Tom Rapp is a singer-songwriter whose work I love, and whose 1972 joint setting of a Shakespeare and a Sara Teasdale poem is one of the inspirations for this project. Rapp had a favorite story about the earliest days of his overlooked career: while still a child he entered a talent contest in Minnesota. The story varies. He may have performed an Elvis Presley song. He finished second or third. Another Minnesota singer, a similarly young Bobby Zimmerman,* finished fifth. The Zimmerman kid eventually went on to have a career that outpaced Rapp’s.
But then, Rapp would always add, it was a baton twirler who finished first.
American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay is another poet who began writing and publishing early, sending poems to magazines when she was still a teenager. At age 20 she submitted one of her grander early poems to a literary magazine’s 1912 poetry contest, and that poem “Renascence” oddly created considerable publicity when it didn’t win but finished fourth. She was a young, poor, rural kid and some said she should have won on the merits of her poem—even including the guy who won the contest, Orrick Johns. As with Tom Rapp, you may have to be a reader of blogs like this one to have some sense of who Orrick Johns was.
If you ever loose a talent or poetry contest, consider that baton twirler.
Just kids. Whiten the background and Sinatra the jacket over one shoulder, and you’ve got that Robert Mapplethorpe/Patti Smith’s Horses cover a few decades early
After the contest and the brouhaha, a benefactor saw to it that Millay could attend college, and a few years later this other early poem of hers, “The Little Ghost,” was included in her first poetry collection. “The Little Ghost” isn’t the grandest or most incisive poem Millay would write, so even though I’ve done many Millay poems here, I had overlooked this one until I saw it this month over at the Fourteen Lines poetry blog.
My reaction is shared by most who encounter this poem: it’s charming and only a little bit chilling. Yes, there are a few mildly annoying inverted word order make-rhymes, but it’s the little details that make it work I think. That the ghost seems to enjoy the poet’s garden-work (gardening inherently partaking of the life-death-life cycle), that she enigmatically shows no sadness at being dead, that she (though immaterial) is gracefully careful of the poet’s favorite plant, that she walks away (though a ghost, and a ghost of a child) with the substantial while insubstantial bearing of a great lady.
There’s no redrum, no haunted charge to the living, no absolute-zero temperature of next to death. Millay doesn’t even make the revelation that the child is a ghost a held-off-for-the-big-surprise-reveal—that fact’s in the title and the first line. Still, in the moment the poem lets us experience, the poet doesn’t yet know what we know. That’s the little chill.
Some readers have said that Millay intentionally or otherwise put her own past childhood self in as an undercurrent of this little ghost, and that reading works too, though I don’t know that’s a secret meaning that one must get to fully enjoy the poem. What with the garden setting, and that annual reincarnation, I do get some sense of spiritual kinship between the poems living speaker and the ghost.
Did that inform the music choice? I am back in my South Asian mode today with hand percussion, tambura, and harmonium. The instrument in the right channel that sounds vaguely South Asian is an ordinary electric guitar, one with a vibrato arm that lets me get a bit of that characteristic pitch waver.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Little Ghost” is right below.
*Zimmerman changed his last name to Dillon and then to Dylan. My late mother-in-law used to tell the story of meeting Betty Zimmerman at a function decades ago, and as mothers in those olden days were prone to do, they got to talking about each other’s children.
“You may have heard of one of my sons. He’s Bob Dylan.” Betty proudly said.
My future MIL Maxine came back with: “Who’s Bob Dielan?”
When she told me the story some years later, she explained “I didn’t know! I didn’t have much time for music back then.”
Did Emily Dickinson mistake her tone, her presentation? This question occurred to me as I went off into the deeper, album cuts* of Dickinson’s work looking for autumn poems this fall. Her early poem, titled on posthumous publication “Autumn” is charming and very much in a mainstream short poem tradition of the day. If she was seeking publication or just checking in on an honorable hobby of an upper middle-class** young woman, it would do.
The next Dickinson Autumn poem I found and presented,“Besides the Autumn poets sing” is still charming, if self and otherwise referential in a sly way. If I was to “translate” it into the diction and particulars of New York in the 1950s it could be written by Frank O’Hara. I believe she intentionally means that poem’s opening word: “Besides,” and that is not a careless rendering of “beside”. That little “s” makes it a poem about what the poets of her time did “Besides” (meaning “in addition to,” or perhaps “surplus too”) Autumn, not merely poets rendering in verse the season while metaphorically writing en plein air. That makes the poem an expression of what is other than, or in opposition, to what a leading American poet of Dickinson’s day like William Cullen Bryant was writing.
If I was to read this poem in isolation, if it came to me “over the transom” would I make that assumption? I’ll be honest: I suspect most times I’d miss it. I’d hurriedly read the poem as another simple Fall season lyric. I’d miss that “s.”
Did Dickinson intend this slyness, if I’m right in my more careful reading? My understanding of her character is yes, she did. I could be wrong. If writers, if poets, can misunderstand how their tone will be read, certainly us readers, busy and full of our own prejudices, can also do our part to misread or read ourselves into their work.
But then I came onto this remarkable Dickinson poem, one that’s frankly strange on the surface: “The name of it is ‘Autumn’.” Even now, over 150 years after it was written, this makes no pretense to being a conventional poem.
The first thing I noticed was that as a poem of fall, it doesn’t really work—or work the way we expect a poem on that subject to work. Yes, fall leaf color is a common trope for landscapes that have this event.*** But this poem goes overboard if that is all it’s trying to do. Yes, many of the autumn leaves are red, and yes we can say they are blood red. But if that was what Dickinson was intending, and if repetition of that trope might add to its power, I think many readers would think it’s overdone.
And so my first thought was, that must be Dickinson’s intent—to over-do it—because I now trust Dickinson as an artist, and feel from reading her that she often is seeking some doubleness in her expression.
But before I continue with my sense of the poem, let me alert you to two other readings that have been put forward to explain what this unusual poem is on about. The first is that it’s a poem about a particularly deadly section of the American Civil War in the fall of 1862. Historically aware readers often wonder why Dickinson (unlike her contemporary poetic revolutionary Whitman) doesn’t deal with this deadly domestic war directly. Unlike Whitman she didn’t live in close proximity to the battles, but she was the daughter of a politician who had been caught up in the slide into this war, and an avid reader of the journalism of the day. The Civil War reading says this is her recasting of the slaughter of these battles.
If one accepts that idea the images make sense, a strong argument for it. But I’m unsure how Dickinson, even as an aware news-reader, could have received this explicitly gory battlefield scene. I’m unsure that the Republican newspapers she read would have featured detailed descriptions of the slaughter.**** The only way I can imagine Dickinson having an opportunity to pick up these specifically blood soaked slaughter/war images would be if the somewhat self-sufficient semi-rural Dickinson homestead slaughtered their own animals for food and Dickinson (who came to be responsible for the gardening food aspect of the homestead) observed that.
The other reading is that this is a menstruation poem. Likewise, the images can be fitted to that conception. And while we know nothing of Dickinson’s gynecological history (which as readers we need to know, along with the sperm and motility counts of all male authors) there is no barrier here regarding Emily Dickinson’s experience and knowledge, and so I think this one is more likely.
The third possibility is that Dickinson did intend this to be another autumn poem, just with stronger imagery; and if she may have misread how the poem’s tone would be encountered by others, that by this time in her life she didn’t care. She could intentionally have brought in those things other, modern, readers have seen in it, warfare and menstruation, and created one of those bidirectional images where the thing signified and the images used to illuminate it are of roughly equal importance. One clue to that is that she’s once more making use of quotation marks. “The name—of it—is ‘Autumn—’” the first line seems to say we need to examine that word. What could we find on examination? One thing I, the punster, finds is “Awe-tum.” The other thing she may be saying is: “Well, it’s got a common name we might find unremarkable, a mere label for a season, but it’s serious business to nature.” Then, all that blood—and in my reading, the intimate linkage to human fertility—is to make that case, to drown that conventionality.
In such a case, the imagery takes over from the subject. If in the process of composition, the poem became not about autumn but about menstruation, then autumn becomes an intense outward image for what would have been a private, if widely shared experience.
Given that frankly feminist examination of literature is no longer a rare thing, I wonder how unprecedented this was poetically as a subject? Anyone know of any poem preceding Dickinson’s that has a plausible focus on menstruation? A passing line in the old ballad “Willie O’Winsbury” doesn’t compare to this level of imagistic intensity.
Rather than some colorful fall landscape photo, here’s Anne Briggs whose singing helped bring the ballad “Willie O’Winsbury” to the fore.
Well, all that talk, and the comic incongruity of mansplaining my experience of Dickinson’s poem, but this poem is lovely again as word-music. Dickinson is famously sing-able, so I was charmed to put even my shaky voice on the line here. I keep thinking I’m building up to a big-time orchestral score or a mass of synthesizer lines, but today I’m musically down to just acoustic guitar once more. This past week, I found online an entire 90 minute coffeehouse set by Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine, and the melody today is similar to one used in Rapp’s “There Was A Man.” I even planned singing a couple of verses of that song in a sort of a round with Dickinson’s, but I couldn’t make that work.
*(in geezer voice) In my day there were musical collections sold on disks, and they had to have a bunch of songs, not just the hits. A kind of wireless streaming service called “radio” sometimes played cuts that weren’t the ones that you’d pick out for your playlist. It was a primitive existence, but we didn’t know any better back then.
**It’s not straightforward to place the mid-19th century Dickinson household in class hierarchy. Clearly they were a prominent family in their town, so in the context of Amherst, likely the 1% for the latter half or more of Dickinson’s life. But Amherst also wasn’t a wealth center, thus my approximation.
***It occurred to me as I looked at my series of autumn poems I’ve been presenting this month, that there are large portions of this globe that don’t have the “theater of the seasons” that Dickinson’s Massachusetts and my upper Midwest share. The whole leaf-turning fall colors event is a big deal and traveling to rural areas where the largest canvases can be seen is a thing here. One academic paper behind a paywall that I found an abstract for even suggests that fall-colors tourism in the mid-19th century to New England places like the Franconia Notch might have contributed to this Dickinson poem.
****The political career and situation of Dickinson’s father is too complex a subject to detail today. He was a unionist Whig, who supported the compromises with slavery-states meant to prevent the Civil War, while likely opposing the practice of slavery itself. When the Whig party died out it was largely absorbed into the newly founded Republican party, which included those who were more militantly opposed to slavery and such compromise.
Dickinson’s father stood with the compromisers who thought preserving the union primary over the more aggressive anti-slavery factions of the Republicans. It was the election of the first Republican President, Lincoln, who presented himself as unifying those two wings of his new Party which was the proximal cause of the outbreak of the American Civil War—in other words, the slaveholders in slave-holding states figured Lincoln wasn’t serious in acceptance of the ex-Whig and unionist wing of Republicans and that he would allow the more abolitionist wing to take power.
Once the war broke out, there was considerable agitation in the North to settle with the Southern slave states, either to reform the pre-war union or to accept the formation of the new slaveholder Confederate nation. A prime argument for this was the deadliness of the ongoing war. So, in general, Republican papers in the day would not have been in the business of publicizing the grizzly nature of the warfare instead of bloodless gallantry and sacrifice.
A single work of art can inspire and be reformed by others as it lives—or rather, if it lives, as there is no choice in the matter. No work of art once it has escaped its creator lives for one moment more except by this process.
There’s a fair chance that someone coming upon this post via search for its title will believe it’ll be about Ray Bradbury’s work of the same name, and I will touch on that story, but short as Bradbury’s 1950 story is, this project is about the compression, sound, and stepping-order of words, as in poetry; and Bradbury’s story is also not clearly free for us to reuse. But Sara Teasdale’s poem, “There Will Come Soft Rains” meets all our requirements.
I’ve presented Teasdale’s words here several times, and it’s possible that I could have discovered her work (as I have many others) because of the Parlando Project. But it just so happens, I discovered Teasdale on a Tom Rapp record, long before this project began. Rapp sang Teasdale’s “I Shall Not Care” in company with a passage of Shakespeare. Yes, as a short-lyric poet, Teasdale can stand up in that kind of company.
I probably need to turn in my SciFi credibility badge, but I don’t recall reading Bradbury’s famous story before today, so I now know Bradbury’s story because of Teasdale’s poem.* I’m sure this is in reverse of many.
I suspect Bradbury is also the vector by which Teasdale’s poem was included in the Fallout video-game universe. As with Bradbury’s “Soft Rains,” Fallout is set in a midcentury-modern sense of the future, and it’s not hard to fit Teasdale’s 1918 poem into that. Indeed, many read Teasdale’s poem and assume that it’s explicitly post-apocalyptic. However, Teasdale wrote and published this poem near the end of World War I, and the poem’s final sentence conditions itself with a “would,” however definite it is about that natural world’s indifference to mankind’s existence and its wars. She could only be speaking of the landscapes of the WWI battlefields—settings that still bear the scars of the trenches, tanks, bombs, and burial grounds of that war still a century later. WWI’s depersonalized industrial warfare, aerial bombardment, and chemical weapons did open up some thoughts of wider casualties from modern war, even in a pre-atomic age.
Teasdale’s WWI poem is now read as something of a pioneer in presenting that idea of an apocalyptic post-war future. Several years later, but still pre-World War II, came H. G. Wells Things to Come a novel and then movie, and Stephen Vincent Benét’s story “By the Waters of Babylon,” and that later could have been part of the inspirational universe Bradbury drew from for his own story that adds another I to the post World War series.
All these: Teasdale’s poem, and Bradbury’s, Benét’s, and Wells’ prose, explicitly use war’s casualties as the measurement of mankind and his civilization’s impermanent nature. Today we might add our insults on nature itself as another potential cause for self-destruction.
So today, let’s revisit Teasdale’s spring poem of indifferent beauty. It’s short, as is my musical presentation of it. The player to hear it is below. After you click on it, can I remind you, just as briefly, that this project would appreciate more readers and listeners. I’ve focused my energies on researching, creating, and writing about these pieces—and so a great deal of the audience growth over the past few years has come from folks like you passing on the word about this.
*One thing that puzzles me is the explicit days that Bradbury sets his story in, their calendar-ness framing his narrative: August 4th and 5th. Bradbury’s story (set in the year 2026) seems very much based on the particulars of the 1945 atomic bombings of August 6th and 9th that ended WWII, and I see that the dates were subject to some rethought on his part (the original publication had the story begin on April 28th.) Teasdale only set her poem in spring, but in his specificity did Bradbury want to imply some the-last-days-another-choice-could-be-made point in choosing August 4 and 5?
Here’s a poem by Sara Teasdale, an American poet of the first part of the 20th Century. I was actually planning to drop another piece using words by Teasdale today as part of my April National Poetry Month celebration, but I changed my plans and quickly worked up this one when I found out belatedly that Tom Rapp, songwriter and founder of the “transcendent folk” band Pearls Before Swine had died.
I’ll need to say more about Sara Teasdale later this spring
Rapp loved this poem, and set it to his own music in the 1960s. It was performed on Pearls Before Swine’s first album on ESP-Disk when he was still a teenager, and he later performed it along with his setting of Shakespeare’s “Full Fathom Five” on another LP in the Seventies. I’ve always loved his version, and Rapp’s work in general, so this is a tribute to him. I didn’t use his music for my version today, nor did I sing Teasdale’s words, as Rapp did beautifully. His version is of course better, but I wanted to do this today anyway.
Musically, classical guitar, two simple cello parts, and a number of South Asian instruments in the background mixed low. They’re there to resonate with the main tones of the guitar and the cellos the way a sitar or Hardanger fiddle does. The player to hear my version of “I Shall Not Care” is below. One of Rapp’s versions is linked in in the post before this one.
Isn’t it odd how you know, and yet don’t know things, even in this world of instant communications and webs world-wide. Yesterday I started work on a new Parlando Project piece, and this morning I returned from a brisk ride to breakfast on a cool sunny April day to write about this piece whose words were written by Sara Teasdale.
I would have said that I was introduced to Teasdale from an LP record by one of my musical influences, Tom Rapp. I figured I’d link to something about him…
…and there I learned, that he had died more than two months ago.
So, I’ll link to this, his performance, Parlando Project-like, of Shakespeare’s song “Full Fathom Five” from The Tempest combined with Teasdale’s “I Shall Not Care.”
Even though that’s an example of the Parlando Project principle: “Other Peoples’ Stories,” that is to say, it is words Rapp didn’t write, it conveys something of the impact Tom Rapp can have if one is open and receptive to his presentation. He didn’t need to use Teasdale’s words or Shakespeare’s, because Rapp is one of the best singer-songwriters you likely don’t know about.
Let me not inflict too much biography on you. Rapp is another child of the Midwest, born on the Dakota plains, raised some in Minnesota. While still a grade-schooler, he bested a teenager from Hibbing— kid named Bobby Zimmerman —in a talent contest in Minnesota. That Zimmerman kid moved to New York and changed his name to Dylan. Rapp ended up in Florida in the middle 1960s and formed a band with other kids in his high school. He named the band from a phrase from the Sermon on the Mount: Pearls Before Swine. Their first LP from 1967, with a cover taken from Hieronymus Bosch painting was the only one with any appreciable sales, and Rapp issued a handful of albums afterward to ever declining audiences. Why?
As you’ve heard me proclaim here “All artists fail.” Even the most successful, have multitudes remaining who couldn’t care less what they have done; and unique ones do not get any advantage. Rapp wrote fewer songs about romantic love, and his best songs did not offer any easy comforting. And he’s as far from get-down, party until you forget as any musician who ever lived. Rapp is a writer of look, and then look deeper, and remember.
Unique can mean mostly that the audience is not shouting for more like him or her. Yet, I’m sure there are in this troubled world a great many who could find solace, as I did, in Tom Rapp.
You can be the 82nd person to listen to this since 2014.
When I found that link to the LP cut of the song he made from Shakespeare and Teasdale on YouTube, I saw that it had exactly 80 views since it was uploaded four years ago. Let that sink in for a minute. 80 views. The clumsiest unboxing video for some appliance will easily garner more. There have been a few successful “songwriters you should have heard” stories this century, where decades-old work becomes better known—Nick Drake or Rodriquez come to mind—but to succeed in finding an audience, such things require luck, and we’ll only allow a few to win when we re-spin Fortuna’s wheel. Pearls before swine indeed.