How Many Flowers

After all the storm and breadth of remarking on my several-year presentations of “The Waste Land,”  the totality of which takes more than an hour to listen to, it’s time to return to a smaller Modernism. To start that off, let me present a tiny poem by Emily Dickinson.

Wait, you said Modernism. Dickinson? Well, some early Modernists recognized that Mid-19th century American poet as a Modernist who forgot to check the calendar.*  And as I remind readers here often, early Modernism was very enamored of short, seemingly unpretentious poems, and today’s piece “How Many Flowers”  has those elements:

How many Flowers fail in Wood —
Or perish from the Hill —
Without the privilege to know
That they are beautiful —

How many cast a nameless Pod
Upon the nearest Breeze —
Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight —
It bears to Other Eyes —

Indeed, with some editing/translation it could be a full-fledged, circa-1916 Imagist poem. Dickinson’s poem speaks of plural flowers, and that’s in tune with the point it’s making, but an Imagist might have simply changed it to a singular flower, or at least an instant of several flowers. The negative-pathetic fallacy of the flower’s ignorance of its beauty might have been excised. So, if William Carlos Williams or H.D. had written it in the 20th century it might have arisen like this:

The flowers fail in the wood
And perish from the hill.
Is there a privilege to know
That they are beautiful?

There is a breeze, and in it
Some nameless pods —
Seeds of scarlet freight
Bearing from eyes to eyes.

More or less the same thought and brevity, just a removal of the remaining 19th century Romanticism that Dickinson retained even as she would question it, and of course the word-music changes some. Today I chose to keep Emily Dickinson’s word music and original expression intact. But either poem is making a declaration about art: that it’s often created because it must be, out of an urge that is as omnipresent and mysterious as flowers, and that like flowers it’s part of a reproductive system that allows many seeds for few flowers and even fewer idle reflective eyes to see the flowers, this passing fecundity and unnecessary beauty.

All flowers, like all artists, fail, but “Unconscious of the scarlet freight…”

 

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I present this piece today as I read two memoirs by little-remembered early-20th century Modernists — and from those little-noticed flowers I noticed some others, eyes carried in the wind to my eyes that I hope to present here soon for yours. But for today, we have my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “How Many Flowers.”  with a player that will land and bloom for some of you, and this alternative for those who don’t see the player, a highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab to let you play my performance.

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*In our 21st century — with grace of a scholarly culture once blind but now can see — the depth and subtlety of Dickinson’s vision and the thought that she’s able to stuff into tiny poems is now widely celebrated.

Shattered Visage

The place of short epigramic poetry in our culture, and just a touch of Percy Bysshe Shelley, combine in today’s piece.

When people seek to stop the expansion of poetry in definition or in practice they will aim and fire at certain targets. If you look closely and slowly, you may see the bullet holes with their worn, rusting lips frozen in mid-kiss.

“Song lyrics? When you see them on the page, you can surely tell they aren’t poetry. And what about advertising jingles then?”

I’ll reply that it’s true that we don’t know if Sappho was a copywriter for hire, or worked independently—and frankly, the advertising jingle has passed into disuse anyway. One benefit of aging is that one can remember lost, golden ages when the rustic bards of old sang along the roads.

I speak of course of that mid-20th Century, Midwestern American Greek Anthology presented by Burma Shave. We know only the fragments of their work that scribes have preserved in illuminated HTML, but did these jingles really harm mid-20th Century poetry much?

I think not.

Here was the scheme: an insurgent company that made shaving cream in Minneapolis Minnesota took to the idea of a series of small signs, enjambed with the broken lines of an epigramic poem, signed-off at the last sign with the company’s logo: its name in white flowing script. Cars sauntered on narrower roads in those days, roads that went farther between cities that had yet to leak out suburbs and housing projects. Car radios were an option not ticked off by every frugal buyer, and the boredom on the two-lane was an advertiser’s opportunity. Huge billboards, the epics of the roadside, might have pressed the budget of the Burma Shave company, but those little signs in series were another matter. Poetry, then as now, is a bargain.

Burma_Shave_Signs_by_highway

Poetry in motion, Burma Shave signs in use, circa 1940.

 

And to us, the naïve backseat riders with no tablets or Gameboys, we could hope then the horizon might give us that initial red sign and line of verse, followed by their episodic reveal, their enforced caesurae.

Perhaps the poems imagery or significance did not equal Elizabeth Bishop or Wallace Stevens, but the experience—yes!—was exactly what poetry should deliver. It comes on us, with expectation, but unpredictably. It reveals itself, in time marked with intervals that tell us it is indeed time. And in the end, it pleases us in a way that the passage of a mere Pioneer Seed Corn placard or another end-of-lane mailbox cannot.

Its motives may not have been artistically pure, but we didn’t care.

Commercial motives are as fragile as Olympian ones. Around 1960, Burma Shave was sold, and the brand discontinued. The placement of new signs stopped, and only in places where no one cared to groom the roadside did they remain to gradual ruin.

Years later I would move to Minneapolis, and eventually I would fall in with some folks who created a literary magazine that wanted to celebrate the inescapable, unpretentious—yes, sometimes commercial—main drag down Phaeton’s east-west path of the city. They called the magazine “The Lake Street Review.”  Down that street I would often bike or drive past a nondescript building, just before the freight-railroad tracks, just before the shopping-and-buying mall built were Minneapolis-Moline once built tractors. When it was built, this building had been a church, but as the area became industrial in the early 20th Century, the building became, for awhile, the headquarters, the factory, the Parnassus of Burma Shave.

Save the (Burma) Shave

The ex-Burma Shave building on Lake Street as it appeared in the 21st Century

 

I don’t know if any of us knew that. I only found out as they planned to tear it down, which they did. As the workman did a workman’s job, in the midst of the ditch of lathe and beams, a red sign with cursive white letters was found at the end: “Burma Shave.”

Weckage of Burma Shave Building

“on the pedestal, these words appear…” After the Burma Shave building was torn down.

 

Musically, the LYL Band performed “Shattered Visage”  a couple of years ago, but I share it now after this week’s presentation of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”  As I said Monday, I read “Ozymandias”  without bringing out the pathos in the the impermanence of human achievements, choosing instead to emphasize time’s judgement on tyrants, but in “Shattered Visage”  my parody turns to the former. One other link to “Ozymandias:”  remember Horace Smith, the second-place sonneteer who also wrote an “Ozymandias?”  He entered into literary circles with a spoof he authored along with his brother, where they imitated all the most famous poets and orators of their time, including Lord Byron, who supplied an admiring blurb when the collection was published.

To listen to “Shattered Visage,”  use the player below.

 

The Red Wheelbarrow

Obscurity in modernist poetry is a funny issue. What makes some writing hard to grasp, difficult to understand? Esoteric and little-known words like Wallace Stevens loved? Far-flung allusions to works in several languages like T. S. Eliot was prone to? Exploding normal written syntax and logical flow as Gertrude Stein did? Taking images into realms where direct one-to-one symbolic meaning is not only impossible, but more than likely, not the aim, as Tristan Tzara or Paul Éluard demonstrate? Presenting things “slant” in iconoclastic riddles as Emily Dickinson could? Writing works of epic length that few if any human minds can comprehend in their whole, like the Cantos of Ezra Pound?

And then there’s this poem, the basis of today’s piece, William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

The Red Wheelbarrow

The whole of it: 16 words, no punctuation, all lower-case

 

From empirical evidence you could say that it’s the very peak of the canon of modern American poetry. Remember that compiled count of the poems that appeared most often in poetry anthologies, most of which were explicitly focused on modern American poetry? “The Red Wheelbarrow”  is alone at the top of that list, included in over half of the anthologies counted.

Does that make it a “best loved poem”? Does it even assure that critics consider it great, much less the greatest? No, it does not. I think I first ran into it as a teenage student, in one of those anthologies used in some English literature class. Did my young teacher point it out as a poem of special merit? Did I view it as such? No. If I can trust my memory, if it was discussed at all, it was as if it was some kind of stunt, an intended provocation that so short and mundane a piece could be considered artful. “Now class, let’s get back to T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens.”

And how about critics? They largely part like the Red Sea on “The Red Wheelbarrow”.  If we look to one side, in among the mollusks and manta rays now behind the water curtain of the divided sea, we find those who care little for it. There’s nothing there demanding to be written about. No virtuosity is demonstrated to be noted and admired. And what important point is it making, other than, well, no point at all?

So, we turn to the other side, those swimming with bemused dolphins who wonder if they could leap across the band of Israelites walking on damp seabed, those critics hoping to demonstrate their microscopic perception of the hidden art in this terribly short and compressed poem. Carol Rumens is concise and representative of this when she says of Williams’ poem “This is his manifesto, surely–a poem quietly declaring how modern poetry works.” And she also warns “A naïve reading could take it as a comment about the great usefulness of wheelbarrows on small-holdings where chickens are kept.”

And then, here I am, now. No longer the teenage student who was sure someone had figured these things out, and I need only to find them. I can’t see far enough ahead where Moses and Aaron are, nor can I see far enough back how close Pharaoh and those charioteers are getting. I’ve got my hasty bread and a few grabbed things in my little cart, pushing it across the mud. I think I must be naïve. Yes, Williams is a modernist, as committed to the new way of writing as clearly as possible, a proclaimer of “No ideas except in things,” which means in retrograde, the things must be the ideas. If he had wanted to write a manifesto, he could, and did in the other poem that stated that dictum.

The obscurity in this poem is that there is no obscurity other than what we bring to it externally. There is no allusive, secret meaning, other than the secrets we’ve kept from ourselves, of our tools and our companion responsibilities.

Yes, there is art in these 16 words: the line breaks that ask us to hold our gaze, even in the middle of words, the “so much depends” warning that bids us look. The choice to look at just these simple common things, is a choice, is an idea. I think the dolphin side of the parted sea has smarter companions than the mollusks’ side; but I am looking down at my wheelbarrow, and Williams’ wheelbarrow, and saying naively, that it matters, even if I’m in the middle of the band, unable to see Pharaoh or Moses.

I’ve spent too long on the words again, but I feel I need to say a bit about the music I composed for my performance of “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I chose to use a twelve-tone row, a modernist musical idea from the same time as when Williams was writing the poem. It would be pretentious for me to say I got this from deep study of Schoenberg or Webern, though I’ve listened to a good deal of modernist music. However, “serialism” never stuck with me until I heard the prologue part of “This Town Is a Sealed Tuna Fish Sandwich” written by Frank Zappa. I’ve loved that piece from the first time I heard it.

Twelve-tone music subverts expectations of a tonal center or “important” scalar notes, so it can sound a little woozy or random, but, of course it has its pattern, by definition, which the mind’s ear can hear if you stop thinking in expectation of familiar patterns, which is the simple and profound thing it is asking you to do.

Click on the player to hear my performance of “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

 

Raleigh In the Dark Tower

Today’s post uses a very short poem about a famous doomed adventurer written by a too-little-known early modernist soldier-poet.

The words’ author, T. E. Hulme, is a name I kept running into as I read about the connections between modernist American and Irish writers in England at the beginning of the 20th Century. Many of those connections can be traced to a group of writers and artists, led by Hulme, who congregated in London beginning around 1908. It’s there that Ezra Pound, soon to be literary modernism’s greatest promoter, met Hulme, who many view as modernism’s originator. The argument for preeminence comes down to classic one:  who thought of it first vs. who practically introduced it.

So far here I’ve concentrated on Pound’s role, but as I began to look at this circle, I must consider Hulme’s impact as well. And then a few weeks ago, through the wonderful blog “Interesting Literature,” and its founder Oliver Tearle, I finally read some of Hulme’s poetry, his own practical application of his ideas.

T E Hulme

T. E. Hulme, the man whose brief poetic spark set off Imagism

 

If there’s a reason I hadn’t read Hulme yet, it may be that his poetry isn’t as well known, and there is very little of it—and what there is, is little twice: about 25 poems totaling about 260 lines. That’s right, as disciples of Bill James will quickly recognize, the average for a Hulme poem is shorter than a sonnet, just a bit more than 10 lines. His short poems, as much or more than other famous short Imagist poems like Pound’s “In A Station of the Metro”,  Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”  or Sandburg’s “Fog”  challenge the reader to find worth and significance in a few words and a putatively mundane subject. Today’s piece uses the words of Hulme’s “Raleigh In the Dark Tower,”  and is something of an outlier in Hulme’s poems, as it’s subject is not so ordinary.

I used Sir Walter Raleigh’s The Lie  earlier this month, and in writing about this extraordinary condemnation of human failings, I told you what every English schoolkid of certain generations would have learned or known about Raleigh: that he was an Elizabethan English hero, and yet he was executed by the English government.

Raleigh Tobacco Tin

Also to blame for Duke basketball fans

 

Once more I’m going to have compress Raleigh’s life into shortcuts, some of which are matters of dispute. He lived in a time of brutal Christian religious wars and is said to have witnessed both the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and to be captain of the troops ordered to perform the execution of prisoners after the Siege of Smerwick. He was lifetime soldier of fortune and entrepreneur, a cross between James Bond and Richard Branson. He popularized the potato and smoking tobacco, and so can be blamed for lung cancer and my spreading waistline. His expeditions pioneered European settlement of North Carolina, which means he is partially responsible for both Michael Jordon and insufferable Duke basketball fans. He twice led English expeditions into Guyana in South America, without which we would not have Davey Graham and acoustic guitars tuned to DADGAD. Oh, and he was a writer.

Even during his three separate confinements to the prison in the Tower of London, Raleigh wrote. Or perhaps he wrote because of his confinements? He wrote the first volume of a monumental attempt at a history of the world during one prison stay, but his release ended the chance of the series continuing.

To present Raleigh, Hulme in his conciseness, give us just these few lines:

Raleigh in the dark tower prisoned
Dreamed of the blue sea and beyond
Where in strange tropic paradise
Grew musk

For my music for “Raleigh In the Dark Tower”  I used acoustic guitar and a string quartet. To try to bring out the dream half of Raleigh’s prison I tried to perform a second, higher, vocal line. To represent the prison half of Raleigh’s experience, I repeated the words a second time, as a prisoned day would follow another prisoned day.

More depends on Raleigh’s life than depends on a Red Wheelbarrow, but Hulme lets that be only understood. And Hulme’s Imagist philosophy, a “dry hardness”, would urge fewer romantic dreams and more direct observation, but even in his few words, he allows this prisoner the immediacy of his dreams and voyages.

Raleigh would be executed for serving the amoral interests of his country too well, and Hulme would die a soldier on a WWI battlefield believing to the end in the causes of a war that was soon portrayed as absurd.

Hulme grave

Another soldier-poet whose leaf WWI cut short

 

To hear my music and performance of T. E. Hulme’s “Raleigh In the Dark Tower,”  use the player below.