The Singing Woman from the Wood’s Edge

I’m thinking lately of the magic of consciousness, of how we exist as distinct limited illuminations of this world for a certain time, and how strange and inexplicable that is.*  Is that funny? Tragic? Is that choice just a matter of emotional weather and sensibility?

Today’s poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay is several things. First, I’ve made it the song it pretends to be, but it’s also something of a fairytale, and in sensibility it aims for humor. And since tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, we might see it as commentary on Irish culture from a woman’s perspective, even if American-born Millay is not generally thought of as an Irish culture poet to my knowledge.**  Of course all poets have, on one level, a single citizenship issued by our international muses, and our work may cross borders at will — even the well-guarded and maintained borders of time. But still, today’s piece “The Singing Woman from the Wood’s Edge,”  is going to use some Irish stuff that might need translation for anyone not versed in Irish culture.

“The Singing Woman…”  was included in Millay’s 1920 poetry collection A Few Figs from Thistles  which largely created the popular persona that launched her to the height of her fame during the last century. Back then they sometimes called Millay an exemplar of “The New Woman,”***  a label which doesn’t tell you itself anything of the novelty implied. Among those traits that might be contained within the term were unhidden intelligence, independence, openness to Modernist changes, and unabashed agency in love and sex. Was this a problem or an advance? The culture of the previous Twenties wasn’t sure, but they talked about it and had opinions. That currency and conversation, that framing, helped Millay to fame, and yet probably constrained her too. A Few Figs from Thistles  was read as part of this to a large degree.

A Few Figs from Thistles  often used humor within its poems tweaking of conventions, and “The Singing Woman…”  is an example of that. Fairytales can be scary or thinly disguised warnings against stepping into the unknown, but this one takes what could be a rather distressing situation and plays it for knowing winks. Since I know this Project has an international audience of varying ages, let me make sure we unpack the cultural particulars of this poem’s tale.

Millay and her poetry garden

Another spring task to get underway? Millay, her husband Eugen Boissevain, and Edmund Wilson make a point of planting a “poetry garden.” Not shown: plentiful organic fertilizer.

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The poem is the first-person story told by a child of the union of a leprechaun and a friar. A leprechaun****  is an Irish fairy creature. Leprechauns are solitary (unlike many other fairy types) and are often thought of as being in conflict with humanity, tricking or being tricked by humans. Friars are monks, and in the context of Ireland, we can suspect that they are monks of a Roman Catholic religious order. They too have elements of solitariness, as some monks live in deliberately separated contemplative communities seeking to avoid the corruptions of the material, human world. Oh, and one of those defined corruptions that all Catholic monks are pledged to avoid: sex and marriage.

So right from the second line we can see that the parents of our singer are both impure creatures in violation of their cultural rules, the powers and expectations of which they also apparently retain as the song further portrays them. Though I shortened the poem for performance length by one decorative stanza, a lot gets laid out in the poem, and a great deal of ambiguity and complexity is hinted at in the incidents recounted, even if they are played as a humorous tale. Our poem/song’s narrator, the fantastic mixed race (species even) woman of the title, seems to have chosen to “identify as leprechaun” in effect, but buried in the poem which gives equal time to the cultures she’s experienced from both parents is a sense that it’s more complex than a binary choice. And let’s not miss an important and primary point: both her parents are in violation of their cultures and vows. Regarding the roles often laid out as cultural “or” binaries she “ands’ them: “harlot and  a nun” — we can further suspect she’ll choose to not abide either’s rules.

I’m not going to further detract from this piece’s wry humor with more explanations and footnotes. Here’s a link to the poem’s full text, and you may well see a player gadget below to hear a performance of my song using Millay’s words. If you don’t see the player, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my performance.

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*Which is another way of saying that I’m momentarily unashamed about talking about the inner-directed and odd things that go on in my head as I wish my wife a happy birthday. I’m so grateful that her consciousness and its light has been held near to mine and our child’s.

**I was unaware of Millay’s Irish ancestral roots until I researched that before presenting today’s poem. Similarly, I’m unaware of how often another prominent American poet Frank O’Hara is discussed as having been influenced by Irish culture, despite that echt Irish name.

***See also last month’s celebration of “The New Negro,” the 1920’s other “New.” New is often getting old. On the other hand, a hundred years later, to this old person anyway, it seems like the last Twenties’ assumptions of independence and value haven’t become fully old-and-settled yet. Maybe this, still young and new, Twenties?

****One oddity in Millay’s mythological choices: even though fairies in general have a rainbow of genders, leprechauns are almost invariably presented as unmistakably male. There’s a riddle/joke using the old-style name “Indian” for indigenous Americans: A big Indian and a smaller Indian are walking by a river. One Indian is the son of the other Indian, but the other Indian is not the father of the other. Who is the other Indian?

Sail-Moon-Sheep

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.”

Sail Moon Sheep art by Joseph Campbell

Campbell was also an artist. Here are his own illustrations for the three poems I used today: “Sail Answers Sail,” “The Moon,” and “Sheep.”

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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.

Boat Moon Sheep in Chinese Ideograms

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.

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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.

A player gadget should appear below to hear my performance of these three Campbell poems if you’re reading this in most full-fledged browsers — but some blog readers and reading views will not show the player. Then, this highlighted hyperlink will also allow you to hear the performance. I also normally provide a link for those of you that want to read the text along with or instead of the audio performance, but Campbell is so obscure that most of his poems are not available on the Internet so that I can link them. In place of that, here is a link to several book-length collections of Campbell’s work available at the invaluable Internet Archive. May Spring renew us all!

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*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.

Winter 2020 Parlando Top Ten, numbers 4-2

As we continue our countdown toward the most popular piece of this ending winter, we come to a section coincidentally that’s all poets known by three names. You can’t plan something like that, but your listens and likes counted up that way.

4. “The Stare’s Nest at My Window”  by William Butler Yeats. This poem grew on me after I selected it from a short collection of poems Yeats wrote on the Irish Civil War that followed Irish independence. Just after I read the series for the first time this winter, I mentioned to my wife that Yeats seemed to be too far into his mystical side for me to find something I could attach to in them. “The Stare’s Nest”  seemed only the least bad for my use after that first reading, largely because I could grasp its word-music as promising.

I often work on the music and performance before I work on the research about the text and its background. I did so here, though one may think it perverse to do that—my setting and performance will then come from me working without a context, and without the best information about an author’s intent. Still, the setting I came up with accumulated considerable power for me, and even though it’s me playing all the parts I composed and reading Yeats’ words, my impression of “The Stare’s Nest”  was transformed as I experienced what came from that combination. Though I made these components, the whole presented something I was unaware of.

What did I become aware of in the process of creating the piece? This poem I feel is perched somewhere between a prayer and a magical spell for his country.

 

 

 

3. “The Times are Nightfall”  by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Speaking of word-music that pulls me into places I might not otherwise choose to go, Hopkins is an example. He seems to be a full-on Christian mystic with more than a touch of hair-shirt depressive in his soul that he doesn’t fight so much a seek to feel more fully.

But his metrical conception, his use of repeated sounds, I’ve liked from the first time I read him. He believed his ideas there (borrowed from the more Saxon ancestral branches of English poetry) worked better than the musical structures adopted from the Romance languages or from poetry in Latin.

One can test his theories by seeing how his hymn to dark winter works with music as I do here.

Yeat and Hopkins

Yeats the great Irish poet and nationalist spent a good deal of time in England. Hopkins, the English poet with a distinctly English prosody was a priest unhappily sent to a post in the still colonized Ireland. Despite our world-wide virus crisis, St. Patrick’s Day will be celebrated by an Irish diaspora here in the United States this week.

 

2. from “Dirge”  by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson is better known as an inspirational force via his essays and influence on Transcendentalism than as a poet, but his influence was felt by poets and in poetry. The distinctly American poetry that emerged in the 19th century is almost completely made up of poets touched by him.

When I have dipped into Emerson’s own poetry it’s produced some of the most popular pieces during the run of this project, but I wasn’t looking to find another Emerson poem this winter. “Dirge”  came forward in a round-about way from watching the Apple TV+ Dickinson,  a streaming series presenting a youthful, passionate Emily Dickinson. That series fully intends to use our present culture as a lens and overlay to espie into Dickinson’s times, something that I think worked for its released first season, though it works most completely if one looks also with a more sober eye at this genius. The creators seem to have done their homework. Lot’s of little details and obscure Dickinson trivia are referred to. And speaking of Transcendentalists, they manage to have some wicked fun with those other three-names Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott—who are both skewered with lesser-known biographic facts that aren’t full pictures of those two by far, but make for some good scenes.

In one scene, Dickinson and a young man Dickinson is crushing on bond over their mutual love of Emerson’s “Dirge”  for its gothic lines about a field of ghosts. I had to check out the poem. I worried that is might be a too long and how well the 19th century sentimentalism in the text would work for modern audiences, but trimmed a bit for length, the listeners here sure liked it this winter.

 

 

So, what’ll be the most popular piece here from the past few months? Will the author go by three names? Obscure author or well-known? American? British Isles? Translation from another language? Stay tuned.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

Last time we had a young man, an American walking in Paris in 1913 who came upon his poem leaving the Metro. Today, another young man, an Irishman in London in 1890, is walking too. He comes to a shop window, drawn by the sound there of water splashing. Looking in, he saw a fountain on display, its upward spray buoying up a ball.

The sound of water instantly brought memories of his childhood home on the coast of Ireland—and as he had been reading Thoreau’s account of his stay at Walden Pond, a small personal fantasy occurred to him of building and living in a self-sufficient cabin on a tiny island back home. Because that Irishman was William Butler Yeats, a poem came from that shop-street window, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”

william-butler-yeats-irish-poet-and-dramatist-in-his-study-at-woburn-buildings-london

If one can’t have a solitary wattled cabin, at least one can have books

 
That poem is now one of those beloved “Poetry’s Greatest Hits.” A few years back it topped a survey by an Irish newspaper as its readers’ favorite poem, and though I can’t find a picture of this, I’ve read that it’s been printed on a page of Ireland’s passports since 2013.

Lake Isle of Innisfree

Ireland’s favorite Irish poem was written in a foreign country

 

Of course, like most any Yeats poem it sounds lovely. Its language is straightforward, and there’s not much that needs explication. For a sound medium, it’s not always that a poem’s strongest images are sounds, but here the sounds of lapping water, bees’ hum-resonance, crickets, and a bird’s wings in flight carry the story.

Pound too, with his “In a Station of the Metro”  chose to use nature images in his Paris subway poem; but Yeats makes it plain that he’s stuck in the city, walking the grey pavement, not some country path. Thoreau had presented himself as the practical man in his book, making empirical living experiments. Yeats presents himself as the Romantic, helping imagine an Ireland—then viewed conventionally as a poverty-blighted colony—as an Eden, another locus amoenus. Another unusual choice Yeats makes is switching around the way we might describe night and day: night “a glimmer” and noon “purple glow.” Even though this was written before the dawn of urban lights dimming the night starfield, that’s the glimmering I sense, and if Irish coasts are foggy, noon could have a diffused glow. 1890 London might have fog and coal-fired air pollution too, maybe London fog didn’t glow, and maybe something beyond “light pollution” dimmed the stars.

This weekend’s St. Patrick’s day has become an occasion for the Irish diaspora to look toward its former homeland; and this poem, which speaks with Yeats’ humble yet beautiful specifics, invokes generally the homesickness of travelers, exiles, and immigrants. The specific in poetry often does that, the personal history that’s included standing for us all. This morning, as I filled my mouth with the word “peace” that Yeats wrote down twice in his poem, I could think of the island of New Zealand, and other travelers, exiles, and immigrants.

To hear my performance of Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”  use the player gadget below. If you don’t see the player (some blog readers won’t show it) then this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.