The Snow Man

I’m sure many readers here are enjoying spring or its imminent promise. In Minnesota, not so much. It was 4⁰ F. when I awoke this morning, and everyone is already flinching for another snow-storm due this weekend. So let’s have one more winter piece, this time by Wallace Stevens from his landmark collection Harmonium, “The Snow Man.”

Abandoned Winter Schwinn 1080

Not the first sign of spring.

 

Over at the Interesting Literature blog, Oliver Tearle reminded me that Stevens was influenced by John Keats as a younger man, and in his reading of “The Snow Man”  he has Stevens’ poem as a statement of his break from that youthful connection. Keats, and the romantics of his sort, were great fans of the pathetic fallacy and have no shame in ascribing to any landscape or natural object feelings and personality that the poet can address.

Even if we think that talking Keatsian nightingales bearing messages is an absurdly old-fashioned trope, we’ve never left the idea that weather or a landscape is supposed to mean  something. Book, movie, poem, song video—if we’re given a bleak winter picture we’re usually led to understand that death, suffering, despair, scarcity, loss, or the like is what’s being conveyed.

In “The Snow Man”  Stevens describes a winter scene. Snow-trimmed trees in an icy wind which is carrying refracting snow crystals. Stevens’ conclusion from this is ironically—well there’s no other way to put it—cold. We’re not supposed to draw any meaning from it, other than meaning-free is-ness.

It just so happens, that Keats wrote his own short lyric poem about winter “In the Drear Nighted December.”  And yes, there’s immediately an emotion attributed to a bare-branched tree wind-whipped by sleet and then to a frozen brook in Keats’ poem.

What’s that emotion? Happy.

Woah—why happy? Because Keats has these landscape features also in a state of simple is-ness. They reckon no loss from summer, know no delay ‘till spring.

Keats Buddhist koan is “to feel and not to feel it.” Stevens, “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” These two poems approach in seeming opposition, but merge in agreement.

The Snow Man

A Modernist sculpture of American poet Wallace Stevens

 

One other thing in “The Snow Man”  to note: where’s the titular snow man? Perhaps including one in Stevens’ scene would add a connotation of jolly play, or the impermanence of artistic making—but if that’s so, why call the poem “The Snow Man?”  Could it be a mind trick, the equivalent of instructing “Imagine a winter scene, but I don’t want you to see a snow man in your imagination. Make very sure  you don’t even think a little bit about a jaunty snow man or an elaborately constructed one now melting…?” Tearle’s solution is that the snow man is the speaker of the poem, the “nothing that is” there, the cold observer that we don’t see because we’re looking from his cindered eyes.

My performance of Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man”  can be played with the gadget below. If you’d like to read along, the full text of the poem and Oliver Tearle’s short discussion of it is here. Want to hear Keats’ “In the Drear Nighted December?”  We presented it here a while back as part of the Parlando Project, and we have over 300 other audio pieces archived here ready to listen to.

 

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Fire and Sleet and Candlelight

Today’s piece, like my recent setting of Margaret Widdemer’s “When I Was A Young Girl”  reframes a folk song from the British Isles. Widdemer took a song traditionally about a life cut down by youthful excess and reformed it into a poem about finding love outside the realm of adventurous, romantic fantasy. However, today’s words are from Elinor Wylie, whose poetry retains its allegiance to romantic excess, even if it’s frank about the cost of that.

“Fire and Sleet and Candlelight”  takes its title from a transcription of an old English song, collected in the 17th Century, but likely much older: the “Lyke Wake Dirge.”  The “Lyke Wake Dirge”  is a striking song, even though its antique dialect is nearly as hard to understand today as Summer Is Icumen In.”  As this blog post recalls, you’d be hard pressed to make out the lyrics to “Lyke Wake”  in present-day English from hearing it, but the simple yet stately melody grabs you anyway. That is an illustration of a Parlando Project idea: the presence of music allows one to defer decoding a text’s meaning, to appreciate something before you understand it. The line Wylie extracted for her title, in fact, is likely a common misunderstanding of the line in the old song. “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight” makes an easily available winter image, and so that’s what some heard. Scholars are now of the opinion that the middle item is actually “fleet,” not sleet; fleet being an old word meaning floor, and by extension, standing for home. The line’s word-music is beautiful with either word in it, and Wylie was very good at word-music.

To summarize “Lyke Wake,”  once you’ve died your soul will be tested on an arduous journey, which will be made easier if you’ve lived a life of charity. In the long-standing Christian debate between salvation from faith or works, “Lyke Wake”  favors the works side. The soul’s journey may still be strange and testing, but charitable goodness in life is rewarded as a way through.

This is not the poem that Wylie writes however. There’s a soul on a journey in her poem, yes, but salvation is nowhere achieved or even promised. “Lyke Wake”  is foreboding, but it may only recount two or three tests on the soul’s journey, and the refrain reminds us every verse the possibility that “Christe receive thy saule.” Christina Rossetti wrote a jauntier, more modern version of “Lyke Wake”  with her Up-Hill,”  to give one example of how this could  have been restated in modern English.

Wylie’s poem instead piles on the soul-struggles until you lose track of the number depicted. Nearly every pair of lines is a fresh torment or test, some of pain, some of discouragement.

Wylie’s images for the soul’s tests are in general straightforward, nothing too esoteric. The only one that caused me pause was “trysted swords.” Tryst derives from a Middle English word for agreed hunting place. Imagery-wise I was reminded of the Tarot deck’s three of swords. What would be hunted, and injured, would be one’s heart here, and trysted puns to twisted, as in the intertwined piercing blades of the three of swords.

Three of Swords

Tired of clattering swords making a racket at your castle?
Use this easy idea to store them securely.

So, Elinor Wylie’s “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight,”  presents a more arduous and unrewarded journey than even the spooky “Lyke Wake Dirge.”  As a 20th Century poet steeped in the Romanticism of Shelley, Byron and Keats, Wylie would hold that suffering is not to be avoided if it’s a cost for a passionate rush toward truth and beauty. I said at the start, Wylie was honest about the cost of such a journey—and in words she is—but in putting it into such singing word-music she makes the sufferings easier to bear while her word-music undercuts the real pain and danger.

Lonelysoul

Wikipedia uses this picture to illustrate “Lyke Wake Dirge,” calling it “Lonely Soul.” I can only think of it as the back cover of “Songs of Leonard Cohen.”

 

I therefore tried to emphasize the sorrowful experiences of the words somewhat when performing this. For music I went with a fairly full-fledged orchestral-folk setting this time. The vocal and acoustic guitar is actually a “scratch part,” a quick recording used to lay the blueprints for later finished tracks, but due to recent events my voice has been out of commission for a few days, so I had to leave those parts in. To hear my performance of Elinor Wylie’s “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight,”  use the player below.

 

At a Window

I was ready to post this new piece, Carl Sandburg’s At A Window,”  early yesterday when I had one of those days that come to challenge artists. Artists less fortunate than I can perhaps point to a single thing that holds them back, but with myself it’s often several smaller things.

I’m a habitual early morning reader of the news, a rhythm that may have started in my earliest teens when I delivered newspapers before school and continued through night-shifts in hospitals where I’d read the papers as they came out in the predawn hours. Nowadays, it’s not the papers I turn to for news, but Internet newsfeeds, and the pre-dawn hour was filled with the reports of another mass shooting profaning music, this time in Las Vegas. These events hurt me because I often spend as spend as much of my day as I can carve out making the music here in combination with the words that I combine with it. One of art’s purposes in my mind is to allow us to set aside momentarily the real consequences and strictures of life. Not necessarily to escape them—in fact, many times art allows us to examine them so that we can treat them as the reality of what they really are, because those strictures, even things we fear most, have their limitations, just as we do. And art can be the “R&D Department” of the soul and the repair of the world.

Thus, the hurt when those borders are crossed. Thus, the feelings of one’s work in an inadequate field.

Of course, my feelings on this matter are a small and abstract hurt, compared to the suffering of those more directly impacted. Small things closer to my heart feel larger than great things farther away. This is one of the limitations of our perception. Then my day continued with another unrelated hurt, closer yet to my heart, and I was reminded again of my limitations and imperfections.

Real hurt seems so large, art seems so small, and I feel like a poor worker in a field of playful trivia.

Which may be so, the limits of my perception may not be able to tell. However, I believe this is a common feeling for artists to have, and so if you create art, you may also have felt this. We try to do so much, and all we can see is so little. This is part of why the Parlando Project principle: “Other People’s Stories” has value. Speaking the words of others helps me by adding what their eyes and hearts have seen.

SONY DSC

“He is an observer with sympathy but without fear”

This morning, it turns out that Carl Sandburg, in the very piece I was working on this previous weekend, “At a Window,”  was speaking to this experience, though in my down-heartedness, I couldn’t hear him for a while. This short poem, appearing first in 1914 in Poetry  magazine alongside his “Chicago, hog butcher for the world…” poem which will overshadow it, waited patiently to speak into my ear. What good could a more than a 100-year-old poem have for me?

Poetry Magazine March 1914

Eight poems of Sandburg’s Chicago Poems debuted in this issue.

“At a Window”  says that even in shame and failure you must hunger for even more of the same. In the context of the sampling of Sandburg’s Chicago poems, which spoke so frankly about the situation of poor and working-class Americans, I think that window in the title means so many things. Yes, it means there is an imperative to look outside oneself as an artist. The dusk and shadows out the window lets one see little, but one must still look.

Will there be any consolation? Sandburg apparently had such consolation in his spouse, who championed his work, who he speaks of in the “Leave me a little love…” section. Perhaps you have such a champion in your life, perhaps you don’t. We are called in “At a Window’s”  conclusion to look out the window anyway. Perhaps the one who comes walking out of the dusk is yourself, to champion someone else?

To hear the performance of Sandburg’s “At a Window”  use the player below, and thank you for listening.

In The Drear-Nighted December

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.

Keatslifemask

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.