Gargoyle

I said last time that the Midwestern American poet Carl Sandburg is not often thought of as an Imagist when we recount the Modernist revolution in poetry. Indeed, I get the impression that his work as a whole is summarized as folksy/clumsy by academia, the efforts of a low-fi Modernist with middlebrow pretensions to real artistic innovation.

I wonder if some of this is an unexamined hold-over from the High Modernists who made a cult of academic culture and credentials in the mid-20th century. Sandburg certainly intended to be a Modernist and wrote thoroughgoing Imagist poems. And yes, he can present himself in a friendly, non-pretentious way in some of his poetry. T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound rarely seem to welcome in the casual reader, Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams may puzzle us on first encounter. Amy Lowell will let us know this is salon-worthy art. E. E. Cummings may charm us in a playful way while still remaining elusive. Marianne Moore likes the seemingly earnest statement, but when I try to absorb an entire poem I’m often at sixes and sevens.

Sandburg can seem a bit too straightforward. Which he’s not, or at least not always. Williams can have his red wheelbarrows and plums, Pound his wet petal Metro pedestrians, and we understand this is willful simplicity in the context of their more elaborated work. Poor Sandburg. He’s misunderstood for being thought understood. Understood too quickly  perhaps.

Here’s an example of a poem that hardly seems like Sandburg at all. If I presented it, unattributed, as translated from the French it might seem Surrealist, but it was published in 1917 before Surrealism was a movement. Even at the time I was performing it, I had only been able to absorb it as a sensation, and I’m not sure yet if I could paraphrase it even now. Here’s the link to the poem’s text if you’d like to follow along. It seems to be a poem about violence and strife, about suffering and infliction of suffering. Is the poem’s gargoyle war, Moloch, capitalism, the demonized exploited, or the demon exploiter?

Is it possible that Sandburg intended this ambiguity? The sensation of this poem is so strong, yet it doesn’t seem easy to solve into a one-to-one allegory. One could use Orwell’s famous decades-later statement as a gloss on this poem:

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

Two things ground this poem, and Imagism wanted to be grounded, not intellectually abstract. First is the gargoyle, which was a commonplace building ornament in Sandburg’s Chicago, secondary to the beau arts style popularized by the 1893 Worlds Fair there and to the widespread availability of immigrant stone carvers in the city. Gargoyles are ugly and often open-mouthed,* as this poem’s gargoyle is.

But Sandburg’s poem subject is metal, which is not impossible—there are cast metal gargoyles. I’m no expert on metalwork trades, but the actions described in the poem sound like hot metal riveting. Is the “gargoyle” some metal construction which is having red hot molten rivets being pounded into holes one after another?

 

A riveting video? Maybe not for everyone, but a few minutes of watching will show how a four-person team works together in hot metal riveting

 

 

Or is this poem’s subject a child’s nightmare? After all, twice Sandburg wants us to know a child could visualize this.

So, an elusive work, but the horror certainly comes through. My performance is straightforward, just acoustic guitar and bass. Sort of a folk song, if the kind of folks you hang around with like Michael Hurley. The player is below.

 

 

*They are sometimes functional downspouts, designed not just as ornament, but as a way to direct roof rain water away from the building and it’s foundation. Gargoyle as a word is derived from the French for gullet, or throat.

Long Guns

Here’s Carl Sandburg again, this time from his 1920 collection Smoke and Steel.   Today’s piece “Long Guns”  is a protest poem of a kind. A few decades later, around midcentury, the folk-song revival in America (which Sandburg had helped to kick-off with his pioneering American Songbag  collection of folk songs) grew a wing that wrote protest songs. Bob Dylan, a man who thought enough of Carl Sandburg to want to visit him as he was revolutionizing songwriting, wrote a few of them himself, even though Dylan once categorized the usual efforts of the protest song genre as “finger-pointing songs.”

So how does one go about writing a protest song or poem? There are probably lots of ways, and some work more often than others. Sandburg, the early Modernist, would sometimes write Imagist protest poems, which is quite a trick to pull off, though the classical Chinese poets that influenced Imagism had figured out how to do this centuries before. “Long Guns”  however, is more in Sandburg’s Walt Whitman mode, what with its parallelism and lists.

Sandburg wants to call attention to the disorder of order established by armaments and guns, but rather than doing this as an essay would, or by leading off with some singular event that will arrest our attention, he starts by addressing an otherwise unidentified someone named “Oscar.”

This is a puzzling way to begin, and I have no idea why Sandburg did this. My guess is that most current readers will just figure Oscar is some random name, and stumble past this, but since I hate to leave specific things unexamined, I eventually had to try to figure out who Oscar was.

It’s likely you’ve never heard of him, but I think it’s Oscar Ameringer, a radical humorist who was styled “The Mark Twain of Socialism.” Ameringer was Sandburg’s contemporary, and both spent time working for Socialist candidates in Wisconsin, though their time in Milwaukee missed overlapping by only about a year. At least to fellow Midwestern Socialists, this call out to Oscar may well have been recognized when “Long Guns” was written.

After this mysterious opening, Sandburg lays out a condensed history of the world, a Genesis story of armed nationhood, a litany of the primacy of guns, speaking too of the long-range artillery that had been part of the new warfare of WWI.

And then, just past midway, Sandburg jumps somewhere else entirely—which is the freedom we allow poetry (as we allow it in music)—to a twisted fairy tale, the payoff. In the end, this is how Sandburg makes his protest point. We are like that child, and we are creating the child in that story.

howlin-wolf

How would Howlin’ Wolf comment on this Carl Sandburg poem?

 

In performing and presenting “Long Guns”  I decided to throw a frame around it. A couple of posts back I mentioned some other Modernists, largely, but not entirely, separate from the recognized literary Modernists. In the same early decades of the 20th Century, some Afro-Americans were “making it new” with a different lyric language and music, which was labeled “The Blues,” and from which Jazz and Rock’n’Roll and modern popular music draw even to this day. There’s no Ezra Pound or T. E. Hulme to point to here, a name that we can say sparked things off. The Blues’ 19th Century Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman-like predecessors are barely known as names. I still want to say more on this later, but as a frame for “Long Guns”  I used a blues line I know from the singing of Chester Burnett who performed as “Howlin’ Wolf:”

I wore my 44 for so long, it made my shoulder sore.

What a striking and original line! If Li Po or Pound had written it, we might read it in a literary anthology. A man whose fear or anger he must carry, like a heavy revolver, painfully, always. As it happened, I know this poetic line from Burnett singing it, as the Wolf; where as part of his performance style his voice is unnaturally raspy, his delivery as if spoken by a spirit, perhaps not a normal man. A man who lives where the running of the world was all in guns. Is that a normal man?

To hear the LYL Band perform Sandburg’s “Long Guns”   framed with music in the style of Howlin’ Wolf, use the player below.

The Blood of Strangers

As we go forward, following Leonard Cohen’s suggestion “Let Us Compare Mythologies,” I’m going to take you to another very dark place. If Siegfried Sassoon was hesitant to publish the last piece Christ and the Soldier, I too am somewhat hesitant to publish this piece, The Blood of Strangers. For The Blood of Strangers to work it must achieve its aim to be provocative. Let’s take that word seriously: it means to provoke you, it means to make you uncomfortable.

That’s one of the things art can choose to do, but it does not give me any lasting pleasure to do so. As an attempted artist I do not believe I must have any greater insight to things than you do, but the nature of art is to try convey things vividly, and in this case I’m going to convey two viewpoints on revolutionary violence.

A year ago, only hours after the terrorist attack on the rock concert at the Bataclan in Paris France, I was scheduled to record as part of the work of making this Parlando project combining spoken word and music. As a musician, I felt compelled to address this event simply and parochially because the attack intentionally targeted music. I chose to use two texts to examine that event: excerpts from a first-person account by Isobel Bowdery, a member of the audience attacked that night, and a section of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Bowdery’s account is to my mind extraordinary, even more so for having been composed so shortly after the attack. Whitman, in contrast, had much more time with his text, as he famously worked and reworked Leaves of Grass over his lifetime. The Whitman piece I used “France”  first appeared in Whitman’s 1860 third edition of Leaves of Grass and was retained in the final edition of 1891. Moreover, Whitman is particularly writing about the French Revolution, events already over 60 years old.

I believe I need say no more about Bowdery’s eloquent words. They are close enough to our time as to speak for themselves. Whitman’s are more problematic.

Modern American poetry has a father and a mother. Its mother is Emily Dickenson; its father is Walt Whitman. As a child, I can’t help but sometimes take after both parents. The Parlando project has already presented work of Dickenson, but this is the first piece we’ve published using Whitman—and this may be an unfortunate introduction, for Whitman’s France is a somewhat mythologized but unwavering appreciation of violence and revenge in the furtherance of a cause. Near the start I told you that I would not tell you what to think of this, but in the just-hours-past the Bataclan attack I was appalled at Whitman.
 
I suggest at this point, assuming you are prepared to visit a dark place, that you listen to The Blood of Strangers now and have your own experience of it. Musically this is another piece that takes after The Velvet Underground, a band I’ve talked about before this. My intent in speaking the two texts at the same time was not only a homage to a tactic the Velvets used, it was aimed at breaking up the flow of either text so that you will not experience them in isolation from each other, or as a logical “Point Counterpoint” debate, but rather a simultaneous experience in two different frames. The last half of the piece is an “instrumental” where The LYL Band gets to synthesize their feelings in the aftermath of that attack speaking only with music.

 

 

OK, if you’re still reading, what can I say in defense of Whitman?

Whitman Leaves of Grass Table

Whitman wanted Leaves of Grass to be all-inclusive. That was one of his core ideas. And this piece, France, was only one small part of this great, lifelong work. In his own copy of the 1860 edition that introduced this piece, he wrote down a table of the word counts of that edition of Leaves of Grass compared to other epic poetic works, proudly noting that he had already exceeded the word counts of the Bible, the Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, and Paradise Lost. His radical inclusiveness wanted to take in all manner of despised and un-praised things in his great work. Although writing 60 years after the end of the French Revolution, he is writing on the eve of America’s great blood bath, the Civil War. So, as he continued to work on Leaves of Grass, where he kept and expanded the piece called France, he was intimately acquainted with the results of gunfire and bombs. I often thought of that Whitman, the wound-dresser, when I myself was applying bandages or tending to the ill and injured. Whitman famously declared:

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.