Everyday Alchemy

I don’t have much to say yet about Genevieve Taggard, who wrote the words I perform today. Unlike (for example) Jean Toomer she’s not one of those writers who are only names to me, because until this month I’d never heard of her. I came upon Taggard reading John Dizikes’ Love Songs,  a lively group biography of nine women in the poetic milieu of New York City during the first part of the 20th Century. I’m only halfway through the book, and he’s starting to tell about Taggard.

Genevieve Taggard

Genevieve Taggard

 

I’m told that, like Millay and Teasdale, Taggard began writing with a nuanced eye about love, that subject that combines not just desire and it’s thwarting, but also easily branches into the nature of relationships between people. I have so far read only two or three of Taggard’s poems from this era, but overviews of her career mention that after the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism, she was one of the writers who moved to direct political engagement on the leftist side, which in the ‘30s in the U.S. most often meant alignment with the Communists.

Taggard died fairly young in 1948, and her career never reached any heights to fall from. As it was, the second half of that century that I share with her was not very kind to many of those who made that move. For some their Red past was overlooked if they themselves acted as if they had overlooked it too. Some recanted their former beliefs, and of course there are reasons one might do that.*

Why would this harm an American artist like Taggard who didn’t live until the rise of an anti-Stalinist and non-Soviet Union aligned New Left? This was the era of the New Criticism, which took the stance that politics was an inferior non-Parnassian and transitory arena compared to art, and besides many of the New Critics “private” political views were conservative. Poor Taggard. Writing about love was considered a minor poet’s subject, the sort of thing non-serious women were prone to do, but leaving that and engaging in party-line political action wouldn’t gain anything from New Criticism either.

None of Taggard’s work is in print and I may never get around to finding, much less reading, her politically engaged work, so I can’t really speak to its quality.**

I figure I’ve just lost half my readers now, and I’m unsure why I brought this up, other than when I read “Everyday Alchemy”  at the end of a chapter in Dizikes’ book, I was transfixed. Is this a political poem or a love poem? This is a poem that is both heartfelt and sharp in its analysis. Like much great art it’s balanced on razor’s edge, one half clear-eyed on the unfairness of the emotional burdens placed on women by men, and one-half equally sure that society gives poor and working-class men no other peace. In eleven lines Taggard speaks volumes on this. It’s nearly 100 years old, yet has it outdated? As poetry it works well too, ringing word-sounds via consonance and assonance, fragmented phrasing in a relentless dance. This is what it sounds like when doves cry.

Everyday Alchemy

If you’d like to read along while you listen, here’s the text of Taggard’s poem.

 

When I say a love poem can be as complicated, as analytical as any, “Everyday Alchemy”  would be a great example. I’m told the 1930’s Taggard considered most of her early poetry about love as a mistaken focus after she moved on to her later political stuff. However, observers note that this poem, published in her first love-poem book For Eager Lovers, was reprinted again in her reputedly socialist realist volume Calling Western Union  in 1936. This poem works both ways.

Here’s my performance of this remarkable poem, available with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

 

*This is a complex story, and I’m skipping over so much history and passion here, but it’s one of those things that is impossible to summarize adequately in a couple of sentences.

**I am seeking to get a hold of her 1930 biography The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson  via my local library system however.

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Justice Denied in Massachusetts

Partly for the reason of sadness and disappointment with my country, and partly for disappointment with myself, it’s been difficult to focus on combining words and music recently. This is a value of one of the Parlando Project’s principles: Other Peoples’ Stories. When I cannot put the words together, I can listen and absorb someone else’s.

Yesterday, feeling particularly sad and angry, and holding it in so as to not harm with it, I went looking for someone else expressing what I could not express myself.

I looked first at Carl Sandburg, who after all was a committed political radical as well as a too-often overlooked Modernist. But with Sandburg’s expression love was almost always present—a good thing, but not in tune with my feelings. Sandburg may have been the right medicine, and I took some of him in on Friday for my health, but I didn’t want only medicine.

And then I found my howl, and strangely at that. I knew Edna St. Vincent Millay had written political poems, that in fact they had harmed her artistic reputation. The witty line I recall was that Millay’s anti-fascist poems did more to harm her artistic standing than Pound’s pro-fascist ones. Today’s words are from one of her early political poems: “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.”

I can see where the Olympian “New Critics” docked Millay on the basis of this one. It’s chock-full of that awkward backwards and inside out “poetic” syntax that reads like a stiff translation from another language. The early Modernists, even as they translated, were dead set against this—and they have a good point. Millay’s words here were hard to read with emotion, so stilted and undirect as they are as sentences. However, that could well be part of Millay’s point here (consciously or unconsciously), as the poem’s speaker is not speaking clearly; and for my benefit—however difficult it is to perform—she is speaking precisely in a confused mixture of disgust and disappointment. All the reverse/”poetic” syntax just makes it more twisted in at itself. A poet today might make this matter even more obscure with modern poetic syntax that also abjures plain speaking in the service of art, but in our current context we’d be expected to accept this as the way art talks.

One problem with political poems is that to the extent they speak to an issue they can become museum pieces tied to forgotten events. If they were to be effective, they could even be seeking that fate. Millay is writing here in the immediate aftermath of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti—a particular cause—but for my purposes, this has little bearing on the matter. She is speaking to women and domestic and domesticated people such as myself. Only the title is tied to then current events—the feeling and her point, ties to our own.

“Let us go home, and sit  in the sitting  room.” New Critic Cleanth Brooks placed his entry in the contest for most bone-head review of all time by reading this refrain line and Millay’s poem as a straightforward resignation at the course of events, rather than the ironic statement of disgust that it is. I can only hope that the savvy observers of our country are similarly wrong, similarly misreading.

Millay stands for something

Mr. Brooks, you may notice that I’m not sitting, but standing for something.

 

My music for this is based around a G suspended chord, where the third of the chord, which would dictate if it’s minor or major, is omitted. This gives the chord a feeling of awaiting change, awaiting formation. At times the replaced note to the defining third is a tangy second, other times a more consonant fourth. Risking grandiloquence, but I feel our country is similarly suspended now, and the cadence is to be ours.

Here’s my performance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.”

Union Square

Last month when I dropped Sara Teasdale’s “I Shall Not Care”  hurriedly, I promised I’d return to Teasdale and say a bit more about her.

I’m not sure where Teasdale is in “The Canon” of modern verse now, but back when I was in college, she was even more left-out than Edna St. Vincent Millay, and for similar reasons. Teasdale and Millay were both contemporaries of the pioneering early 20th Century Modernists, both were published in their little magazines, received prestigious literary awards, and achieved a considerable readership in an era when page poetry had a more general readership.

But such status didn’t hold. As the 20th Century wore on, and High Modernism and academic-informed writing became the predominant style, Teasdale, like Millay didn’t seem to have the gravitas High Modernism required—after all, both wrote often about love and desire, a subject that if treated directly wasn’t thought serious enough. You know, “women’s stuff.”

If you’re getting the idea that by mid-century, Modernism was a bit of a boy’s club—well, yes, it was.

Teasdale had all of Millay’s problems with the curators of Modernism, and then some. Millay could write in the more modern style as well as engaging in somewhat old-fashioned-sounding sonnets. Teasdale was more adamantly a writer of metrical, rhymed lyrics that increasingly didn’t sound modern enough. Millay herself was a fiercely modern woman whose persona contrasted against any Victorian trappings in her poetic music, while Teasdale seemed less sure of herself. A typical no-win-situation for female poets by mid-century: assertiveness or originality couldn’t overcome the patriarchal attitudes—while submissiveness and reticence guaranteed its victory.

We’re decades past all that now, and we have a new century well underway. Today, it may seem like less of a crime for Teasdale to use the poetic music of 1875 instead of 1925 in this poem written around 1911. Publishing a poem like “Union Square”  would have not caused Millay any second thoughts, but Teasdale went back and forth on that. In a fascinating run-down of Teasdale’s own doubts about the poem, Melissa Girard recounts early readers giving feedback like “Perhaps it is better, after all, to pursue the lovelier side of existence, and only give expression to what is unmarred in the realm of beauty.” And bizarrely, even after publishing it, Teasdale suggested “If the idea at the end of ‘Union Square’  had not been an accident suggested by rhyme, I should never have said what I said.” Say what? One of the beneficial side-effects of rhyme is that the search for it can work like Surrealist and automatic-writing techniques to jolt the mind’s search for language in directions it might not otherwise go—but none of the lines in “Union Square”  where the poem’s speaker compares herself to the streetwalking prostitutes are rhyming lines.

isabel-bishop-virgil-and-dante-in-union-square-1932

Looking for early 20th Century pictures of Union Square I discovered a remarkable painter Isabel Bishop

I found it impossible not to sing this poem when presenting it, the poetry just demands it, even if the poem’s persona is expressing constraint. I think that contrast is what makes this poem, and Teasdale, worth considering. To hear my performance of Sara Teasdale’s “Union Square,”  use the player gadget below.

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.

March 2018 Parlando Top 10 Part 2

An artist named Linnea Hadaway made a book earlier this year. It had no words in it. She said it had no words because it was about listening.

Today is International Women’s Day, an arbitrary thing like all special days, months and years. I can hear some grumbling off in the distance as some read this: “Another one of those special-interest things. I go to poetry and music to get away from that faddish nonsense.” There’s consistency in that opinion: if one is upset at “identity politics,” dividing the world in halves is just as deplorable as dividing it into tenths or smaller.

Are there dangers in division? There certainly are. But I don’t see these sorts of things as division, but as requesting attention—and attention is what art, and this Parlando Project is about. You see, life is incarcerated in the ultimate special interest group, the ultimate identity, political and otherwise: our own selves. Breaking the cellular barrier to spill our selves, or enticing us into opening a tiny pore to stare across at the skin holding another self inside another world, the still unexplored world we share, is the whole of art.

There is no apportionment so small as to be smaller than that. There is no way out but the way of art, to pay attention. Our ears cannot see, they can only listen.

No planning in this, but the next three audio pieces in our Top 10 count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces this past winter use words written by women.

Carrington 3

Surrealist Leonora Carrington captures the Parlando Project recording another audio piece

 

7. We Grow Accustomed to the Dark

I think I’ve used more Emily Dickinson pieces for words here than any other writer. I didn’t plan it that way. I’m not sure that Dickinson planned it that way either. Obviously, she meant what she did, assiduously creating and collating the more than a thousand short and engagingly enigmatic poems that we now see as a cornerstone of American poetry.

But as a careerist she’s a mess. She showed some of her work to friends and family, but like most friends and family they probably saw them as artifacts of the ordinary Emily, that stubborn particular. Perhaps they understood or didn’t understand her poems better than we do; but we, her current readers, believe it’s the later.

She had a lucky break with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the critic and social activist who answered her letter and saw something there. Even in the intellectual ferment of Transcendentalist New England, how many would have? The posthumous publication he shepherded, made possible the Dickinson we have today. But did he understand her art? We, as posterity, think otherwise.

So, like the woman in “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark”  Dickinson pressed on, walking, almost straight, and like the bravest, aware that the comedy of striding face-first into a tree was possible.

 

The Emily DIckinson Internal Difference

I was there! What a concert! The music was good too.

6. A Certain Slant of Light

I didn’t think about this while writing the music for and performing “A Certain Slant of Light”  and “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark,”  but these two Emily Dickinson poems are companion pieces. The Dark poem is more clear, even comedic, the Light poem more mysterious.

In my original post I decided to not talk about what I think the poem means. In some ways, I think that’s true to the poem’s “Where the Meanings, are.” I had fun with the mock psychedelic rock poster I created to illustrate it, but I think the core experience of the poem is the same that some were seduced into having by ingesting drugs, the insight that the universe’s meaning may be unknowable and its substitute only available by fiat.

Cure the cod-sitar sounds, and stereotyped sparkle-eyed hippie whooshing “Oh, Wow!” Of course, we must laugh. This is an insight available even to the young that can apparently be induced by mere intoxication.

But it’s true. It may be easier to see the borders of truth if one comes upon it without chemical aids; but even true, it’s an insight that’s hard to integrate into an active life and compassion. Dickinson integrated it with these little packets of poems. “None may teach it,” she says, but I can let you see my experience of it.

 

5. In the Bleak Midwinter

And one slot higher in the countdown, a woman who isn’t Dickinson, but is roughly her contemporary, English poet Christina Rossetti. Her’s is a Christmas and Christian poem, faith is her fiat; and a shaped and received story is her poems plot.

As this post talks about division, opposites—and how, if one distrusts them, one must cross them, sometimes listening, rather than shouting at them to come down—“In the Bleak Midwinter”  is all about divisions and opposites, and where they fail to hold.

In the moment of Rossetti’s beautiful song, even if earth is iron and water stone, heaven cannot contain God, nor can the earth sustain winter or meagre poverty.

I remember someone asking one of the earnest folk-singers of my generation (alas, I can’t remember who) if a song could change the world. Their reply was something like, “Of course not, but during the time the song is being sung the world is changed.” Perhaps an argument for longer songs, better memories, or us slowly learning how to integrate the experience of art into the rest of our lives.

 

I plan to return tomorrow with the next three in our Top 10 count-down of the most popular pieces over the past Winter.

Lines to a Nasturtium

As I’ve all but promised, here’s a piece using another poem by the deserving-greater-notice early 20th Century poet Anne Spencer. It may even be appropriate for Valentine’s Day—though if so, it’s a somewhat complicated valentine. If we think of Spencer’s poem as a valentine, “Lines to a Nasturtium”  is a fancy one, but the doily lace on this valentine has strange knots in it.

I was going to present it first, before “Dunbar,”  but I felt I didn’t understand it well enough, and after living with it for a couple of weeks, I’m still not sure I’ve found its bottom. It’s beautiful and more than a bit mysterious. My son caught me laughing today as I read an account of James Weldon Johnson, who helped bring Spencer’s poems to publication in the 1920s, sharing a selection of them with the acerbic critic H. L. Mencken. Mencken’s reply? “Tell that woman to put beginnings and ends to her poems. I can’t make head or tails of them, but they’re good.” Yes, I had to laugh, but that’s sort of how I feel right now in regards to this set of words. It’s as gorgeous as the flowers it uses as images, but there’s a puzzling pair of lines “But I know one other to whom you are in beauty/Born in vain;” I feel I should be able to suss out who the “one other” and the “you” are, and I just can’t be sure.

A sensual but philosophical ode to beauty? An early claim to the beauty of women of color against Euro-centric ideals? A Robert Browning-like soliloquy regarding a potential love rival? For awhile this morning, trying to follow the antecedents to that “one” and “you” in the text, I was leaning on that later, but then I was reminded that Spencer thought the entire last part of her poem, under it’s published sub-title “A Lover Muses,” was decorative enough to have it painted on a cabinet door in her kitchen.

A Lover Muses on her kitchen door

Come on, in my kitchen—Spencer’s poem on the door

 

I don’t want mysteries of meaning to get in the way of enjoying Spencer’s work any longer, so let’s just listen to it today. Use the player below.

 

Wild Nights Wild Nights

Thomas Wentworth Higginson may have exaggerated a bit, speaking then of “dread.” But it was 1891, and he had taken on editing the surprisingly vast literary legacy of Emily Dickinson for its first substantial publication. In this task, he was a lucky find, for though he had engaged in a lengthy correspondence with Dickinson when she was still alive—the real rarity was that he was a thoroughgoing radical, a Transcendentalist comfortable with heterodoxy, an uncompromising abolitionist who raised and lead a company of Afro-American soldiers in the Civil War; and rarer yet in his time, a stalwart feminist who knew and worked with pioneering American feminists Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson in uniform

Abolition, Transcendentalism, Civil War, Women’s Suffrage and rights
Higginson wasn’t going to keep a little keep a poem about desire bottled up

 

So, fear of controversy was not in Higginson’s nature. Still “dread” was the word he used:

One poem only I dread a little to print—that wonderful ‘Wild Nights,’—lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there. Has Miss Lavinia (Emily Dickinson’s surviving sister, and the one who found the large cache of poems at Emily’s death) any shrinking about it? You will understand & pardon my solicitude. Yet what a loss to omit it! Indeed it is not to be omitted.

What dread could a little 12-line poem cause? Dickinson’s “Wild Nights Wild Nights”  appears to be a poem about unembarrassed female desire. Even with suggested subtext supplied for for lines like “Rowing in Eden,” it probably seems less shocking today. Still, let’s give Higginson some credit. He not only didn’t want to censor it, he maintained it needed to be included for publication.

Even if we’re not shocked by an erotic element, let’s not forget: it is an Emily Dickinson poem. It’s terribly concise. It sings off the page, yet with such short lines, just three to five syllables long. It’s memorable. When I mentioned it to my wife as the next piece I was working on, she nearly knew it by heart.

But most strangely, though it starts like an ardent valentine, it finishes either in disconnected thoughts blurred by lust, or with something altogether less conventional. Setting humptastic subtext aside, why would one row in Eden? You’re in paradise! Where do you want to go? Do you need to stock your ship up with the fruit of knowledge against the scurvy of faith? And you’ve made it to port in the last stanza. Again, let’s leave the “made it past third base” metaphors behind for a moment. Why are you exclaiming the sea when you’re in port? I even wonder if Dickinson is slipping in a pun here: “Ah! the sea!” sounds like “Odyssey.” Is Emily’s wild-nighter an Odysseus looking to getting back on the boat and back to sea?

I don’t know exactly what Dickinson is getting at there. It’s her characteristic level of concision: pretty, but sharp pieces of glass, leaving lots of slant light to refract.

Veedon DIckinson

Poetic license. Yes, I know “Wild Night” is on Tupelo Honey

 

We’ve followed the Parlando Project goal of varying the music with Dickinson poems so far, even casting her as a classic blues singer. For “Wild Nights Wild Nights” I wrote a more rocking R&B thing this time. I relaxed a bit with the vocal this time too: tossing it off in one take while playing the acoustic rhythm guitar part. The opening lines of Dickinson’s poem reminded me of Van Morrison’s song, and so I slipped a few mutated lines near the end. Play the performance with the gadget below. You can dance if you want to…