In the past month I’ve presented poetry by Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, two of the most famous and best-loved American poets, and William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet — but I also like to go beyond Poetry’s Greatest Hits and hunt for overlooked writers to combine with our original music. That’s how I found the work of Joseph Campbell who also wrote under the Gaelic version of his name as Seosamh MacCathmhaoil.
Ireland takes great pride in their poets, rightfully so, but Campbell seems to have slipped out of memory for the most part. I’m not yet sure why. Something about his personality? Political scores? The wealth of other poets to read? The lack of some widely acknowledged great poem that anthologies can’t ignore? It may just be that his limited level of fame and esteem in his most-active years before WWI didn’t reach a high enough point for his glide path to carry him into the 21st century.
When I found Campbell’s work, two things immediately attracted me: it’s lyrical and easily fits into the Parlando Project, and that he is likely the first Irish national to write in the Modernist short free-verse form that became known as Imagism. I don’t know how he came to write excellent examples in this style, but as the 20th century progressed that highly compressed and unpresupposing poetry was compartmentalized into a “you’ve proved your point” passing corrective to 19th century verse, and so Campbell’s fine examples in this style that were not widely anthologized and commented on when fresh carried little weight later.
But there’s another reason that his work fits with our “The Place Where Words and Music Meet” motto. Campbell seems to have collected and worked with traditional British Isles folk music. A few years back, author Greil Marcus came up with a fine phrase for America’s mashed-up folk musics and their contexts: “The Old Weird America” — but the British Isles traditions love ghosts, mysteries, and general strangeness too. In Campbell’s early 20th century books, right next to the free-verse Irish landscape Imagism, we may find poems that look a lot like folk song and which contain elements from traditional sources; but Campbell also shows a talent for vivid condensation (no 30 verse slowly iterating ballads for him) and luckily for our Halloween Series, he retains an emphasis on spooky and occult motifs.
So, let’s kick off a short Halloween series here with one of those poems which I’ve set to music: “The Good People.”
What good’s a folk song if folks can’t sing and play it? Here are the accompaniment chords to my setting of “The Good People.”
The poem’s opening four lines set the scene, a mill path near a stream at night. Mist is rising off the mill stream, and it’s clear though dark. I was puzzled a bit by the black “lock,” but best as I can figure it may be a waterway-controlling lock. I don’t think it’s a spelling variant of the Scotch Gaelic “loch,” but it’s easy to think so just hearing it sung.
One misty morning early… Heidi Randen’s picture of autumn pond mist
In this quick-to-the mystery telling, the poem’s narrator lets us know there’s another group in this nighttime in the next quatrain. There’s a somber procession “along the grass.” I visualized small creatures, at least tall-grass short. One of them is apparently a queen of the creatures, and by now we should sense we’re in a fairy story. Two things, one obvious to any reader, and the other obscure to me until I read the poem are disclosed before this stanza ends: the queen is Aoibheall who is a prominent Irish supernatural creature. Besides noble prominence, she’s known for having a magic harp, and any human who hears this harp will soon die. Knowing that detail will set one up for the final two stanza’s concluding lines: the first of those lines we encounter tells us the little people are conveying a corpse.
This is not a victory march, the supernatural creatures are apparently The Good People in the title and they are sad and solemn. As the poem finishes, our narrator brings us to the final stanza-ending line, telling us that the corpse is possibly human.
Many, probably most, versions of traditional folk songs do not work like this, despite the rich folkloric flavor. Instead, British Isles folk songs often work like soap operas or podcast serials with a slow accretion of detail separated by many repeating refrains. At 12 lines and 72 words, Campbell’s lyric is very condensed.
To some who read or hear this, at least an air of strangeness should be conveyed efficiently. It’s also plausible, knowing the tales of Aoibheall and her harp, that a short sharp bolt of terror could occur to the narrator standing in this scene for us to imagine ourselves. The narrator surmises the corpse the fairies are bearing may be human. They (and now you) may know about Aiodheall’s harp. Did Aiodheall’s harp’s music kill the human they’re carrying? Will their dirge, already in progress, come to a harp part?
So, listen to today’s audio piece, if you dare. The player gadget will materialize below for some, but other ways to read this blog are under a powerful spell which forbids displaying it. Therefore, I’ve cast a highlighted hyperlink here to give you another chance to risk your life.