I ran long the last time, let me be short today. Last week after Ethna McKiernan died, Dave Moore and I talked briefly, and I said that I was going to try to write something for Winter Solstice.
“Make it a happy one” Dave requested. I’ve written at length about the losses Dave and I have had with poetic colleagues in recent posts, so for those who want more details, I’ll refer you to the last couple of posts here instead.
How far did I get to that “happy?” Not all the way. The piece I wrote and you can hear my performance of today is more at bittersweet. I’ve talked to Dave about how I’m hearing Kevin FitzPatrick’s and Ethna’s voices, very distinctly at times when I’m quiet. And since I knew them largely as poets, I’m hearing them reading their poetry. I tell you honestly I don’t find this eerie at all. I find it comforting. I expect that those voices will fade with time, but right now to hear them keeps them with me.
I suspect grieving people have heard similar departed voices since we first began to speak, and that those voices would be more sure to come on a long dark winter night. But here’s my modern variation: due to the pandemic the last few meetings of the Lake Street Writer’s group happened over Zoom Internet videoconferencing. I became accustomed to seeing Ethna’s face after she began her cancer treatment on the same home screen I’m typing this on, and so now when I’m on a Zoom conference I sometimes expect to see her face again as one of the squares on my grid — and I will allow myself to visualize my expectation. You can read all 2916 lines of “In Memoriam,” and you won’t find Alfred Tennyson having that exact image to deal with.
Here’s my own text I performed from. Due to short recording opportunities, I worked out the drums and percussion, and then rapidly laid down a bass, piano, and then an arpeggiated 12-string guitar part to further establish a harmonic flavor. I had time to quickly improvise three passes of a lead electric 12-string part, and this was the best of them.
Then the last time I saw Ethna McKiernan, it was her book launch reading at Celtic Junction on August 6th. I recall she wore a brightly colored headwrap on those last Zoom conferences, and for the public reading she was all in bright red. I melded those two visual memories with our seasonal gift-wrapped packages in the poem.
So those are some of the consolations the poem’s title refers to. And too, one of the fine things in winter and on winter solstice is to be inside, in our lights, at home with our partners, family, house-pets, and welcome ghosts.
Here’s what I speak of in the final line: our lakes and ponds and the still parts of rivers have ice surfaces now. Whichever side of the ice you are on: under it and in the underwaters, or over precarious ice not thick enough to securely separate yourself from those cold underwaters — laugh with more than happiness, laugh with that knowledge that that ice is a fragile and temporary division.
Once more let us look at winter-come darkness and see what we see there, this time through Gerard Manley Hopkins and one of his “Terrible Sonnets.”
The name “Terrible Sonnets” is not a review, though I’ll confess that on first hearing of them, that between Hopkins oh-so-British sounding triple name with an extra schoolboy snicker due for the middle name on top of that, that I too wondered what meaning I’d assign to that word “Terrible”. No, my teachers assured me, terrible in the same way that wonderful and awful can be synonyms in strict derivation English.
No, these are poems that have a good scholarly reputation, and some general readership yet today. If there is disagreement about them, it’s not about their worth or poetic quality, but rather if they show Hopkins in a profound spiritual crisis or in a clinical depression. One can find a number of essays online and elsewhere that argue for either, or perhaps both. Either way, this is the night darkness as we often think of it. Yesterday we had Joseph Campbell making a case for a mysterious outward darkness, the exact nature of which is just out of our understanding. Hopkins darkness in contrast is totally intimate. I find it interesting that both of them were writing in Ireland, then still a colonial possession. Campbell may be expressing his country’s subjugation and its ancestors’ sorrow at that in his poem. Hopkins, in turn, was a patriotic citizen of the empire that ruled over Campbell’s country. That’s not a frame I’ll follow up on today due to space, and because Hopkins wrote these poems in the late 19th century and there’s no way to start a Tweetstorm that he can read back then.
Hopkins, about to be pwned for complicity in colonial exploitation, before everyone realized: wait, 1885, no iPhones.
Here’s another frame, another one with roots in colonialism and subjugation. In America we have a form, the Afro-American Modernist form forged around the same time that some white Americans were over in London helping create and popularize Imagism. That form was called “The Blues,*” and to some degree that indigo name has let it be casually and incorrectly considered a sorrowful song. And yes, a lot of bad and sad things are spoken of in The Blues, but it’s generally from a stance of: “Look what’s happened to me, what’s been done to me, the absurdity of it—but I’m still here to tell you about it.”
Today’s piece, using Hopkins’ Terrible Sonnet “I wake and feel the fell of dark,” is not a Blues. But despite the harrowing statement of the inside of this poem’s speaker’s experience, it shares one thing with The Blues that makes it outstanding: “I wake and feel the fell of dark” is full of energy. The description of the state inside the poem is cascading and vivid, coming at you so fast that it seems all at once. If this is depression being described, it’s not the mode of depression that is numbed beyond caring, but the depression that actively calls out and hates the depressive portion of the speaker’s mind. In this way, it shares something with The Blues, it can be cathartic. And indeed, some sufferers of depression (like too, some religious seekers) find the Terrible Sonnets worthwhile as a voice in darkness that can remind them that there are others who’ve felt and seen the same things.
I’ll risk trivializing Hopkins’ revered poem by pointing out two trivial things I noted in looking at the text, as few commentators on Hopkins’ work choose to sink to mundane levels. The section “I am gall, I am heartburn…bitter would have me taste: my taste was me” seems to me to me to be on one level a symptomatic report of the experience of nighttime gastric reflux. And in these days of 2020, with lots of long nights this year before this day of Winter Solstice, Hopkins back in 1885 was prophet enough to speak specifically of our popular pandemic baking fad of homemade sourdough bread in this poem’s line 12!
*The Blues of course is a varied and mutating form whose essence exists beyond the bins carrying that label in record stores or playlist names on your phone. I use it as a name because it’s one that coalesced for the art form at the time it emerged around 1900 in America. I stand to be corrected by my betters in these matters, but I believe the Blues essence remains a vital part of Afro-American expression, and from that, American expression in general. I’m an American musician, and the notes are mostly black.
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?
Today is the summer solstice, and what better way to celebrate than a song from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The song “Over Hill, Over Dale” comes early in the play, as the audience is introduced to the fairies’ world. I’d like to point out, the un-named fairy who sings it might be particularly relatable to creative types. How so?
On our creative days we may like to think ourselves’ that play’s Puck, “that shrewd and knavish sprite” capable of all kinds of life-shaping mischief with our words and creations; the Puck who gets the play’s ending speech where he represents as all effortless, dreaming creators to our audiences.
But Puck doesn’t sing today’s song.
Nope. The singer is just a fairy no-name. And, to be frank, this fairy is kind of a drudge. The song, delightful as it is—and meant to generate with word-pictures a wonderous world of nature’s magic in the audience’s mind—does this by a description of no-name fairy keeping their fay nose to the pixie grindstone. Dutiful, and busy, busy, busy.
Shakespeare has set no-name fairy’s job to be an exposition-character. After today’s scene-setting song, their dramatic task is to introduce Puck, through no-name recognizing the much better-known sprite and speechifying as Puck’s hype-man. After that, no-name leaves the play speaking lines about not wanting to be noticed.
Consolations? This Victorian artist made our no-name fairy better-looking than Puck (on the left.)
OK, so what’s in this for creatives?
We’re not Puck, at least not most of us, mostly all the time, effortlessly casting our thrall. Magic and delight take a lot of grunt work. There’s always one more cowslip that’s missed its pearl-hanging, that’s a few rubies short of the categorical number.
And if we do our work well enough, it often seems like nature—you know, “You’re so creative. I could never come up with all your ideas!” Well, creative people aren’t the ones who come up with ideas (those are imaginative people, only some of which are creative)—creative people are the people who make things.
Musically, I get to work out my naïve piano playing while aiming for a funky feel on this one. I hear there’s a Midsummer party in the wood outside of Athens. What time? Oh, Elizabethan. The player gadget is below. If you want to read along, the song is at the start of Act 2, Scene 1, and you can read it here.
Yesterday’s post and audio piece had Dave Moore combining the poetry of William Blake and Christina Rossetti, but today we have him singing the work of yet another English mystic as well as his setting of a lyric by Emily Dickinson.
For those readers and listeners in the Northern Hemisphere, tomorrow is Winter Solstice. I write from Minnesota, fairly far upward and north in latitude. Winter Solstice is the darkest day of the year, with the sun not rising until almost 8 AM and the sunset clocking out of work early at 4:20 PM. Despite our colder climate, that’s about the same as London’s solstice daylight and a hour longer than Edinburgh. Minnesota’s famous Scandinavian immigrants, as one comic once put it, traveled across the whole wide ocean just to find the one place as cold, dark and miserable as the place they’d left—well I checked—they picked up 2 to 4 hours more midwinter light.
Of course the new year is less than two weeks off, and solstice is the shortest day—not the entry into a dark season, but the beginning of a gradual expansion of daylight, cold daylight though it may be. For this reason it’s been a fairly widespread feast day across cultures.
However, for writers and musicians, the cold and the dark is no great hindrance. Sure it may blunt our moods, and stunt some mitigating outdoor activities, but our products are part of the festive in the darkness, and they can be like the shared quilt or blanket on the coldest night. Yes, before indoor lighting technology, scholarly reading was curtailed, but the poets of that dark time could recite from memory, needing no light bulb on their lectern. The sounds of strings, the dunest drum and the golden cymbal, travel without light.
And our partners and families don’t need light either to be known to us. They don’t even need poetry or music, their plainest word in the darkness is song enough, if we can hear that as one note in the slowest song that is our life together.
So, for today and the Midwinter Solstice, here is Dave Moore singing Robyn Hitchcock’s “Winter Love.”
The LYL Band tackles the darkest time of year
And for the short passage of the daylight, here’s Emily Dickinson’s sublime lyric about the transit of a day, “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose,” also sung by Dave.
And don’t forget, we have over 160 audio pieces here, available in the archives on the right. Why not check out some from before the time you first heard of us?
200 years ago this month a 21 year old surgical resident decided to give up his studies to become a doctor and to instead concentrate on the writing of poetry. An interesting decision. He had already rolled up a considerable education debt, and while it’s possible that poetry’s earnings potential might have been greater in 1816 than today, greater than zero is not a high bar.
So how prudent was our young not-to-be surgeon? He had tried his hand at poetry and had published a couple of poems in magazines before his decision. Hmm. Not a great prospectus you might think. In a rough translation for our time, it’s as if the young student had ditched his studies and loan debt for a shot at touring as an indie-rocker, even though he’s only played in his dorm room and doesn’t have a band.
His friends thought he had promise. In the forthcoming year, and with their help, he would find a publisher for his first volume of poems, but his work was mostly unnoticed, and where noticed, the reviews were at best mixed. One reviewer had rich fun with this impudence:
“The spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity…. It is a better and easier thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; go back to the shop, Mr. John, back to `plasters, pills and ointment boxes.'”
Another reviewer offered this judgement
“We regret that a young man of vivid imagination and fine talents should have fallen into so bad hands as to have been flattered into the resolution to publish verses, of which a few years hence he will be glad to escape from the remembrance.”
We know how this turns out, more times than not: the young fool will be unable to sustain a long career in the arts—and yes, that was the case here. The young surgeon turned poet was to have a career of less than 5 years—but that was because of his early death at age 25. Yup, he dies two years too young to make the 27 club. Our surgeon turned poet was John Keats.
Besides talent, and desire that was the equivalent of foolishness, Keats worked very hard reading poetry, thinking about it, and writing it in those less than five years, producing some of the best lyric poetry in English.
In my own twenties, this encouraged and discouraged me. On one hand, it said I could write and read fearlessly as a young poet in the first half of my twenties; and on the other, as I measured what I had accomplished, I often admonished myself: John Keats died at 25.
Almost exactly one year after he broke from medicine for poetry, John Keats wrote the words for this piece In the Drear-Nighted December. He wrote it after struggling for much of the year to write his first long piece, Endymion, a neo-classical epic in heroic couplets that he never thought he got right.
This is something many writers experience. You struggle mightily to create something. Something big, something impressive. You bring all your craft to it, but it doesn’t quite work. You finish it, or otherwise set it aside, and in the aftermath out pops another smaller-seeming thing that is much more perfect. It’s like the muse says to you “You don’t control me and direct this, and here’s the proof.”
What has Keats done here? First off, those words cannot be read and not sung. This kind of silent melody is not easy to do in English, yet here is the young Keats doing it brilliantly. His images? I’m deep in a minus 17 degree F. Minnesota afternoon as I write this this. His trees with their “sleety whistle,” those branches glued with ice, once flowing water frozen like mineral crystals—I know these things, but Keats has said them well to remind me that we both know.
John Keats encased in Carbonite by Jabba the Bad Reviews
And then his sublime last verse, so beautiful I could not help but repeat it. In two verses Keats has setup an nice lyric that doesn’t stray far from convention. To paraphrase: “Hey, look at nature in winter. Doesn’t look like it does in spring or summer at all. Even though we conscious beings know (more than dumb water and trees) that these trees will bud and the brook water will flow again, nature doesn’t care.” Now the third verse: “How smart are we compared to non-conscious nature? We will ‘writhe’ in pain as things are taken from us (and though unspoken: since the image has been of a repeating natural cycle, this will happen again and again). This is not a poem that says “Suffering? Don’t worry, spring will come again.” This is poem that says suffering will come again, as surely as winter. “The feel and not to feel it, when there is none to heal it.” What a line: “The feel and not to feel it!”
A good song for winter solstice, so to hear the LYL Band perform In the Drear-Nighted December, click the play button the player gadget that will appear below.