Late last year I promised you’d get to hear some pieces based on the poetry of Ethna McKiernan. I thought about which one to start off with, and decided I’d perform this one for you first. Why? Because it may make you smile.
Regular readers here recently will have caught up with my connection with Ethna: how I heard her read work in progress in a small group of other writers who cycled through each other’s homes each month to do that. You’ll also know that the rest of the group was usually men in its later years.
When we met in Ethna’s our meeting would always start in her little kitchen. We’d stand near her sink and stove and brew up some tea and talk a bit about what happened since we last met, until our remaining writer’s group members accumulated. On one side of that room was the clipping and photo-decorated refrigerator door, a generalized cultural artifact, and on the other side a small table and chair. Her house was a modest South Minneapolis bungalow probably built in the last Twenties, a couple of blocks off of East Lake Street. Comfortable and reasonably roomy with the usual shelves of books in its main-floor rooms and a couple of wandering cats as one might find in a poet’s house. I never saw more than the main floor, but there was a second story up a wooden staircase, and as we shall shortly hear, a basement below. That all said, it seems Ethna wrote and revised mostly in that small kitchen.
Kitchens are a physical metaphor, the site of drudgery and giving, sustenance and routine. If I may gender a floorplan: the most female part of most houses.
Approximately how some of us feel on winter days. If only there was some help…
I remember hearing “The Men in the Basement” at one of those meetings. Everyone enjoyed it, got it, right off the bat, which was far from a universal reaction to the work we shared. I heard her read it at least once at a public reading, and since it was included in her New and Selected collection* published just before her death late last year, we can be sure that Ethna herself liked this poem and expected audiences to do so too.
Do women understand this poem more than men do? How the hell should I know, though I suppose some raise themselves to opinions on such matters. I myself found it easy enough for my anima to perform it, though maybe some listeners will find that strange. Again, how the hell should I know? Anyway, given that we all bruise, want, wonder, live together and alone — and sorry, buzzkill for this entertainingly arch poem, we all sicken and die — I don’t find it worthwhile to predict or expect right now.
Musically I made this one an assortment of sounds, and I even worried that I may have over-egged it with the variety, but I’ll limit my predictions to that you’ll enjoy meeting Ethna’s text today. There’s a player gadget below for many of you, but you can also use this highlighted hyperlink where the player isn’t shown to hear it.
I’ve mentioned I’m reading a couple of memoirs that cover the early 20th Century Modernist era in America this month. At some point there may come a post here directly about them — which this isn’t — but in one of these memoirs, Troubadour, its author Alfred Kreymborg is discussing the launch of his crucial American Modernist poetry magazine Others.* He writes that his initial goal in starting Others was to publish Mina Loy** and William Carlos Williams, but as he and his main backer discuss their first issue, the initial work of selection is described as including Loy, but then another poet: Mary Carolyn Davies. Indeed, when the first issue of Others arrives in the summer of 1915, the first poet presented is Mary Carolyn Davies and a version of her collection of short pieces called “Songs of a Girl.”*** Davies work directly precedes in Others’ first number the debut of Mina Loy’s set of longer “Love Songs,” the series of caustic love poems which introduced Loy’s indelible image of “Pig Cupid.”
One of the few pictures of Davies
In memoirs when I come upon a writer I’ve never heard of, a “I should at least check briefly on who they were, what they did” research reflex is triggered in me. “What? Not even a Wikipedia stub entry!” was one return on that. Just how obscure is this author? I’d say we know more about Davies than we know about Sappho, and less than we know about any other author that was published in Others just a hundred years ago. Dates of her birth and death are not clearly known. The former somewhere in the 1880’s or early 1890s, and the later as wide as 1940 and 1974. She grew up in the American Northwest, and this short Oregon Historical Society entry has the longest biographic note I’ve found. Her work was presented not just in Others, but by the Provincetown Players too, giving some evidence that she was connected somehow with the bohemian New York City area avant guard in the early 20th century, but she’s also said to have published in a variety of mainstream publications, perhaps to keep the pot boiling.
*Here’s the Wikipedia entry for Others. The contributors that wrote that want to make a strong case for the social and sexual radicalism of Others in 1915. I don’t know enough to say if they overstate that case, but with Kreymborg’s determination to publish American Modernist work he was pushing boundaries out every which way. Other important and sometimes longer-lived publications that included Modernists, like the Chicago based Poetry, mixed in more conventional verse, while Others stayed true to its credo: “The old expressions are with us always, and there are always others.”
**Mina Loy was once nearly as forgotten as Davies, but in this century her work has been re-examined and found by many who do that to be extraordinarily vital.
***I am unsure at this point what the entire contents of Davies’ “Songs of a Girl” was intended to contain. There appear to be at least three differing collections that can be found under this title and author — all of them sets of short pieces without individual titles, each set off by Roman numerals. In one, today’s piece is “II,” and in another it’s “III” in a series titled “Later Songs,” while in the 1915 publication in Others, today’s short bit doesn’t appear at all. The version I saw first and used when preparing my piece today was in the 1917 The New Poetry anthology edited by Harriet Monroe.
Perhaps Davies intended Songs of a Girl to be like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, an all-encompassing and evolving statement?
I made it! This is the 500th audio piece presented here as the Parlando Project since it began in the summer of 2016. In the month of December I’ll write more about what the work for this project has been like, and what I think I’ve learned. I’ll also share with you, my valued audience, what I plan to do going forward in some upcoming posts, but let’s get onto presenting today’s piece based on a small portion of Susan Glaspell’s pioneering American play about pioneer women and their isolation.
I’ve long wanted to do something with a text from Susan Glaspell since she’s partly responsible for this project so often dealing with the beginnings of Modernism in the first two decades of the 20th Century. In America, I think we have a cultural tendency to forget our pioneers, to think of them as imperfect, “beta test” versions of what we consider to be the current and vital expressions of art. We owe them some gratitude, an obligation, but it turns out that looking at first attempts, first intentions, can reveal insights we’ve forgotten, potentially useful tactics we set aside. That said, there’s coincidence in wanting to point out Glaspell’s work here, I’m related to her in one of those fractal-branched family trees; and elderly relatives I once knew, now dead, knew her as a living person, a person with roots in Iowa along the Mississippi River, a place that was home for some time to my people.
Susan Glaspell at the keys. Can’t have a Modernist American theater unless someone writes some plays!
In a previous post I’ve noted that some figures important to American Modernism came from that mid-river region. Carl Sandburg, the forgotten Imagist with dirty fingernails was one. Glaspell was another, not just forgotten as a Modernist, but forgotten as a prime-mover in Modernist American drama. You see, she and her husband had a wild idea while living in an artist’s colony on the East Coast: plays that reflected the “make it new” ethos, radical social analysis, and the symbolic undercurrent that European dramatists were exploring. The theater she organized in 1915, The Provincetown Players, was nothing less than the CBGBs of independent and experimental American theater.
The one-act play that supplies today’s text is her ground-breaking “Trifles.*” It’s now remembered largely as a primary piece of feminist drama, rightfully so, and that outlook might see it as a piece of the social-realist school. There are good reasons for that. Recent scholarship has uncovered that Glaspell, as a young journalist, had covered a murder trial in Indianola Iowa with parallels to the story of “Trifles.”
But the Provincetown group wasn’t just about plays about issues, or gritty realism in opposition to melodramatic fantasy, gaslight adventures, and blithe romances. Modernist poets were also playwrights and actors in the group. “Trifles” isn’t a verse drama, it isn’t a choral poem, but it’s also not unaware of those forms of dramatic expression. In the play’s language, Glaspell uses extraordinary compression, objects representing feelings not explicitly told, and long arias of extravagant emotional expression are conspicuously absent. I’ve never heard it called such, but it’s not outrageous to call “Trifles” an Imagist play. In today’s presentation, which I call “I Know What Stillness Is” I have extracted a section of dialog near the end of the play between two women incidentally drawn into a murder site investigation. One, Mrs. Hale,** a neighbor of the murder suspect, speaks first; the second speaker, Mrs. Peters, is the wife of the sheriff leading the investigation.
Picture of the original New York production of “Trifles.” The woman playing Mrs. Peters at the far left is Marjorie Vonnegut. Yes, she married into that Vonnegut family. So it goes…
In my presentation, as per the ways of the Parlando Project, I want to combine music and words in some useful way that illuminates the piece. So, while not rewriting, I removed some sections of dialog, slightly compressing the scene, and added one subtle use of refrain not in the original text.*** If I was a bel canto singer perhaps I’d think of making this an opera, but instead I’ve kept the dialog spoken word, but by setting this to music I want you to hear the dialectical conversation the two women are having as one would listen to it sung. Does this work? Maybe, and that’s what I wanted to try.
One challenge I had in completing this given our pandemic isolation and my lack of collaborative resources was how to perform the two women’s voices, and I broke through that issue by finding and using recorded voices from a reading of the entire text of the play collected by Librivox. In the performance I used, the part of Mrs. Hale is played by Elizabeth Klett, and the part of Mrs. Peters by Arielle Lipshaw. The whole play is performed and is available here, but it’s a reading of the entire 1916 script, which includes Glaspell’s extensive stage directions which are read interspersed with the dialog.
I could go on about the things expressed in the play, the remarkably early and clear-eyed feminist analysis contained in it, but I thought my audio piece does well enough in portraying the sense of isolation that rural women of the time faced (and to some modern degree face again in our current pandemic.) There is an extensive overview of things others have noted in the “Trifles” Wikipedia page. Before leaving you to listen to our 500th audio piece I thought I’d say instead something about the music I composed for this. It’s an orchestral strings score with a female vocalese part, all of which I played via my MIDI guitar interface and little plastic keyboard. Musical mavens will note that I use simple musical devices in my orchestral stuff, and if I was high falutin I might call myself a Minimalist composer—but frankly, when exploring composition I’m naïve enough to find the simple musical materials produce results that I still find moving and effective.
I started this project thinking I might get to a nice big number of pieces combining various words with original music, like maybe 100, or dare I dream, 200. Thanks for reading and listening along the way!
Since this is the 500th piece, I decided to provide a bonus today for those that would like to listen more distinctly to the music I’ve composed by also providing a separate version without the dialog, just the instrumental music. The version with Glaspell’s words performed in a way to suggest the word-music in them, “I Know What Stillness Is,” has a player gadget below. If you don’t see the player gadget, this highlighted phrase is a link that may work to allow you to hear it.
*Glaspell later transferred the script into a short story which was titled “A Jury of Her Peers” and the piece is therefore known under two titles. Much later (in that year that read the same upside down and right side up: 1961) the somewhat revised and extended script became an episode of the TV anthology show Alfred Hitchcock Presents under the “Jury of Her Peers” title. In titling my excerpt and attempted recasting of the piece with yet a third title, I think I’m following a tradition.
**The part of Mrs. Hale was also played by Susan Glaspell in the play’s first production in Provincetown.
Continuing on with lyric poetry, that short form of compressed immediacy, here’s a poem that seems to be better known in Britain that it is here: Frances Cornford’s “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train” first published in 1910.
I think it illustrates one of the things about good lyric poetry of the Imagist* type: it may be right or it may be wrong, but it’s always true. Almost immediately this poem was recognized as “wrong” by many (most?) readers. It could, and was, easily seen as unfeeling, or an expression of cruelty to the extent it has implied feeling. How the hell does the poet on the train know anything about that fat white lady in gloves? Early responses seemed to dislike the compression they read as glibness; more current readers see haughty fat-shaming.
Good lyric poetry of the Imagist type: it may be right or it may be wrong, but it’s always true.
I haven’t found anywhere where Cornford wrote about her intent with this poem. Given that she lived a long life and this poem became her best-known one, she must have said or written something, but lacking that I’m left to react to the text itself.
The objectionable is the poem’s third line. If the poem did not include it, I doubt any significant number of readers would dislike the poem. Let’s look again at that line: “O fat white woman whom nobody loves.”
If that was a social media post today, one can see the storm breaking rapidly. It sounds like it’s “kicking down” doesn’t it? Our graceless current President could easily tweet this line at someone who disapproved or challenged him, and regardless of one’s political stance, his demeaning meaning would be clear. But even in this short poem that stands alone with no testimony from its author, context may change how we read it.
What’s changed since 1910? “Fat” stands in a strange place in our culture currently. There are elements that regard it as somewhere between a sinful sign and a regrettable disease, but also strong elements that wish to make fat-shaming disreputable. Our general agreement, best as I can read it, is to allow “fat,” like curse words, as something we allow or forgive when we feel the subject it’s applied to has wronged us sufficiently, but not something we should throw around willy-nilly, particularly at strangers. But how damning and diminishing was “fat” in 1910?
Much less I think. First off, let’s look at the U.S. President in that year. A crude reading of the culture for sure, but William Howard Taft was, well, fat, and yet today few politicians are.** Female beauty standards too were curvier (though this was soon to change). Fat was, to the level of unexceptional cliché, associated then with wealth, and therefore wealth’s courtier, power. This once unquestioned association with wealth and power is partly responsible for how the fat person was treated comically, even later in the century. The lean, skinny person was the scrappy underdog, the fat person the one who ran things. Stan Laurel was put upon by the more officious Hardy. The Marxist critique of Margaret Dumont was to tear down the well-fed power structure of white women in gloves.
Moving on in Cornford’s problematic line: “white” is if anything more striking in its frank appearance in this short poem. Here I’m even more unsure of Cornford’s context and intent. “White” as a term for those not considered a person of color existed in 1910 certainly, and that’s how most of us will read Cornford’s line today. But a consciousness, without the context of other non-white people in the frame, of a white person calling out someone as “white” strikes me as so unusual in 1910*** that I wonder if we’re misreading her intent. Does she mean that she’s dressed in white? If she means, to us as we may experience the poem now, “a member of the favored and privileged racial caste,” we should take that into consideration regarding the effect of the poem more than most readers seem to. If she means “dressed in white,” which I think is more likely in the poem’s context, then she’s extending the “gloves” image as observing someone she imagines is not in touch with the earth. It’s probably taking too large a deterministic leap to think that she’s meaning to reference suffragettes with a singular woman in white. It’s a slightly lesser leap to consider dressed in white as a wedding gown undertone.****
And yes, let’s not miss the third word in this compound epithet: “woman.” Given that the author is a woman, and we presume the train-riding speaker of the poem looking out the window is a woman, we may have something like a peer to peer relationship between the observed subject and the observer.
In the few Frances Cornford poems I’ve read so far, there’s considerable female empathy exhibited. Why are we sure that the woman in the train is disgusted with or condemning the other woman? Does she feel superior or knowing in some way in the lyric moment (regardless if she’s right or wrong) that the white woman is missing something (love, an experience of nature)? Yes, I can see that. Is it a haughty superiority? I think that leans too much on the dismissive way we read “fat” and even “white.” As I read this poem over, I visualize looking out a train window, and the sense that comes to me is that one sees the woman outside through one’s own reflection in the glass we are looking through. I think, in the lyric moment, Cornford is imagining (and letting us know that it’s only that, imagining) a difference and a risk for herself, and for that other woman.
Dialectic: Frances Cornford at work. Frances Cornford without gloves.
There’s another mystery in the poem that I can’t decode completely: the gloves that refrain along with the absent loves. One reader jocularly suggested that the woman is hurrying on her way to a cricket match, and she’s wearing gloves because she’s a wicket keeper. Some, I think seriously, see gardening gloves. Others, formal-wear gloves. This is part of what I like about this poem: it’s plain-spoken, allusive, and elusive. That’s a hard combination to pull off. Along with its excellent musicality, that may be why it’s so well remembered in Britain—even by folks who are sure they dislike it.
Like Marlowe’s shepherd, this is a poem that calls out for an “answer record,” and humorist G. K. Chesterton’s retort “The Fat Lady Answers” is the most famous of several. I stand more with Cornford’s lyric than Chesterton’s busted triolet, but his point is worth remembering as we consider “other people’s stories.” And so I performed the two together today. At the time I recorded this performance I decided to read the female poet’s poem in a male voice and suggest a woman’s voice in the male Chesterton’s response. I was still buying into Chesterton’s objection more than I am now after living with the poem a bit longer.
Anyway, Cornford’s triolet is so damn catchy that I wanted to keep it to the hook today—mostly drums and bass for the music—but I added a little of my naïve electric piano working off an odd inverted-voicing CMaj13 chord. One of my shortest audio pieces gets this long post. Go figure.
*AFAIK, no one considers Cornford an Imagist, and this poem was written and published before other pioneering Imagist train poems like Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” or Sandburg’s “Limited.” But in its straightforward immediate language, specific color imagery, compression, and avoidance of sentimental emotional language, it follows the intent of those later free-verse Imagist poems.
**King Edward the VII doesn’t look svelte either, nor Queen Victoria in her later years. Of course, “Who made you king of the Britons?” and all that, but this still speaks to how excess weight was viewed in 1910 as representative of wealth and power.
***I don’t know much about Cornford’s political and social beliefs. She had one son who was a dedicated Marxist of the Karl branch, but what she thought herself about racial questions, I don’t know.
****If it was explicitly a wedding gown, it’d be a different poem, but you can re-read or relisten to the poem and imagine that at your own option. Another possibility would be that the woman is white because she’s a ghost. Again, overdetermining the poem. I’d still like to know what Cornford’s intent was, but even if it was a bit of light verse that got away from her, one of the joys of lyric poetry is that undercurrents can be waiting for the next time you read, hear, speak, or perform it.
Here’s a follow-up note on another alternative reading of this poem. In the time since I wrote this post I sometimes wonder if the woman in white we ostensibly see through the train window is actually the poet, Cornford, looking at her own reflection in the glass which would then seem to be sweeping through the countryside. In photos I’ve seen, Cornford appears quite thin, and even given cultural differences in body image that I talk about above, I wonder (with no evidence) if Cornford may have suffered from anorexia.
Here’s another poem by the lesser-known American poet Genevieve Taggard. Taggard was sometimes classed with a group of woman poets of the first part of the 20th century, all of whom suffered from the rise in the 1920s of “High Modernism” that held that longer poems with elevated metaphors referencing prior literature and art were the mark of seriousness in poetry.
Robert Frost* was able to hold out against this to some degree, but most female poets had a harder time of it. Three poets I’ve presented here multiple times: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, and Elinor Wylie all suffered from this change in the culture. Before this change in our last century’s Twenties, they were all prize-winning American poets, and all had achieved a reasonable degree of readership and fame. Somewhere nearing 100 years ago, all of these figures started to be classed as writers of unserious work: merely pretty verse. By the second half of the century when I went to school none were taught in my classes. Not part of the canon.
The poet, professor, and blogger I’ve referenced here earlier this year, Lesley Wheeler, recalls the term “The Songbird Poets,” which exclusive of it’s dismissiveness seems apt to me. The whole idea of poetry as song rather than an impressive castle of elaborate and complex images was in retreat—but all of them could write the kind of short poem that sings off the silent page. I can’t resist turning up the volume on them for this project.
Was their gender part of the downward reassessment? No need to make too fine a point about it: yes. To the degree that the critics and canon formers had an objective criteria, it was to see an excess of emotional content in their work, and they wished for a poetry where rote sentimentality was reduced or eliminated entirely and where overt emotional language was replaced by states revealed in those complex and often academic images.
But one can’t take emotional content out of art, whose whole Unique Selling Proposition is to transfer the experience of experience between one mind and another. Those who’ve followed our yearly April dive into that High Modernist checkpoint T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” know that it has a harrowing emotional core, so harrowing that Eliot himself seemed embarrassed by it later in his career. By the time I was introduced to it in the second half of the 20th century this aspect of that medley of lyric poems was absent in the syllabus.
I maintain that song, the word-music of a poem, its structure, order, and how it rhymes its observations, can (just as much as some cool classical image formulating an objective correlative) powerfully contain and convey emotion. “The Songbird poets” were vastly underappreciated for the complexity of their examination of emotion and the human condition. Let us judge these means again as we look at Taggard’s poem. We may be able to look at these works and see what the previous generations couldn’t appreciate: The form her verse takes here is integral to the impact of this poem.
This is a poem that holds itself in a mysterious balance, a Mobius loop of a story fulfilling its title. My reading of it is that it’s a love and death poem that portrays neither as final by its spare and graceful text. As I understand it, it opens with lovers under a tree, who by the second stanza have aged and edged into a death, a transition they mark “laughing and leaping” as if rebirth into youth.
The first verse is then repeated, and I’m feeling it ambiguously. Are they a new generation of young lovers under a tree, fated to love and weep, or has the poem’s singer moved on to a new love, a new desire fated to end in weeping—or are our lovers buried under the tree now, their spirits recalling life?
I don’t always know where the musical accompaniment ideas come from for this project. Sometimes I realize after the fact that I’ve been channeling some musical idea subconsciously. After I finished the mix on my performance of Genevieve Taggard’s “Endless Circle” I suddenly realized that I may be musically recalling The Incredible String Band, a Scottish group from the weirder fringes of “The Sixties.” I admired their asymmetrical and unafraid to wander song structures and their wide-ranging combinations of various instruments, but I’m always hesitant to recommend them to others because their vocals are (like mine often are) more than a little pitchy.
If that part of my music here bothers you, today’s piece will then. This piece called out to be sung, even if mine is the only voice I have available to sing it today. The player to hear “Endless Circle” is below.
*William Carlos Williams also fought against this, but he seemed to have felt this academic turn hurt his work’s standing. Marianne Moore is a conspicuous example of a woman who was able to buck the trend by writing every bit as cool and hermetic as any of the Modernist men. Frost himself seemed to write fewer of the short lyrics that his early books featured and turned to longer blank-verse narratives. And another Parlando Project favorite, Carl Sandburg, mixed in longer, more Whitmanesque epics, and turned to his Lincoln biography.
Over in the British Isles I don’t think things worked out quite the same. Why this might be is too long a subject for this post, much less a footnote.
**If you want to read a long impression of what it’s like to listen to an Incredible String Band Sixties album with an open mind and an ambiguous conclusion you could click here: “Makes Syd Barrett sound like Neil f’ing Diamond” it says. Or if you’re too young for that writer’s simile to hit home, think of the weirdest chronic-infused hip-hop mix tape you could imagine, only it’s played by two white guys and their girlfriends on a shed-load of acoustic instruments instead of samples and loops, and autotune clearly hasn’t been invented yet. Or if you’re brave, you could take the adventure and listen to one of their records yourself. Yes, an excess of “canyons of your mind” hippie naivete in the lyrics too, something that Taggard’s form and concision here contrasts with, but there may still be some charm in their work since there’s little danger of it taking over the world these days.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.