Sara Teasdale’s I Am Not Yours or the Love Song of Ernst Filsinger

Sara Teasdale wrote some of the saddest love poems I’ve ever read.

Less-well remembered than she should be, for a time about 100 years ago Teasdale was the most popular and esteemed love poet in America. In 1918 she won the Pulitzer prize for a new collection of her poetry, labeled right there on the cover with the title “Love Songs.”

Harriet Monroe, the founder and editor of Poetry,  the indispensable American poetry journal of the day, said of Teasdale “She was as delicate as a lily, but under the white-petaled perfume one felt in her presence an impassioned intensity of feeling which her brief lyrics were then beginning to express.”

So, what did Teasdale know about love? More and less than you might expect. Born in 1884 in a wealthy and religiously conservative St. Louis family, she was protected and sheltered* until she was nearly 30 when her poetry career took her away from St. Louis to New York and Chicago.

As her poetry expresses, she dearly wanted to fall deeply in love, but she also wanted the independence to write, and though she moved in bohemian circles during a time of great social change, she’d internalized some of her family’s conservative values.

Romantic stories revel in love triangles, but Sara Teasdale, the woman who’d get the Pulitzer Prize as a love poet was about to deal with a love rhombus. She was crushing on a young poet she admired, John Hall Wheelock. She told Wheelock he was “The greatest living poet.” He wasn’t, though he was flattered. Wheelock, like Teasdale’s family, was a bit of a blue-blood, and he respected Teasdale’s poetic talents, but he was not interested in marrying her.

Then there was Vachel Lindsay, a literary phenom of the time, who had vagabonded about the U.S. trading his poems for meals and then bootstrapped that into touring the country’s speaking halls giving flamboyant readings of his chanted poetry. Lindsay, unlike Wheelock, wanted to marry Teasdale, and he plied his troth by dedicating books of his poetry to her**, but the reserved and sheltered Teasdale was both intimidated by his bluster and worried about his ability to provide the kind of stable home that would allow her to continue writing.

Who’s the fourth rhombus side? A St. Louis businessman, Ernst Filsinger. Like the other two, Filsinger appreciated Teasdale’s poetry, and like Lindsay he wanted to marry her. Problem solved? Well, Teasdale wanted to be deeply, mutually in love, and she wasn’t sure she loved Filsinger that much.

Sara Teasdale's Love Rhombus

Tuning up for her Pulitzer-winning “Love Songs” Teasdale was tempering her intonation with three men.

 

Wheelock says that Teasdale asked him to decide who she should marry. “You know Vachel. I want you to meet Ernst. And I want you to tell me what to do. Which of these two good men should I marry? Should I marry Vachel Lindsay, who’s a genius and whose poetry I love? Or should I marry this fine, tall, dark, good-looking businessman who seems to care for my poetry?”

Wheelock may not have been the greatest living poet in 1914, but he seems a sensible sort of guy.*** He says he told Teasdale she  must make the choice. She replied that no, he had to tell her which to marry, that she wouldn’t blame him if anything went wrong. OK, he said, he didn’t see her being happy with Lindsay “I don’t think you are one who could live in the kitchen doing all the housework and scrubbing the floors.”

She married Filsinger.

The next year she published the poem I used for today’s piece “I Am Not Yours”  in a collection titled Rivers to the Sea,  whose title came from a poem by Wheelock. “I Am Not Yours”  also appears in her  Love Songs  collection that won the Pulitzer.

It’s possible to read this poem quickly and read it as a crush poem, a supple lyric about being madly in love with someone, where the title and opening phrase is poised rhetorically in the moment before love’s inevitable consummation will occur, as a poem written by someone who realizes her autonomy, but is willing to submit it to overwhelming passion. Teasdale’s poetry was not just prize-winning, it was popular in its time. Someone might read this poem at a wedding. It’s likely that Teasdale, who wrote this the same month as she married, wrote it thinking of hers.

Go ahead, listen to it now. Here’s the player gadget.

 

 

So how did things turn out for the Sara Teasdale love rhombus?

Wheelock lived until 1973. In his memoir of his life in publishing he said that the best way to edit poets is to not edit them. “If a person needs to have his poems edited, then he’s not a poet, because poets are perfectionists, and by the time they get through with all their agonizing work on a poem, either they’ve ruined it by revising too much or it’s the way it should be.” He’d tried to apply that principle to Teasdale’s marriage choice.

Vachel Lindsay may have been too odd and flawed to ever last long, but the Eliot and Pound wing of cultured expatriate High Modernism crushed him by the late 20s, and the mid-century New Criticism could barely bother with the effort to find the grievous lapses in good taste in his “higher vaudeville.” In 1931, depressed by his inability to keep his debts at bay as his touring revenue dried up, he drank Lysol and killed himself.

At first Sara Teasdale’s marriage seemed to work. Filsinger allowed her to concentrate on her writing, but she eventually felt the loss of not being lost in passion. In 1929, while Filsinger was overseas on a business trip, she headed west to a state with easier divorce laws and informed him by telegram. By the Thirties, Teasdale’s lyricism and complex emotional content fell out of favor with High Modernism/the New Criticism too.**** The poet who had won the Pulitzer Prize for a book called Love Songs  felt unloved and forgotten. A little over a year after Lindsay’s death, she took an overdose of prescription meds and died in a filled bathtub.

And Ernst Filsinger? No one cares for the biographies of businessmen much after they die. We are not likely to sing the book he authored Exporting to Latin America  to music decades later. His obituary claimed he gave the first transatlantic after-dinner speech by radio in 1929, speaking from Berlin to the National Foreign Trade Council sitting in Baltimore. Who now notes what he said? He died in China in 1937. In his memoir, Wheelock says he heard Filsinger too committed suicide, but I have no confirmation of that. Is it possible that he, Prufrock-like, heard the mermaids singing, but pointedly, personally knew they had, at least once, sang for him?

Even if we largely ignore it, we store away beautiful things like prize-winning lyric poetry, so we can read and hear what Sara Teasdale wrote the month she married. Listen again to “I Am Not Yours”  or read it here. Looking to be the I that is I, but longing to get lost in love and knowing she was not, speaking of her light, a mere candle lit at noon, and asking for it to be plunged, put out.

As you read this, I tell you again that the first duty of an artist is to survive

Love poetry if it’s any good is as varied and complex as love is, as life is. Sara Teasdale wrote some of the saddest love poems I’ve ever read.

 

 

 

*Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Teasdale also had some kind of long-standing (and hard to diagnose via remote historical methods) illnesses. This only increased the family’s protectiveness.

**Another admiring poet who dedicated work to Teasdale was Witter Bynner. Bynner was gay.

***Wheelock eventually had a long career in publishing, and he prided himself with befriending, scouting and signing poets from Louise Bogan and Conrad Aiken to May Swenson and James Dickey. His memoir is The Last Romantic: A Poet Among Publishers.

****Teasdale was born in St. Louis only four years before T. S. Eliot, even if she seems like she was born to a different generation, one both before and after Eliot. Their families, though Midwestern at their birth, shared similar New England backgrounds, and Teasdale attended a private St. Louis prep school founded by Eliot’s parents, and that was located next door to Eliot’s home until he was 16. One wonders if the two young poets were aware of each other as children, but Eliot left town at 17, Teasdale’s sheltered upbringing reduced the chances of social interaction, and Teasdale’s family were staunch Baptists while the Eliots were Unitarian.

Oh, and by the way, that Prufrock of Eliot’s first great poem? Prufrock was the name of another St. Louis businessman. If Eliot considered other name options from his St. Louis youth, Filsinger was less iambic as a name. Teasdale could have sounded its own connotations, but it wouldn’t fit with measuring with coffee spoons.

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China Mouth, a Changeling

I’m reading another critic/minor poet’s book about the early 20th century British literary scene, Edward Shanks’ First Essays on Literature.  He’s in general more backward looking than Herbert Monro’s 1920 Some Contemporary Poets  where I discovered Charlotte Mew (Shanks’ book has essays on Keats and Shelley) but I was interested what he had to say in his chapter “The Later Poetry of Mr. W. B. Yeats.”  Shanks seems ambivalent about Yeats, and this is one of the pleasures of reading contemporary assessments of still active artists. He notes with approval that Yeats’ language has with the 20th century become less formal and fusty, though Shanks feels that gain comes at a loss of a singing quality.*  Another conclusion he reaches is that Yeats’ is best when he’s describing the fantastical: “It is not Mr. Yeats’s business to describe the actual world, but to make beautiful pictures out of his dreams.” Though giving Yeats his due, Shanks doesn’t seem to think this is a good thing.

Interesting comment that, though I was already aware of Yeats’ appreciation of Irish myths and his dabbling in his era’s contemporary occultism. It caused me to stop and connect Yeats, and the two lesser known poets I’ve presented this month: Charlotte Mew and Yeats’ associate Walter Turner. Both have aspects of fantasy in their poetry too. And even our staid prelate of High Modernism, T. S. Eliot, while seeking his correlates within the whole timeline of culture, picks out elements of unreal gothic horror to weave into “The Waste Land.”  Elements so broad as to make me compare a section of “The Waste Land”  to Metal bands.

Did the horrors of WWI and the shifting ground of artistic Modernism impel some poets of the time to retreat (or advance) into fantasy? With the war poets, many of which had been “reporting” from the front-lines, no longer lining-out contemporary events while those events’ questions of outcome and action were pressing on all, was there now after the war a countervailing mode to step away from the pressing real?

If so, it’s no simple thing, and not just a matter of “give me some beautiful art to not let me think about hard questions.” Fantasy is just metaphor presented on another layer of art. Eliot, who unlike many of his contemporaries did not serve in WWI, would have trouble writing about the war as the veterans did after all. And the Surrealists—well their whole point was those “pictures out of…dreams” might reflect something essential.

Sir Joseph Noel Paton - The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania

Fantasy. Escapism? Surrealism? Metaphor presented in another layer of art?

 

Mew’s “Changeling”  from my last post? Yes, it’s a fairy story, as is Yeats’ great “The Song of the Wandering Aengus,”  but either connects first on an emotional level deeper than any amazement at the fantastic. Talking fish or fairies knocking at windows are mundane compared to the loneliness of old age or the alienation of being an unlike youth.

Well, let’s end for now with an audio piece, an old one of my own. I wrote “China Mouth, A Changeling”  over 40 years ago, after listening to a conversation where someone else was bemoaning their alienation. During the conversation the main talker paused to reapply some very red lipstick, its deep red the China in the mouth of the title. Unlike Mew’s changeling—who will run off, who cannot be stopped—there seemed to me to be an element of stasis in that overheard conversation. They seemed resigned that they would have their art and their alienation in a frozen balance. That brought to mind a story in Robert W. Chambers’ “The Mask”  from his 1895 collection The King in Yellow  in which a liquid turns living things into statuary. That idea informed the last verse. Depending on one’s taste for mystery, it either saves or ruins the song. Use the player below to hear it and decide for yourself.

 

 

*I don’t think I agree, Yeats never stops being musical to me. Shanks himself has an interesting connection between poetry and music, as another chapter in his book “Folk-Song as Poetry”  deals with Cecil Sharp and other contemporary attempts to conserve British Isles folk music. Shanks’ first book was a collection of poetry called Songs, one of which lifts the floating verse that found its way into many folk songs, the one that starts “The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she sings as she flies.”

My Poor Bagpipes

In search of words to combine with music here, I sometimes find it necessary to translate from other languages. Poetry translation involves following strange paths.

Here’s the path I followed to present today’s piece, Jules Laforgue’s “My Poor Bagpipes.”  Throughout this month I’ve been presenting parts of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  as part of my celebration of April as National Poetry Month. This causes me to look more at Eliot and where he derived his sense of modern poetry from. Eliot’s own testimony says that a late 19th Century French poet, Jules Laforgue was very important to his own poetics. That’s about all I knew about Laforgue: important to Eliot.

I search and find some Laforgue poems, though only a couple in English translation. Luckily, there’s a site, laforgue.org that has put a great deal of his work online in its original French. I pick out a handful that have interesting titles or first lines and see what rough machine translations will show me.

As I looked at the rough translations I was struck by déjà vu—only in English of course. “Hey, that sounds familiar! I’ve read something like this poem.” In French it was Poètes a Venir,” and of course it was Walt Whitman’s “Poets to Come.”  It appears that Laforgue may have been among the first to translate America’s Whitman to French in 1886, while Whitman was still alive. And from his work translating Whitman, Laforgue began to write “vers libre”—free verse, himself, helping to pioneer that idea in French poetry.

Chat Noir Poster2

“The very illustrious company of the black cat with his famous shadow plays, his poets his composers.” Remembered by its posters long after it closed, the Chat Noir cabaret was a place where music and poetry mixed in 19th Century Paris. A very Parlando Project thing, no?

 

I will not be translating Laforgue’s translations of Whitman back to English here. I picked his “Air de Biniou”  to try, primarily because I was intrigued by the first line “No, No, my poor bagpipes.” I’m attracted to incongruity and black humor, and I kept double-checking to make sure that line’s “cornemuse” in French must mean “bagpipes.” The poem’s first verse seemed to refer to the bagpipes’ famously raw timbre and pitch issues: “everything is a mistake, everything turns out bad” claims Laforgue’s first stanza.

Inserting gratuitous bagpipe joke:

Why do bagpipers walk while they play?

To get away from the sound.

As I worked on it, I had trouble with several words, two or three of which I’m still unsure I’ve translated correctly. This may be a general issue for anyone translating Laforgue, as he liked to play with language and meanings, sometimes using unusual words. But I soon had a more serious issue, after dealing with “occit” in the second stanza. A poet’s images are not his literal manifesto, and irony was part of Laforgue’s stance. In this second stanza he says Nature is a wife the artist will kill. I get his point: the artist thinks they can better the mundaness of nature and create something new and above it. And it’s nature—an inanimate concept, not a person. Yet and all, it’s still a too-casual image of a too-serious and widespread problem, domestic violence, for me to be happy with it. Looks like this is a general issue with Laforgue too. He consistently used images of women, sex and relations with women as a repository for his issues with our biologic nature. In a word: misogyny.

Clearly he’s not alone in this. It could be one of the things Eliot picked up from him too. Like Eliot, he’s not stinting on masculine failures, but this can reveal an attitude that men  fail because of their souls  while women  fail because of their gender.  I tried to mitigate that stanza by dealing with another problematic word in it: “carambole.” It’s a word usually used for a particular fruit, but it’s also a bumper pool game, and something like that later meaning I think was what Laforgue intended. I was going to use something like rebound or carom in my translation, but at the time I performed it, I went with a more archaic meaning of the word where it may refer to cannons. At least that put the poet and Nature in a running battle. I may have made a wrong choice there, but that’s one of the things you run into in translation, needing to convey the author’s outlook which may not be your own.

We have little space left to wander more in the twisted paths you find when translating. I think it can be tremendously helpful for poetry composition, because it puts you, hand in hand with another poet, trying to find the right word with the right sound and connotations.

Bretons' with Bagpipes

“Je suis bagpiper!” says the man in the center. “Daddy, can we talk about the patriarchy and your intonation issues.” says the girl on the right.

But one last thing, those surreal bagpipes in this French poem. Laforgue’s family was from Breton France. Bretons are a Celtic culture, and yes, they have bagpipes. As to my music here, while I enjoy composing string parts and breaking out the classical guitar, sometimes I don’t want to be careful, I just want to grab electric guitars and bash something out. “Everything is a mistake” says Laforgue. Nonetheless. Use the player below to hear it.

 

Good Night Ladies

While performing and posting about T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  bit by bit this month, have I mentioned enough how artistically revolutionary it was? For today’s section let me talk first about form and then about subject, and I’ll share a little-known episode in Eliot’s life that may have contributed.

I call today’s part of “The Waste Land” “Goodnight Ladies.”  Formally, even today, nearly a century later, a section of a major poem written like this would be provocative. First off, it’s not “poetic” in its language. While there’s a minimal irregular structure from the interjected closing-time refrain of the bartender’s call, there’s no striking images, meter, rhyme, melodic flow, and certainly no “poetic diction” in it. It’s part in the musical structure of this very musical poem is to present a section with no music in its words. While politically and culturally apart from the Dadaists working at the same time outside of England, Eliot’s structure for “The Waste Land”  is to throw in jarring and unannounced cuts in voice and setting. Even sophisticated, educated readers cannot agree how many voices and scenes are present in the “A Game of Chess,”  which this passage concludes. I made it three pieces, three scenes, others think differently. Eliot has already used plenty of high culture references in the “A Game of Chess”  section of “The Waste Land”  before today’s scene: Shakespeare, Ovid, and obscure Jacobean playwright Middleton—but he’s also thrown-in a pop song parody. Now he concludes “A Game of Chess”  with a bit of working-class pub dialog absent of any literary allusions (until the very end).

The speaker, an unreliable narrator, as well as her subject are working-class women. There is no sentimentality. This isn’t a “salt of the earth” bit of condescending or ennobling praise. The speaker is unkind and perhaps duplicitous (the implication is that she will, or has, put a move on the subject’s husband), and her subject, Lil, is a woman described uncharitably as looking “antique” at age 31, after multiple difficult pregnancies and an induced abortion.

The monolog, if not poetry, feels authentic. The depiction of class and sexual politics, is sharp and unstinting. A poet like Carl Sandburg, the radical and newspaperman, could have heard such dialog—but where the hell did T. S. Eliot, upper middle class raised, prep-schooled, Sorbonne and Harvard (legacy) educated, international banking officer, and furthermore, a man with a reputation as stand-offish and diffident toward women—even those of his class and cultural background—get informed enough to write this passage?

I couldn’t let that question go without some research, and I think I found an answer. It’s one of those “this would make a great movie” moments in literary biography. I knew Eliot had taken a crack at teaching school at a boys-only school in Highgate. That’s the start of the story, he taught French, Latin, math, history, drawing, beside duties coaching baseball (!) and swimming. One of his students: a 9-year-old John Betjeman.

Schoolteachers will know what kind of workload that entails. The bank officer job that followed was a relief to Eliot.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Through some connections, he was introduced to the Workers Educational Association. They were organizing college-level night school classes in Southall. Eliot applied to teach Modern English Literature there, and he continued to do this from 1916 through 1919. Since WWI was on, with many men overseas, the classes were ¾ women.

The weekly classes were a lecture followed by an hour of discussion. Regular papers and reading were required of the students.

What was the experience like for Eliot and his working-class students? Surprisingly rewarding for Eliot, and (as far as we know) for the students. In letters home to America, Eliot praised the minds of his best students, singling out several women. In an account he provided for the Association’s 50th Anniversary in 1959, he could still recall one in particular:

“There was one poor young woman who was one of my best students, but was an elementary schoolmistress with a very large class of little children in the daytime and (she)…died, I am sorry to say, of overwork.”

Was Eliot being polite in both his contemporary letters and his remembrance letter to the Association? Perhaps he did gloss over, or was unaware of, the difficulties one could imagine between himself and his students—but he did this for three years, as a second job that was presumably not his main source of income, and each year, he asked to do one more. Each year, he developed a new syllabus covering additional authors for his literature night-students, some of whom stayed with him for his entire run.

Students-inscription-to-T S Eliot 1919

Inscription on a gift copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse signed by his students on the day of Eliot’s last lecture. The longer article about this is a must read for those interested in this little-known period of Eliot’s life.

 

Was that worn-out school-teacher, or some other night-school student, a model for Lil in today’s portion of “The Waste Land?”  It seems possible. After reading this, my thoughts went to those students, hungry to learn and experience more about literature in the London night speculating of Zeppelin raids. How I wish we had accounts from the students as well! In “The Waste Land,”  Eliot wasn’t going to give us anything he learned about their joys, or any compensations they found for the travails of their lives, anymore than he gives anyone that. We’re left, in today’s piece, with this mean girl’s account of Lil, unsparing in scorn, revealing Lil’s burdens as more of the weight of the timeless waste land on post-WWI Europe. Eliot doesn’t even give her story, told so meagerly, any ennobling literary references, nor any poetry, does he? Just a story in a bar.

Wait. Her name’s Lil. Lillith? Possible, but I think not. How did this poem begin? “April…breeding lilacs  out of the dead land.” And the last line, the one I use for the title of this performance? It’s no longer the recounter of Lil’s life speaking (she who says it “goonight” not “good night”). The voice has shifted again, without warning in this unpredictable poem. It’s the voice of Ophelia exiting to her death by water in Hamlet.

Ophelia by John Millais

Ophelia by John Millais. Almost nothing to do with Eliot and “The Waste Land,” but it’s been too long since I’ve been able to put a Pre-Raphaelite painting in a post.

 

The reader in this performance is Heidi Randen, who does a great job with the words and keeps me from having to inflict my voice in too many pieces here. To hear it use the player below.

Rats Alley

Continuing in our April Poetry Month serialization of “The Waste Land”  by T. S. Eliot, it’s come time to perform the next section of the poem, which I call “Rats Alley.”

It just happens that this week I got a copy of Martin Rowson’s “The Wasteland,”  a 1990 comic-book riff on Eliot’s poem as if written by hardboiled-detective fiction writer Raymond Chandler and filmed like “The Big Sleep”  or “The Maltese Falcon.”  Rowson notes that in “The Long Goodbye”  Chandler had referenced Eliot’s “Prufrock”  with a character quoting “In the rooms the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo” and having the character ask his detective Marlowe “Does that suggest anything to you sir?”

Marlowe replies, “Yeah—it suggests that the guy didn’t know very much about women.”

Though that’s clever repartee, charges that Eliot was naïve about women or even misogynistic can be difficult to disentangle from his general misanthropy. A female Chandler character may be given more apparent agency than the women in Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  but both the male and female voices of “The Waste Land”  are frankly damaged and the minor male characters, wraiths and zombies.

Rowson Wasteland1

Sometimes with a dame you gotta show’em some quotations in Greek or Latin.

 

In any case, Rowson’s comic-book/graphic novel is a lot of fun for fans of Film Noir and Chandler, or Eliot and Modernist lit. His drawings have more in-jokes than a season of “The Simpsons”  watched with a finger on the pause button. And from his notes Rowson supplies in my edition on dealing with Faber and Faber and the Eliot estate, it could have been even funnier if any of them had allowed the comedic-take to use any of the lines from the poem. I laughed often reading the Rowson, but never so much as when he recounts being refused the rights to use the ancient Greek and Latin quotes Eliot dropped into his poem, because Eliot’s rights now include them as part of a unique compilation. That may well be legally sound, but it’s also howlingly funny. Eliot as he wrote his “Waste Land”  was clearly borrowing widely from other authors’ work, because he thought it would show us something new when he put them in another context—the same thing that Rowson’s book sought to do.

Which is also what we try to do here as part of the Parlando Project, show you familiar and unfamiliar words in the context of different music and performance styles.

“We are in Rats Alley, where the dead men lost their bones”

“Rats Alley”  is a dialog, and the two speakers are clearly broken vessels. The woman dissatisfied, depressed, afraid, maybe even unstable. The man, numbed, haunted, unable to express even the short expressions of discontent the woman speaks. When he (once in the poem, three-times in my performance) breaks into the cryptic “We are in Rats Alley, where the dead men lost their bones” I decided to alter the voice, to make it a third voice. She’s asking him to speak, to tell her what’s going on, but she doesn’t seem to have heard him say anything, other than a litany, literally, of “nothing.” And so, I’m portraying the Rats Alley line as his inner torment, his monster, that is heard loudly, but only in his head.

That_Mysterious_Rag_1

“In the rooms the women come and go, digging riffs from Ahmad Jamal”

 

Rats Alley sounds like yet another reference to some dark Jacobean revenge play, samples from which Eliot has already peppered his poem with. If it is, no one has found that work. Some speculate it sounds like the darkly humored street-signs WWI trench-soldiers hung on their subsurface battle lines. If so, then the last voice, the fourth voice of the piece, an imaginary, comic ear-worm song Eliot has made up, “That Shakespearean Rag,”  could also be an internal voice. It’s sometimes been considered to reference Irving Berlin and Ted Snyder’s “That Mysterious Rag,”  a giant pre-WWI hit with lyrics that say “Did you hear it? Were you near it? If you weren’t then you’ve yet to fear it.” In the hit parade context, the lyrics turn out to be just bragging that this rag is a killer hook “because you never will forget it.” Eliot substitutes Shakespeare in his parody, but is this male voice a soldier, haunted by the trenches and dead comrades to whom old tunes now take on a new context, a sinister edge? It’s a bit of a stretch, but could Eliot have planned to use “That Mysterious Rag’s”  mock-dangerous lyrics as a counterpoint to his scene—wouldn’t that have been a powerful sample!—but was enjoined by copyright issues?

To hear my performance of “Rats Alley,”  today’s segment of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  use the player below. You can hear the first section, “The Burial of the Dead”  or the first part of the “A Game of Chess”  section which I performed as “Visions of Cleopatra”  by looking in our previous posts this April as we celebrate #NPM2018.

Visions of Cleopatra

“Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule.” This famous line from T. S. Eliot’s modernist epic “The Waste Land” —oops! I’ve become confused here. As part of our celebration of National Poetry Month this April, I’ve been performing “The Waste Land”  and dropping the mixtape here as I complete a section. We’ve completed the first part “The Burial of the Dead,”  and this week I moved on to the start of the second section.

That section, sub-titled “A Game of Chess”  opens with an elaborate descriptive passage with lines quoted from older literature, with paraphrases and references of stories dating back to Classical Greek. It’s opening lines are cribbed from Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra. The section’s sub-title itself is taken from an allegorical play first performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

Throughout “The Waste Land”  Eliot does this. He’s sampling. He thinks these bits will add flavor, perhaps even to those that aren’t as well-read and as he was in 16th and 17th Century literature. But this is also part of one of his tactics in his poem, to portray the specific malaise and suffering throughout Europe after the First World War and his own personal depression and chaotic marriage as something adrift in time, an infinity echoing inside the museum of Western Culture.

In this opening section he’s describing a woman in an over-decorated room full of upper-class bling and old-fashioned mannerist art that makes only sentimental reference to searing tales. As he describes this his syntax is convoluted, his sentences run-on, his poetic line breaks disassociating. And all this is in service of a segment when nothing, absolutely and intendedly nothing, happens.

As I re-encountered this section I had that flash of metaphor that I love. Metaphor is the powerful fusion that occurs when two things unite into one expression. Eliot’s room may be decorated differently, but the room seemed familiar, the language usage brought forth déjà vu, the air in the radiator pipes rumbled, the heat pipes just coughed.

How much did T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”,  or this section of “The Waste Land” enter into Bob Dylan’s toolbox? The two poets share some common influences from French poetry. Both love to mix highbrow and lowbrow references. Both quote and paraphrase other writers, though in Eliot this is usually considered scholarly, and with Dylan it’s too often taken as evidence of plagiarism. Sometimes Dylan is just Eliot without footnotes.

All I have to go on is a passing reference to reading and finding some value in Eliot in Dylan’s memoir “Chronicles,”  and the line in Dylan’s own waste land epic “Desolation Row”  where “The Waste Land’s”  editor and dedicatee Ezra Pound and Eliot are fighting in the (ivory?) captain’s tower. That’s plainly thin evidence. The flash of metaphor don’t care,  these two moments of decorated stasis feel similar enough to inform this performance.

Eliot on Blonde Crop

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins—and Shatzberg, I know it’s cold out here, but can you at least focus the camera…”

 

I got part way into this recording of the first part of the second part of “The Waste Land”  as illuminated by Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna”  before I decided I’d go with more than memory and listen to the canonical recording from the “Blonde on Blonde”  record. I’ll have to say that my memory-track of “Visions of Johanna”  is mostly a mashup of the various live versions performed solo with acoustic guitar and harmonica in 1966, where Dylan’s “you’ll like it, or you won’t” singing makes every word tell. Dylan had a hard time getting an electric band version recorded that same year, perhaps because a Rock’n’Roll song about stasis is a hard thing to make. On reencountering the “Blonde on Blonde”  version, I took some inspiration from it: the organ player who gets lost partway in, the importance given to the bass part, and the drums that follow the ebb and flow of the singing. I’m not trying to duplicate the record, just tipping my hat to its effects.

This is the sort of thing we do here, even on months that aren’t National Poetry Month, bringing music to poetry and illuminating poetry with music, reencountering familiar poems to see something new in them, finding lesser known poems and presenting them. We do that a little different each time, as a visit to our archives on the right side of the page will demonstrate, but to hear this part of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” performed, use the player below.

 

The Burial of the Dead

Well, the rooks were wrong about Winter passing, at least for now. As much of Minnesota is covered with a foot or more of forgetful snow, with more remembering to fall over the top of us all day, it’s a good time to return to T. S. Eliot’s landmark of Modernist poetry “The Waste Land,”  the poem that, by beginning with the famous line “April is the cruelest month” is largely responsible for National Poetry Month being set in April.

The first lines of The Waste Land

Other than the “Dead” thing and the sinister Roman numeral,  seems normal enough;
but “The Waste Land” will soon get stranger and darker than anyone expected in 1922.

 

We’ve been performing it on the installment plan this month, following up on our performance of the first segment of it last April. But, it occurs to me that because so many of our listeners hear us via the podcast section of Spotify, which perversely doesn’t allow podcasts to be placed in playlists, that it might be good to combine what we have completed into one longer piece.

So, here’s the more-or-less complete first section of “The Waste Land”  titled “The Burial of the Dead.”   Eliot intended his poem to be musical, so even though it’s sprawling and includes many voices, it’s been fun to make audible the musical implications in it. As I do this, I’m reminded again of my first encounter with “The Waste Land.”  I didn’t understand any of it—well, that’s not completely true, I could extract meaning from a few lines—but the whole thing could just have well have been a symphony with notes in place of words. Even now, for me, “The Waste Land”  remains a hard poem to love, and unlike many poems and poets of our current scene, it’s not asking us to love it.

So, if it’s hard to understand, and hard to love, why listen to it?

Because it is a great poem? I doubt that would work. Because it was so influential historically? Well, that influence is now largely historical. It did move things powerfully one way, and then, after decades, things moved another way, in part in reaction to it. Because there are still fresh experiences to encounter in it? Now we’re getting closer. Art isn’t immortal only because it’s great in some ideal way, an art work’s immortality happens from our mortal human actions, our human reactions  to it, and some of those become richer when the work has become strange to us from a change in fashion.

But in the end, I ask you to listen to it consistent with our overall tactics here in the Parlando Project: listen to it as music first, do not worry at the overall meaning immediately. I hope I can illuminate some meaning with my performance and music, but simply to comprehend “The Waste Land”  as this suite of voices and moods is to comprehend much.

Here’s the player gadget to hear “The Burial of the Dead.”  Since it combines what had been four pieces issued separately here, it’s longer, at 13 minutes, than our usual stuff. If you’re looking for something brief, why not take a random walk through our archives for one of the more than 200 shorter pieces we’ve available.