s speaking voice retained a distinct Irish pronunciation undertone. Kevin and Ethna took it upon themselves to establish an annual Twin Cities St. Patrick’s Day poetry reading, a reminder that non-descript leprechauns, green plastic hats, sham-shamrocks, and ever-filled and spilled red cups and flushed faces were not the sum total of Irishness.
Will I ever get to Ethna in this post? To my shame, I will speak more in silhouette, about myself. In many ways I felt the junior member of this group. Kevin and Ethna has several collections published. Ethna got arts grants, had an MFA. Kevin and Dave had degrees from fine private colleges, I was a High School graduate. I gave up trying to publish shortly after my temporary leaving of the group, and it would have been understandable if it irked Kevin and Ethna sometimes that here was this opinionated yet apparently non-professionally serious person taking up their time. I retained a close friendship and collaboration with Dave outside of the group throughout the decades, and grew to understand and appreciate Kevin’s artistic goals, but no such closening happened with Ethna. I knew much less about the details of her life, and what bits I picked up second hand, sometimes from the poetry itself and not from her own conversation, indicated a life with more than it’s share of staggering life events. I also got a not-unexpected sense that men had been part of some of those staggerings, something that she didn’t express much directly in our group of three men and herself. Here’s a statement: I know more about the life-details of Emily Dickinson than I know about the life of a poet, my own contemporary, who I shared a few hours with every month.**
Kevin’s mature poetry never seemed to aim at beauty as such. It is a beautiful thing to find beauty were it isn’t. Ethna indeed aimed for beauty, sometimes comforting and sometimes fierce, and as the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there. Ethna got there some of the time, which is all we artists can do. Looking through her recently published Light Rolling Slowly Backwards, New and Selected Poems it is easy to find that she was the most skilled poet in our little group, which sounds like fish-in-small-pond praise — but if you (who don’t know us) were to read her, I think you might find similar achievement to whatever other poets you read. When I read Kevin and Ethna’s last books during my yurt retreat early this fall I observed that while I had heard almost every one of Kevin’s published pieces in Still Living in Town in early draft form, I hadn’t heard many of Ethna’s. I know she attended more than one group sharing works in progress, but the amount of work new to me was surprising. I do plan to share one of her striking poems with you soon, but let’s wrap this long introduction up and get to the final part of my countdown of the most listened to and liked Parlando pieces from this past fall.
Three Irish poets: Yeats, McKiernan, and Campbell.
2. The Folly of Being Comforted by William Butler Yeats. Ethna never simply said something like “Read Yeats!” but before I encountered her I didn’t think much about him one way or the other. Now over the five plus years of this project you’ll have heard the fruits of that influence from her in my many well-liked presentations of Yeats. As I said when I presented it, Yeats was making a very specific point in his poem relating to his own life. I chose in my performance to stubbornly ignore what Yeats intended his poem to be about, and to instead sing it remotely to her on her hospice bed with my own intent. If I snub Ethna in this eulogy, I’ll ignore Yeats too. No respect.
It’s a challenge for me to work out my approximations of Jazz when I’m playing all the parts one pass at a time while being far from a master of any instrument. When it succeeds, as some thought here, I try to combine my simplicities (unimpressive I’m sure to a skilled musician) into something that still pleases when heard together. The highlighted title above will link to my original post on this where I discuss Yeats’ intended meaning, but you can hear my performance dedicated to Ethna with a graphical player (if you see that) or this highlighted hyperlink.
1. Reynardine by Joseph Campbell. Before the depths of their illnesses, I asked Kevin and Ethna if they’d heard of this early 20th century Irish poet, and they both drew a blank, which I’ve now found is generally true about this overlooked and worthy of more study poet. If Ireland is thought known for exuberant and willing to risk excessiveness expression, Campbell is never more masterful than when he’s compressing things to a handful of words.
Reynardine is a supernatural story in three short verses. From what I’ve been able to determine (see the original post on this) the supernatural element may have been introduced by Campbell, who took an existing long-winded run-of-the-outlaw ballad, and boiled it down with a shapeshifter element. After he’d done that, the resulting folk revival song, one sung by many of the best revival singers of the British Isles, always includes at least hints of that element. My presentation uses Campbell’s original lyrics, which I think are superior to those usually sung.
As far as it’s popularity here this fall, this is an odd one. The blog post presenting it wasn’t read much at all, and the likes for my explanation there of how Campbell transformed the Reynardine story were low in number. But the listens to the song (as with all the audio pieces here, available via Apple Podcasts or most other podcast directories) were easily higher than any other recent piece. To hear it now you can use the player gadget if your blog reader shows it, or this highlighted hyperlink.
*I once joked, confessing my cultural ignorance there, that my idea of an Irish writer was Frank O’Hara. Joke or not, someone somewhere must have addressed what connections O’Hara’s poetry had with Irishness, but I haven’t found it.
** It was only a year or two ago, after my interest in Dickinson intensified that I found out that Ethna too had a deep appreciation for that genius. Of course, I have my portion of blame for this, just as with this inappropriate eulogy, but suspect she believed that I wouldn’t understand or have any sense of her experience or sensibility. I’d estimate she was wrong, but saying that only adds to my inappropriateness here today.
Are you familiar with the song “Reynardine?” You might be. It’s been performed by many of the best performers in the modern folk revival: Anne Briggs, Fairport Convention, John Renbourn, June Tabor, Bert Jansch and others.* Today as I extend our Halloween series, I’m going to introduce you to a version of the song you haven’t heard, a version that I’ll maintain uses more efficient and effective methods to convey an air of mystery. There’s supposition that this version may have been an indirect catalyst in the way the song you may know was presented, but this little-known version’s lyrics are so good that singers should consider using them in contemporary performances.
Where did I find this new version of “Reynardine?” In the 1909 book of collected poetry by Irish poet Seosamh MacCathmhaoil (AKA Joseph Campbell) titled The Mountainy Singer.
I’ve spent a day or so in hurried research on this, even though long-time readers (or readers of our last post for that matter) will know that Joseph Campbell** has been of interest to me for a couple of years now. Here’s the shortest version of what I know that I can make.
Songs related to “Reynardine” go back to the early 19th century in the British Isles and the U.S. Wikipedia gives us a representative early (1814) example, and this helpful page gives us a catalog of later 20th century versions. The older versions sometimes vary the name of the title character and contain no supernatural elements. The typical plot is a broadside ballad variation of what is still a staple romance-story trope: a woman meets an erotic stranger who she thinks may be disreputable and possibly stranger/dangerous — but who also may be wealthy or noble (Reynardine claims to have a castle in most versions.) Over several verses there may be Victorian code-words like “kisses” and “fainting,” and the title man may leave the lady wondering where he’s run off to.
Skip forward to the early 20th century: in 1909 (the same year that Campbell as MacCathmhaoil publishes “The Mountainy Singer”) a musicologist Herbert Hughes publishes the first volume in a series of successful song collections titled Irish Country Songs. A great many songs that will be featured in Celtic and general folk-revival recordings, performances, and song anthologies are included in Hughes series of books.*** Hughes’ printed version of “Reynardine” is shorter than most extant versions, a verse and a once-repeated refrain, and it’s even called a “Fragment of Ulster Ballad.” In a footnote at the bottom there is this note, unsupported by any of this song’s lyrics:
In the locality where I obtained this fragment Reynardine is known as the name of a faery that changes into the shape of a fox. -Ed.”
A century-old song, with many collected versions, and this is the first time that “Reynardine” is said to have supernatural elements. Where did Hughes get this? I don’t have a direct link, but there is our version of “Reynardine,” published in the same year by the Ulster-native Campbell who is not credited on Hughes’ score, though Campbell/ MacCathmhaoil is credited in at least two other songs in Hughes’ Irish Country Songs. The supposition is that Campbell is either “the locality” — or that Hughes and Campbell shared a traditional source which has left no extant song version that indicated to both of them that Reynardine is a supernatural creature.
Footnotes! Pretty scary boys and girls! Herbert Hughes’ songbook presentation of Reynardine that likely changed how the song was viewed.
Did some of the later 20th century folk revival singers know of this footnote? Possibly. One highly influential revivalist A. L. Lloyd sang a version that included at times a remark that Reynardine had notable teeth which shined. In pre-dental-care England this detail may have been enough supernatural evidence. Furthermore, he wrote of the were-fox context in liner notes more than once 50-70 years ago which led other performers to explain the song that way, either as their own subtext or to audiences.
But here’s another mystery — and I’m saying, a useful one — why isn’t Campbell’s version of “Reynardine” known and sung? Let’s look at it. The chords here are the ones I fingered, though I used Open G tuning and I formed the chords while capoing at the 3rd fret, so it sounds in the key of Bb. But the music “Reynardine” is sung to isn’t harmonically complicated (you could simplify the chords), and a better singer than I could better line out the attractive tune used by myself and most performers. ****
I made one change to Campbell’s masterfully compressed 1909 lyric. I use the more instantly recognizable, less antique word “lover” where Campbell had the easy to mishear “leman.”
Poets and lyricists: this is a marvel. No need of footnotes or spoken “this song is about…” intros. The supernatural element is subtly but clearly introduced. The refrained first stanza was as published by Hughes, and is commonly sung in modern versions. The second makes the bold move of changing a folk-song readymade where some damsel’s lips are found to be “red as wine” with an animalistic short-sharp-shock of Reynardine’s “eyes were red as wine.” The third stanza lets us know he can be a fox in form, subject to fox hunters with the brief but specific statements of the horn and hounds. Another subtle thing: Campbell repeats the “sun and dark” all-day-and-all-of-the-night lyrical motif to tell us this isn’t an ordinary fox hunt scheduled for seasonable days befitting rich people’s leisure, but a 24-hour emergency. The hunters know this fox isn’t normal. The refrained first verse reminds us that the lover may know that the were-fox can also take a human form, and make use of human defenses, such as castles, which the assiduous hunters do not.
As a page poem this has the vivid compression that Imagism preached. Compare the efficiency of this story-telling to “La Belle Dame sans Merci” which has its sensuous pleasures, yes, but takes it’s time getting to the point. The two poems convey essentially the same tale, but Campbell can leave us with an equally mysterious effect using so few and aptly chosen words.
**Obligatory statement: no, not the Power of Myth guy. I suppose it could be worse, Campbell could have been named James Joyce or Sinead O’Connor, and confused us too.
***Besides “Reynardine,” Vol. 1 includes another popular folk-revival song, erroneously considered to have wholly traditional lyrics: “She Moved Through the Fair” which Hughes’ correctly credits lyrically to Irish poet Padraic Colum.
****I was somewhat working from a very rough memory of Bert Jansch’s version on his Rosemary Lane LP. It’s a good thing I was rushing this and didn’t stop to listen to Jansch — his version is an acoustic guitar tour de force. If you’d like one performance to demonstrate why I, and many acoustic guitarists, revere his playing, that would be a good choice.
Here’s a piece celebrating our Spring springing forward that’s also appropriate for America’s celebration of Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s Day. It consists of three short poems by the Irish poet Joseph Campbell.* I put them together as I think they somehow increase their individual power presented that way. I call the combination “Sail-Moon-Sheep.”
Campbell was also an artist. Here are his own illustrations for the three poems I used today: “Sail Answers Sail,” “The Moon,” and “Sheep.”
Campbell is one of the more fascinating discoveries I’ve made while doing this project. As far as I can tell he’s largely unknown in the United States, even though he spent some time here between the World Wars. And while it’s harder for me to assay his position in Irish arts and culture, he doesn’t seem to be highly esteemed and remembered there either.
What draws me to present him then? First, he seems to be an early Modernist poet, who writes in a mode those pioneers used — one that I think bares reconsidering today: short poems that present charged emotional states by physical description while eschewing both tired conventional metaphors or overly elaborate original imagery. A hundred years ago there was a name for this kind of writing. It was called Imagism. It rose as a force in opposition to established literary styles, flourished briefly attracting both writers we still celebrate and even some not-inconsiderable popular interest, and then was largely discarded for further evolutions of Modernism.
Campbell didn’t always write in this style, but he did so often enough for me to have work to present here. I’m not sure exactly where or when he picked up this mode of poetic expression. Today’s pieces are from a 1917 poetry collection of his called Earth of Cualann, a year when Imagism would have been in more common currency as a poetic style, but he seems to have used it occasionally before 1910 when he might well have been independently inventing it — or he could have had some as yet undiscovered connection to the small pre-WWI Anglo-American group in London that would give the Imagist style a name.
Chinese ideograms for sail (or rather, boat), moon, and sheep (though more at goat I gather). Some of Campbell’s poems seem to me to work very much like classical Chinese poetry too.
Secondly, he is like Yeats, intimately involved in the Irish cultural renaissance** that was an engine driving to Irish political independence. Indeed, in that second event he seems even more involved, perhaps to the detriment of his poetic career.*** My 20th century brought forward many anti-colonialist artists, but America has it’s own colonialism (both internal and external) and English language eloquence on these matters may be useful to us. Often when reading Campbell I think that aside from some simple translations of particulars I could be reading a poem by someone of American-Indigenous heritage and culture. Campbell’s connection to nature and his native landscape is deep and inescapable.
If one reads a book of Campbell’s poems, this repeated connection to the landscape and its history is so deep that it’s impossible to not think of it as an Imagist expression of a spiritual or religious feeling**** in the poems, even where that is not overtly mentioned. I know next-to-nothing of Campbell’s religious beliefs. Catholic Christianity is sometimes invoked, and at other times a Neo-Pagan-like stance seems to be displayed.
Well, it’s so like this project to say a whole lot about three very short poems from Campbell’s Earth of Cualann that I present in the expectation that they hang together as a portrait of Spring, and then a Spring in a nation in need of renewal. It’s an Irish man’s depiction, and let us celebrate that too, but perhaps I’ve opened you to some further ways to consider that.
*As I must always say when mentioning his name — no, not that Joseph Campbell — this is another man who also used a Gaelic name Seosamh MacCathmhaoil.
**It would not surprise me if the instigators of the Afro-American Harlem Renaissance featured here last month were not aware of the power of Irish elevation of Irish art, history, artists, and culture as a pre-requisite to self-determination as well as a significant argument for their value as citizens. And in other anti-colonialist cross-pollination: consider the mutual admiration of Rabindranath Tagore and William Butler Yeats, or Gandhi’s example to Martin Luther King.
***Imprisonment and exile, for two examples, were involved. Knowing a little now of some of the impassioned factions even among and between the Irish Nationalists, I fear finding out more of Campbell’s actual political beliefs, alliances, and possible revolutionary actions. It’s also plausible that it may have reduced his stature in Irish literature, as political opponents divided by violence often are unconcerned with merely literary merits.
****Remember, Imagism expects there to be few, if any, overt use of words naming emotions or reactions to what it is depicting. It expects — and when it works, it may even compel — the reader or listener to supply their own internal emotional reaction and impact from the poem’s description of a charged moment.
What do we see, what do we learn, what possibly do we gain here in the upper parts of the northern hemisphere from so much nighttime at the beginning of a cold and snowy winter?
Some might say we learn endurance, a sense of obligation besides the dark and ice to carry on. Or a concentration, winter solstice as the fasting of light. But night is a filter, a frame, offering another way of perceiving. So, I went looking for poems this month that might allow you or I to look at darkness and see differently. One of the strongest and strangest poems I found was this one by a little-known Irish poet named Joseph Campbell.*
I’m trying to gather more info on Campbell. He was born in colonial Ireland in 1879 and died 1944 in a now independent Ireland. Most of his available poetry was published before WWI. He was imprisoned in the events surrounding the Irish Civil War of the last Twenties** (he was aligned with the losing side) and afterward he lived for a couple of decades in the United States. Shortly before his death he returned to Ireland and died there. I’ve read one of his book-length collections of poetry and parts of two others, all of which predate Irish Independence and the Civil War. I find him a striking poet worthy of more interest. Most of his poetry is brief, rhymed lyrical poems, using short metrical lines, such as today’s selection. One collection, Irishry, contains incisive small character sketches of Irish life at the turn of the 20th century. Another, The Gilly of Christ, has elements of Christian mysticism. Inherent in many of the poems seems to be a speaker who has spent time hiking about the country, and in this regard, Campbell reminds me at times of Edward Thomas with his attention to the book of nature and the landscape. While he likes rural and sometimes peculiar words, his language is clean and modern without the taint of worn-out 19th century leftovers.
There are also a handful of poems I’ve read in the collections so far that are very much in the style of the early Imagists, and this is striking because they may date to around the same time as their initial ground-breaking experiments. I so far know of no direct connection between Campbell and the largely London-based pioneering Imagists, but like his Irish contemporaries Yeats*** and Joyce, Campbell seems to be an early Modernist voice regardless of his use of rhyme and meter for most of his poetry.
Here’s today’s piece with chords in case you want to make sounds in the winter night
Today’s Winter Solstice relatable piece “Twilight Fallen White and Cold” mixes his modes a bit to produce an interesting effect. It’s on one layer a jaunty nature poem, almost nursery rhyme simple. This seems an easy effect to achieve, but particular to moderns, it’s not. Subtly mixed in with the “child in cradle, lamb in fold” comfortable lines are misty undercurrents. Well, yes, those trees are a bit ghostly in fading light and cold mist. Yes, birds are on the wing, but also “Black-winged vampires.” What? No, there are no vampire bats in Ireland.**** And in the last line of the second stanza we meet “rath and burial mounds,” the former a word that has an Irish meaning that an modern American reader might slide over. No, the burial mounds aren’t explicitly angry, a “rath” is the remains of an earthen-walled stronghold dating back to Celtic chieftains. The poem final stanza intensifies that hold and call from the indigenous past. Though Campbell is depicting an Irish landscape, these rounded-over and landscape-worn earthworks bring to mind the areas of North America in my native Midwest where indigenous people built similar structures.
But the most mysterious part is repeated as a refrain to make sure we don’t miss it: “Wounds of Eloim/Weep on me!”
The darkness of coming night may be mysterious, but this is more so. I don’t know exactly what Campbell is getting at there, other than the effect of mystification assuredly delivered. Eloim, which I believe in a variation of “Elohim,” is word that will not become less mysterious if one researches it. It appears to be a Semetic language family word for gods. In the Bible the word appears to have taken on several meanings. The Abrahamic Semites are famously monotheists, and they will use the word to refer to the multiple gods of the other tribes—but even though the word is plural, they will use it to refer to their own, singular god, or to the ambiguous angels that are not human but are also not plural gods. At some point, I believe post-Biblical times, this association with angels has led the word to be used at times as synonym for heaven.
Does that help us understand what Campbell meant to ring out multiple times in his poem? Not exactly. I gather some sense of a lost past, of a suppressed culture, is being invoked, but the mysticism never reduces itself to a “this stands for that, it’s just a code to be broken” level. That may increase its power, and it certainly increases the strangeness of this poem.
Returning to my original question, what might the darkness, our winter-come overwhelming night portion teach us? The example of this poem says that I shouldn’t answer that question quickly and simply—but that I should ask it.
*As I have to say whenever I mention Campbell to anyone: no, not the American Hero With A Thousand Faces and “Follow your bliss” Joseph Campbell. This is another guy. The Irish Joseph Campbell also used a Gaelic name, Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil which would have given him a more secure doing-business-as cultural brand, and near the end of his life a pen-name of Ultach.
**Until this year I was entirely ignorant of the events of the Irish Civil War and now only know the summary story as reflected in things like this Wikipedia entry. I am, so far, unacquainted with Campbell’s political beliefs and actions.
***Like Yeats, Campbell seems to have been a committed cultural nationalist, seeking to use the arts as a way to uplift his country’s prestige and as a foundation for independence from colonial status. Like Yeats he also seems to have been involved with theater and as a song lyricist. One tidbit I found, which may be related to the mysterious element in today’s poem, is that he may have been the source responsible for a broadside folk ballad “Reynardine,” being performed in a version by several British Isle folk-revivalists later in the 20th century as a tale of a “were-fox” rather than in its original guise as tale of a bandit. Here’s two of my favorites versions, one by the incomparable Bert Jansch, and an unaccompanied one by the equally special Anne Briggs.
****Maybe St. Patrick and Van Helsing teamed up to take care of that?
When I started this project a few years ago I didn’t realize that I’d have to largely work with poetry which is in the public domain. This can still disappoint me, but there’s been a welcome side-effect.
This limitation caused me to look deeply into the first couple decades of the 20th century for texts to use. I knew a little about the pioneers of Modernist poetry in English, or thought I did—but as things often go, the more you find out, the more you find out you don’t know.
I had carried the impression in my younger years that Modernist English poetry started out with “Prufrock” and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” and that it soon moved on to “The Waste Land” and Wallace Stevens with his multi-section poems set off by roman numerals. All stuff with moments of beauty and extravagant language, but also a bit heavy-lifting if one wanted to take it all in, much less wonder what the poet was on about.
But when you look for the actual beginnings, you find Imagism in the time before WWI—and the poems are much more modest: often short, sub-sonnet length, and they aren’t out to wow you with the elaborateness of their imagery, which is concrete and immediate.
Are these slight poems, ones lacking the impact that the weight of a few hundred lines and some quotes from Latin or Tudor poetry could bring? You can read them that way. Absorb them like a short paragraph in a novel that you are rushing through to get to a waypoint of a plot, and then they may seem so.
But the men and women that wrote these poems didn’t intend these poems to be slight. They intended revolution or rejuvenation of the poetry of their language. Compression. Concision. The leaving out all express sentiment to be replaced by a call for their readers to be involved, to see the certain things the poem described and to feel them as fresh experience, not as an allusion to ideas about the experience.
Well here’s a poet and poem I didn’t know about before this project, and one that isn’t classed as one of the pre-WWI Imagists as far as I know, even though this poem is—intentionally or not—exactly an Imagist poem. The poet’s got more names than Du Fu, for he didn’t always write or name himself in English: the Irish poet Joseph Campbell, AKA Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil, and Joseph McCahill.
No, not the “Power of Myth” guy, the other Joseph Campbell
Like many Irish poets of the turn of the 20th century he was involved in trying to end the colonial status of Ireland. He lived in Ireland the colony and the free state, England and the United States. He wrote lyrics to traditional Irish melodies, plays and other stuff (including a memoir of his imprisonment during the struggle for Irish Independence).
Like Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Campbell’s “Night, and I Traveling” takes place in the old, unlit, rural night. And instead of a dark copse of trees, it’s a country house, perhaps more a hut, that the traveler pauses beside. What does Campbell see?
Light from a hearth burning peat, that not-quite-coal that served the country people of his time. There’s a dresser and some small array of porcelain dishes displayed on it. There’s an ambiguous line: he hears inside the hut “A woman’s voice crooning, as if to a child.”
Why did Campbell choose “as if” for two of his 46 words? Well, practically he might not have seen the woman, much less the child. It may be meant to suggest that the child is being lullabied to sleep and this may be the reason the traveler doesn’t even consider helloing to the home’s inhabitants. Or it could mean that the child is no longer home, grown and left for elsewhere, or even dead.
I don’t think I’m imagining that later implication, though it’s not explicit.
The last line is rich in ambiguity too, though it seems to suggest it’s resolving that spare line that preceded it. Is our traveler passing on into the darkness like the child who has left home or has left life? Or is he a traveler who has “miles to go before he sleeps” who cannot stop and rest or talk to those who live in the hut? Or is the traveler perhaps a person who knows or suspects he’ll never even have such a meagre but real home like the one he’s passing? I know too little of Campbell’s life as of this point to weigh that last possibility against his own biographical facts.
You’re free to hear the poem as saying any one, or all, of these things. It’s still a charged moment even without it being defined exactly—perhaps even more so for that. I’m not Irish, but it seems to me to be a concise emblem of Ireland at his centuries’ turn.
Musically, I used a 12-string acoustic guitar with tambura and sitar drone accompaniment today. I can’t say it’s authentic Irish music, but then Celtic music in the 20th century picked up a lot of things like alternative guitar tunings brought by a Scottish-Guyanese man traveling from Morocco and bouzoukis from Greece. To hear my music and performance for this poem, use the player below.