To Whom It May Concern (Carry Them Away)

I’ve mentioned previously that our poetic colleague Kevin FitzPatrick, who died last autumn, often wrote poems about work. Here’s one of them from his final collection Still Living In Town.  Kevin titled his poem “To Whom It May Concern,”  and in performance I took a line from the poem and recast it as a refrain, which you’ll see as the subtitle today.

Dave Moore and I attended the memorial service held for Kevin at the end of last month. It was organized by Kevin’s large and talented family, many of whom I only knew as their player-shadows in Kevin’s poems, and many of his family read favorite poems of their relative at the memorial. It seems that Kevin, who was decidedly analog and offline well into this century, would often send them copies of his work in letters mailed across town. Some of them read their pieces after unfolding them from inside their original envelopes.

I’ve been online since online meant wire phone lines. I ran a BBS, I used Gopher, FTP, Usenet, but I found this charming as I listened to their stories in 2022. Typed poems sent in paper envelopes, still bearing cancelled stamps. Poems read by “civilians” recognizably about parts of their own lives. A man whose poetry was generous with “other people’s stories.”

I know many of you are in various parts of the US, or in other countries around the globe. Kevin didn’t “tour” his poetry, and though he often read publicly in the Twin Cities area, his poetry collections were not available other than by being specially ordered through a local bookstore.* You can still do that, but I’m happy to also mention that his family have recently made the books available online via their own website: kevinfitzpatrickpoetry.com. This makes it easy for you to get a copy of Still Living In Town  or one of the earlier collections.

A good picture of Kevin from that web site where one can order his books.

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Now, back to that memorial. Dave gave a fine summary of Kevin’s work on the Lake Street Review magazine at the event. I had asked the organizers to read one of Kevin’s poems. They asked me which one, and I said “Timepiece.”

“That one’s already taken…” which didn’t surprise me. It’s a touching poem, and in writing about his father’s death, Kevin wrote well about the shared underground of grief connecting all losses. No problem.** I suggested instead the short poem you’re going to get to hear a performance of today “To Whom It May Concern.”

I warned her: I sing that poem. “Warning, why?” you may ask. I was largely warning and committing myself at the same time. To say the least, I’m an inconsistent vocalist, and if one was to listen to a great many of the pieces here you’ll see how often I eschew actual singing — and some examples where perhaps I should have more consistently done that. Still, “To Whom It May Concern”  is a story that askes to be sung. And in the folk music tradition that means you’re obligated to sing it regardless of your American Idol candidacy. For logical and cultural reasons*** I decided to increase my own fear factor: I would sing it unaccompanied.

I practiced singing it while riding my bicycle for a few days before the event. Then, just to see if I could at least keep to a level of performance that wouldn’t take away from the event’s focus on Kevin, I recorded two takes**** of me singing it unaccompanied in my studio space.

The day of the event, I got on stage, I softly tried to find a note by singing the phrase with the highest note under my breath and launched into Kevin’s poem. How’d I do? Folks were kind. I myself had no sense whatsoever. That’s one of my problems with live singing: I can’t really “hear myself” well while singing even with monitors or headphones. Even more oddly I had no memory at all of singing the majority of the 2nd stanza. I’d guess I did, but by that point I was thinking of the poem’s speaker and the bard that wrote down their story, and that was all I could remember.

Today’s version of “To Whom It May Concern (Carry Them Away)”  starts out with that first proof-of-concept take in my studio space and then segues into a recorded live performance with Dave and some guitar accompaniment. There’s a player below to hear that, and if you don’t see the player, this highlighted link is another way to playback this audio piece.

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*The web site’s listing of Kevin’s books include the titles and ISBN numbers of the collections that may help at a bookstore or when requesting at a library.

**Dave and I had performed “Timepiece”  long ago, shortly after it was written, so you can easily hear our take on that poem via this link.

***Irish and British Isles singing in general has a strong tradition of unaccompanied singing of songs. The modern scheme of accompanying singing of folk songs with guitar accompaniment was actually resisted as untraditional, at least at first. Logistically it just seemed like carrying a guitar around would get in the way of the event’s focus.

****I’d actually planned to record only one take, which I thought better as the public performance would be just that: getting up and singing. Recordists get the luxury of working into the performance with several takes, and live performers don’t. The second take was no better than the first. Oddly enough, that was comforting.

Fall 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 4-3

Today we continue to move up the countdown to the most popular and liked piece from this autumn. I mentioned earlier in the countdown and elsewhere that during this year two poets that Dave Moore and I had grouped ourselves with over the years fell seriously ill, and this autumn they both died. Dave himself has been through a health swerve since 2020, but given that he’s alive and could tell his own story, I’ll leave that to him. I’ll just summarize that these three people were a large part of my direct and living connection to poetry, and my circumferential part of the ripples from two of them dying has been to sharply feel that human poetic-creation connection become past-tense.

Two of the pieces left in this countdown are remainder connections to those two poets.

4. Timepiece by Kevin FitzPatrick.  This is one of my favorite pieces that I heard Kevin read even before it reached its final draft for publication. I believe Dave liked it too, and shortly after we heard it, the LYL Band performed it and that’s the recording you can hear below.

Kevin, like our other departed poet, Ethna McKiernan, was a consistent reviser of his work. Poets in groups like ours sometimes present work soon after it reaches a completed draft, but Kevin’s early drafts nearly always seemed close to “ready to publish.” Despite his reliance until far into this century on a typewriter and carbon paper, his drafts’ punctuation and spelling was always correct and the suggested and taken revision ideas often revolved around clarifying narrative elements that would be in the forefront of his poems.*  Kevin also paid attention to meter, and when we’d see later revisions that would be another area he’d have changed.**  As a group we could sometimes be brutal with each other’s work, but it was rare that Kevin would present a stick-out sore-thumb.

“Time Piece”  (the title may have been a single word in the draft I performed it from) had one issue that I recall: there was discussion of the “incorrigibles” that the poem concluded hadn’t stolen the dead father’s wristwatch. At least one of us didn’t like it, perhaps thinking it an archaic, obscure or somehow too formal a word. Kevin nodded and said little as was his usual response to suggested revisions. I think I may have argued for incorrigibles, and since it was there in the draft we performed from long before the poem’s publication in Kevin’s 2017 collection Still Living In Town,  that was still the word in my performance.

Well, damn it, Kevin’s dead, and it’s his poem, and he was good at writing poetry, but “incorrigibles” is the right word, and his revision for publication: “those slick boys” doesn’t have enough flavor. That Dick Tracy word-aroma is just what’s called for! “Greatest Generation” father, and a wristwatch after all! He also made one other revision on the published version: from “That he wasn’t scheduled for a boxing match at six” to “That he wasn’t scheduled to box at six.” I suspect Kevin’s ear thought the later better meter-wise. However as boxing has become a more obscure sport the shorter “box” may miss some readers.***   “Did he work in an Amazon warehouse?” some moderns may think.

“Timepiece”  or “Time Piece”  is a poem well worth reading or listening to. The LYL performance of the earlier draft is what the graphical player below will play, and if you don’t see the player, slug this highlighted hyperlink.

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Still Living In Town and North of Boston

FitzPatrick’s publisher, Midwest Villages & Voices, doesn’t distribute online, but this link contains an ISBN and other info that may help you obtain a copy from your local book store or library. Then this other guy, Frost, has books available  too.

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3. After Apple Picking by Robert Frost.  Unlike our other Frost poem in this autumn’s Top Ten, the metaphysical “Bond and Free,”  you can feel this one. Particularly as Kevin began to spend his weekends working at his life-partner’s rural farm, I could see kinship between FitzPatrick and Frost. Both were drier than a Minnesota winter’s static humidity, both liked to observe human outlooks critically, and both of them could give you some of the tang of work tied to nature. I’m not sure if lifetime farmers are likely to write a poem like this, but someone coming to that work from something else, as Frost and FitzPatrick did, has the outsiders’ advantage of fresh observation.

When I presented this poem last month I thought about dedicating it straight out to Paul Deaton, who’s blog I’ve read for the past few years, in part to catch up on his accounts of small-format food farming, sometimes mentioning apple trees and orchards. But I wasn’t certain how well it fits anything Paul experiences. The apple trees of my youth were tall enough that ladders would be required, but the orchards I saw biking around Bayfield this fall have quite short trees, the kind where an adult would stand flat-footed to pick the fruit.

But maybe I should have gone ahead. Even though this poem has specifics, even to what aches after work, it’s about finishing a task. When another blogger I read: professor, editor, and author Lesley Wheeler wrote of getting to the final stage of a book-length manuscript, I thought of how I felt after finishing a manuscript decades ago. That same “Well, I probably missed a few, but I’m done  with apple picking now.”

Player gadget below for some, this highlighted hyperlink for the rest of you to hear my performance of Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking.”

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This post has gone long, though with things I wanted to say. Our next post will break from our usual Top Ten countdown, as it will deal with both the most popular piece, and the runner up, and I’ll talk more about poet Ethna McKiernan.

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*More than once I’d say to Kevin “If I had had the idea to write something from this same material that you used, I’d have written a short story.”  I remember once Ethna took me sharply to task for saying that, admonishing me that Kevin was writing a narrative poem. She misunderstood me, for I knew and admired that. Mixing into a short poem, with its almost unavoidable lyric immediacy and compression, with narrative elements sometimes even including a Joycean epiphany, is not easy. Once or twice, so taken with the story in one of Kevin’s poems I attempted to craft a short story from the same material, to demonstrate my point — and yet I could never complete one of those attempts. Kevin’s poetry may look unshowy, but it’s not easy to duplicate.

**Several years ago, Kevin and Minneapolis folk/blues revival pioneer Dave Ray of Koerner Ray and Glover engaged in a little side-bar about meter in Blues lyrics, with Kevin scanning their iambics. Kevin played a little blues harp, and Ray and Kevin’s dad were both in the insurance business.

***Kevin also boxed, and not in a warehouse way. He once wrote a poem which had as significant line “The boxer slugs!” Dave Moore’s punishing wit, after dealing with a lengthy group discussion about if that line would be misunderstood, was spurred to write an entire song about a garden beset by invasive…wait for it…”boxer slugs.”

After Apple Picking

Around America people are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, a sort of remembered harvest festival, now a family get-together mostly celebrated by eating as most Americans are separated from farm work by some distance and decades. However, back in 1914, American poet Robert Frost was close enough to that work to write a masterful and closely observed poem about harvest time that I’m going to present for today: “After Apple Picking.”  While I hope you’ll listen to my audio performance with my original music below, here’s a link to the poem in case you’d like to follow along with the text.

This poem is full of sensuous detail. Encountering it — even if you don’t do farm work — you should feel the completion and weariness of the poem’s speaker who is falling asleep at the end of his harvest season. The poem’s farmer has been working in an orchard, and that place is full of the scent of apples. In a fall orchard such as this, much of this scent may be from fallen apples which, even as they start to rot, give off a sweet musk. And it’s frost time, not just the poet’s name on the poem, but the livestock water-trough has a frozen sheet on top, so the picker has been racing against a loss of the crop. In a piece of rural surrealism, the farmer has, that morning, picked up a plate of this surface ice —which would be thin, wavy, and fragile — and looks through it as if they are magic spectacles at the morning frost on the grass. This lasts but a moment, the magic glass will disintegrate in his hands, but that’s of no matter, there’s work to complete.

While falling asleep his body is still weary, his feet are sore from standing on the round ladder rungs, but as dreams approach his mind once more magnifies and intensifies reality like the view through the wavy ice sheet, and he’s haunted by apples, by his job of picking and inspecting, his rush against the end of season frost.

As the poem moves to its conclusion the farmer seems to imply that his work to gather the crop before it’s lost is like unto the work of salvation. We might remember and notice that the poem started with a ladder pointing “toward heaven.” And those apples that touch the earth are held by it and not offered heavenly worth.

Frost ends his poem whimsically, not with an angel or a prayer, but with a small rodent, the woodchuck, which hibernates (“his long sleep”) in the winter. As the farmer falls off to sleep, he wonders how long a rest he has earned.

How big a slice of apple pie do you want? Stand back, I’ll cut you a piece.

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When Frost wrote this poem about a third of Americans were farmers and farm workers. Now, most of us have other labors. Our harvests may not be food, we may not be tied to the cycle of seasons as exactly. My wife will be getting time off from working in a medical clinic, where she works to gather as many as she can, and Thursday she’ll be making a meal for us and her mother with dementia. I’m working past midnight to bring you a presentation of this poem. Our labors are many, they may make us weary, but perhaps, yet, we can be thankful for them.

My audio performance of Robert Frost’s harvest poem “After Apple Picking”  can be heard with the player gadget below, or with this highlighted hyperlink. My music today is percussion, piano, cello, two violins, horn, and harp.

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Four Things I Learned from the Poetry of Kevin FitzPatrick

It’s taken me a few days to write this post after learning of the death of Minnesota poet Kevin FitzPatrick. After someone dies, someone you know at some level, there’s an emptiness. While it’s impossible to feel emptiness, it may be the first obligation of grief to hold that sense for a little while. Was for me.

I didn’t know Kevin well. We were different sorts, and I myself am quite bad at friendship. But I knew him somewhat, and over time quite a bit as a poet. With some interruptions on my part for over 40 years I’d see him every month in a meeting that sometimes had as many as ten or so writers and sometimes was just Kevin, alternative Parlando voice Dave Moore, and myself. We’d meet in one of our places and those present would break out new work for comment and feedback.

I said we were different sorts. Back in the 1970s I was chiefly influenced by some hermetic and oppositional poetries: French Surrealists and para-Surrealists and those Americans who had read or influenced them. These poets tended to be ecstatic in mood and unafraid to puzzle or offend. Kevin had a different vision — he wanted his poetry to be comprehended and welcomed by ordinary folks, including working people of our parent’s generation. Is that the first or fifth thing I learned from Kevin? No, I’m still learning that one.

Let me speak ill of the dead. In our common youth I thought Kevin was prissy and way too afraid to offend. But we were young men then, and by now my younger self has passed from life to a degree near to what Kevin’s entire non-written life did this week. The way I see it now is that we were both half-right — but his half produced better poetry more often. So, I doubt he learned much from me, but I learned several things from him. You might want to learn some of these things now or later, so I’ll offer four things I learned from Kevin FitzPatrick’s writing today.

Kevin Obit Photo

“You can’t tell a book by looking at it’s cover.” Kevin FitzPatrick edited the urban working-class Lake Street Review, but today’s piece has some farm boots in it.

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Characters

Here’s the first and primary one, a lesson that I often told Kevin I would try to remember. Around the time of his first collection, Midwestern writer Meridel Le Sueur said that Kevin’s poems were poems with other people in them. Given Le Sueur’s life twining activism with writing, this was a fitting observation for her to make about Kevin’s writing. But stop and think for a moment of the poems you write, or even the poems you read or rate highly. How many of them have actual, flesh and blood characters in them? A great many poems, and to wildly generalize, many poems by male poets, have nothing but the poet’s own consciousness reflecting on itself. If something external intrudes on this, it may be nature or incorporeal spirits — or if human, they may appear as masses or classes in sociological case-folders. Kevin’s poems had a range of characters: friends and antagonists, folks that are richly neither, and people who you just run into in life. Kevin himself appeared in his poems, yes, but in many examples the poem was as much about Kevin as the novel The Great Gatsby is about Nick Carraway.

You may think that poetry, with its freedom of language and musical force can dispense with characters, that poetry may be particularly suited to delve into an individual’s own consciousness so otherwise unrepresented in human life. Good poems have been written from that conviction. But is that all  it can be? What a lonely art making itself lonelier would result.

Dialog

Kevin’s use of dialog goes along with the characters. If you’re going to allow them to appear in your poetry and have autonomy, then they need to seem to speak independently. Kevin’s characters were not kept silent, and a good many of his poems had the texture of a compressed short-story, including the effective use of dialog.

Again, I’d argue that we are too exclusive when we talk about the poet’s voice and poetry as self-expression to the exclusion of all else. Yes, the world may be enriched by 100 poets writing in their own voice, saying out-loud or on the page their own individual experience. But if some of those poets would allow other voices to speak in their verse, to join in the choral and antiphonal song that is human experience, we might have at least 200 voices, if not 500, speaking in our poetry. How we speak, how we express ourselves is important. How we listen, what we hear, that too is important. The poet’s ear shouldn’t be cocked for just iambs and trochees.

Work and Workers

Why shouldn’t the world of work appear in poetry? I mentioned that earlier this month in dedicating my performance of a poem by Carl Sandburg to Kevin that Sandburg didn’t shy from talking about folks working, how that felt, what they encountered. FitzPatrick extended that in his poetry with a good degree of specificity. In his poems about encountering agricultural work in his fine final collection Still Living In Town, the specifics and groundedness of farm chores were taken into his poetry.

Yes, let us concede a dialectic. Many readers (and poets) go to poetry to escape that everyday grind, to celebrate the exceptions of romantic love, cosmic visions, rare events worthy of celebration. Fine. But why can’t poetry inform and illuminate what we are doing for a third or so of our lives?

Rural-Urban

Between the rural-urban divide is a great place for a poet to sit and write. I spoke of Kevin’s final collection from 2017, Still Living in Town  above. In America, there’s an increasing division in outlook between those living in cities and those living in rural areas and small towns. Kevin’s poems in that collection, including characters, dialog, and those work-a-day issues, also allow us to see different locations and outlooks as he travels between his urban house, his capitol city office job, and a small farm.

How few travel between those worlds with open eyes, ears, and hearts and write verse about it! Kevin FitzPatrick did that in his final book. As I said above, I learned things by how Kevin approached his poetry and characters, but it’s important to also make clear that he’s not just a  “poet’s poet,” but also a rewarding and entertaining writer to read. Books from the publisher of Still Living in Town  are not available from the large, easily linkable mail-order booksellers — which depending on how you feel about such things may be a feature not a bug. Here’s a link to the WorldCat listing for FitzPatrick’s 2017 book which includes library availability and the ISBN number that might aid in ordering from your favorite indie bookstore.

OK, should there be my customary Parlando audio piece at the end of this post? With some trepidation I’ll offer this one, my performance based on an early version of a poem destined for Still Living in Town.  It’s an old recording from 2013. Shortly after I recorded it, Kevin heard it and thought I misinterpreted the song. As I said, we were different sorts, though over the years I like to think we grew closer from our shared love of what poetry could do. Kevin said I missed the poem’s point; it was about the difference between the urban and rural cultures he was observing and writing about. He’s right, I undersold that element, seeking instead to stress how a customer service interaction went sideways from mistrust and was eventually resolved. I think he also might have reacted to my edgy, angsty delivery and music. Kevin was a calm, dry speaker in performance, and the speaker in this performance isn’t. It’s also important to know that “Returns”  is just a piece of a greater work that took him several years to write. This isn’t the most singularly impactful poem Kevin ever wrote, just one in his series that I happened to perform one day because I liked the vignette, and that I had handy to put here today.

A few bits of scene-setting before you click on this performance: Kaplans* was a clothing store specializing in utilitarian work clothes and outerwear that was located then on Minneapolis’ famous working-class-to-under-class Lake Street. Wheeler Wisconsin where the scene shifts to in the conclusion is a town of 300. Tina, the deus ex machina of the poem’s story was Kevin’s partner who decided to buy an 80 acre farm which Kevin commuted to every weekend during the time of the book.

Player gadget to hear it below for some, and if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play it.

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* The first winter I spent in Minneapolis, it was at Kaplans that I bought my first pair of Sorel boots, that genius Canadian design that has a waterproof leather and rubber outer boot with an inner insulating liner made of compressed wool. If you ever have to stand in -20 F cold and wait on a bus that might not run on-time, the un-frostbitten scansion of my poetic feet recommend them.

Cobwebs, Steel, and Moonshine

This is the weekend that ends in American Labor Day, and I’m going to see if I can put up at least a couple of pieces celebrating that.

The relationship between poetry and labor is complicated. On one hand, unlike entertainers, popular prose writers, or some other fields in the arts, almost no poet earns enough solely from poetry to escape a complete lifetime of some other everyday work. This could lead to the world of work and the concerns of those that do it being widely incorporated into poetry, but in my observation that’s not so. Why should that be? Well, as much or more than any other art, poetry, in self-image or in public image, sets itself apart from ordinary work.

Poets are seen as dallying with the muses, observing unsullied nature, being drawn to erotic passion, explaining the godhead and the nearly unreal, or engaging in an endless spree of derangement of the senses. None of this seems related to the world of work. Things like that may be a way to spend the weekend or a holiday, and so poetry may be attractive to those seeking to temporarily escape their workdays — but then not an art used to understand them, or to interrogate them.

Two Poetry Collections about Work

Thinking about poets who did write about work today. “Down on the Corner,”  Kevin FitzPatrick’s early career collection (cover pictured on the left) is still available.

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American Modernist poet Carl Sandburg conspicuously didn’t avoid work and workers as a subject. Some elements of Modernism liked to write about the products of early 20th Century industry — odes to locomotives and airplanes could stand in for birdsong or daffodils just fine for the make-it-new crowd — but the systems that built them and the human effort involved were largely not viewed as fit subjects. Satires of the management classes could be undertaken, and by damning their mundane concerns, the world of work could be dismissed as a fallen human state.

In variety and extent of opportunities to observe work the poet Sandburg may have had an advantage, and he didn’t squander it. Itinerant laborer, municipal government functionary, labor-union agitator, journalist, small-time farmer — Sandburg certainly had his perch to observe work. He wrote about all of those trades from inside and beside. Today’s piece is taken from the very last section of the long title poem in his 1920 poetry collection “Smoke and Steel.”   In the poem Sandburg concentrates on that backbone of American industry in his time, the smelting of iron ore into steel, and he does so by focusing on the laborers in that system. While he’s in a long-winded Whitmanesque mode, he brings to this task the miniatures of Imagism, and in this final section, if separated out as I did here, he presents an Imagist poem. Earlier in his poem we meet a lot of people and their tasks involved in the manual labor of steel making; and now in this Imagist ending we’re left with three or four objects. Once he violates the unity of the charged moment, but otherwise it follows Imagism’s rules. Here’s a link to “Smoke and Steel”,  and the section I adapted and used today is at the end of the opening poem.

We first meet cobwebs, called “pearly” to indicate a beauty in them, and they’ve caught and held raindrops. Just a “flicker” of wind tears them away from the scene. Moonshine, golden and so also portrayed as beautiful, perhaps in a pool of rainwater, is likewise shivered and dispersed by the wind. Finally, a bar of steel is presented, and there’s contrast. It’s not so transient. Violating the unity of the moment, the poem says it’ll last a million years, even if nature will coat it with a “coat of rust, a “vest of moths” and “a shirt” of earth, images that seem to me to connotate the grave when we are also told the steel bar will “sleep.”

I’ll admit that while I could visualize the cobwebs with pearly rain drops and the moonshine rippling in short-lived puddles, just exactly what the steel bar was as an image to be visualized was puzzling to me. A railroad track? We don’t usually call rail tracks bars. A fence, or even a jail cell (“steel bars” as shorthand for jail)? Nothing earlier in the poem prepares us for that reading in this section. Some steel ingot stockpiled and stored outside? But destined to be forgotten and left for a million years? Other than that “million years” permanence we’re told only one other thing about the steel bar: that it looks “slant-eyed” on the cobwebs and pools of moonshine. I understood this as “side-eye” and that reading seems pretty solid to me. The steel bar knows it’s going to be there longer than the cobwebs and moonshine, so it can dismiss them as ephemeral.

Then looking to confirm if a slant-eye look would have been understood to Sandburg as side-eye, I could only run into the use of, and disparagement toward “slant-eye” as an ethnic slur. Though that slur wasn’t news to me, it hadn’t occurred to me as I don’t think it’s what Sandburg intends.* Realizing this after I’d completed recording today’s performance, I considered that it might harm the ability of some listeners to receive the poem’s intention, and if I was to perform the poem again, I might take my privilege with a work in the Public Domain and sing it as “side-eye.”

Coming as it does at the conclusion of Sandburg’s longer poem “Smoke and Steel”  what do I think the cobwebs, steel and moonshine mean as they are met by the wind of time and change? We may abide by the convention that poetry and work are separate things, but as Sandburg has just written a long poem about work, we know he wants these things to be combined. The things we do everyday for pay, the work we do in arts like poetry — are the later the cobwebs and moonshine, beautiful, transitory, little noticed; and the former the steel, the solid, useful things that will last? Or is the steel the “real” that is buried, and the cobwebs and moonshine it distains the eternal now that returns fresh?

And then, can either be both?

The player gadget to hear my performance of an excerpt from Sandburg’s longer poem that I’ve titled “Cobwebs, Steel, and Moonshine”  will appear below for many of you. Don’t see a player? Then this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play it.

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*Sandburg is too comfortable with ethnic slurs for many modern tastes in his poetry, and “Smoke and Steel”  contains a handful of them earlier in the poem. The unabashed way he uses them in his way argues against this ethnic-Asian slur being a 1920’s dog-whistle.

To Poets Not Dying Young

Poems and songs about those artists who die young are easy to find.*  Why should that be? Well, tragic aspects there are plain to see and it’s easy to note the lost potential in an early exit. I think there’s a further factor too: we are much in love with the trope of young artists whose work is caught in a rising arc before falling with melted wings. It’s extraordinarily difficult for an artist to continue to impress or delightfully surprise over a long career. We artists repeat ourselves and are judged to have become stale — or we change and produce work that isn’t judged correct to be coming from us. Perhaps this is inevitable. Or maybe in part it’s us as readers, listeners, audience, who contribute some faults to this by always seeking new faces — or the practical use of any failures as telling markers to drop attention.

I’ve made no secret here that I’m old. I missed out on being a has-been and I’m not anyone’s coming thing in the arts. In a strange way I find that frees me from those burdens, and I only need to carry my age and infirmities while producing new work. This summer as the blog and listenership has its seasonal drop off, I’ve indulged myself and your attention with more work with texts written by Dave or myself. I do notice that the poetry I’m presenting here of mine is overwhelmingly focused on loss, something Dave usually avoids. Young poets, young musicians, often add gravitas with similar emphasis — and I should note, young artists can and do directly experience those things outside of the world of imagining. Experienced artists may more likely realize this is a choice, one that we are free to question and doubt. But, speaking for myself and my summer it’s been more at reporting. The everlasting crisis of the wider world continues — unjust losses there are still noted — but each day I think of the closer infirmities of those I know: small losses for me beating in resonance to their greater losses, and less specific worries and predictions for myself standing before me as I look through them to assay these others unavoidably present and particular ones. This is likely the selfish and self-contained man’s version of empathy.

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To Poets Not Dying Young

I enjoyed some dissonant chord colors and an “Is it in major or minor?” rub in this one’s music.

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Today’s piece uses a text of mine I call “To Poets Not Dying Young.”   The effect I’m trying to convey is the wearing of life on the body and soul of older poets who persist in their observation and writing, and it’s written in the hope that we, as audience, retain our ability to read and hear them. I do worry that the images are too enigmatic in this one, but maybe the connotations or some incantatory power will carry the effect through to you. Even to myself, their author, some of the images reflect more than one thing, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

The Parlando Project plans to restore our usual service in presenting texts by other writers in upcoming pieces you’ll see here soon, but to hear this one you can use a player gadget below if you see it, or this highlighted hyperlink which will open a new tab window with an audio player.

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*Here’s a post and a short and graceful poem linking several “died young” poets by American poet Anne Spencer.  And here’s a real-life ghost story post that has as its musical bit a poem by Carl Sandburg about another poet who died young.

And here are three to argue from the other side for older artists persisting. An aged Longfellow calls on the spirits of other older artists to make his case.  And his contemporary in Britain, Tennyson famously hymned a possibly deluded old Ulysses asking for one more voyage. And here’s another one of mine, in full rock fury recalling a young man who was once thought a coming man in his field and who persisted in making art past fame. If you didn’t like today’s musical piece, these five pieces will give you a wider sample of what we do here.

An Independence Day Double-Header: I Hear America Singing and I, Too

Visits to this blog tend to go down on weekends, on holidays, and in the summer — so, congratulations if you’re reading this, you’ve managed to beat the crowds!

America is a young country, but after a bit of a slow start, we’ve been meeting our quota for poets, and by now the record shows a great variety and number of them. Who’s great? Who’s dispensable? Well, some days I wonder if any of that matters when poetry still has challenges getting traction on the slick surface of our nation. Still, one thing’s clear to me if I take stock of American poets, there’s no more American poet than Walt Whitman. That’s no accident: it was his life’s work to become the most American of poets. Few poets before and since have sincerely tried for that. Whitman did.

Whitman didn’t just want that personally. His poetry is full of invocations for other American bards to arise, with claims that the spirit of America would nurture and welcome them.

This Sunday is American Independence Day. Has he been right?

Our first piece today is one of Whitman’s best-known poems. In its litany of lines he shows us two things: that Americans love to sing and that America is the sum total of our varied labors.

Taking the last first. Whitman is going to concentrate on manual labor and trades in this poem. He could have written about other work and workers, even poets or professional musicians after all — but he says the songs he’s going to note are “those of the mechanics,” meaning the mechanical trades,* using the word in the same meaning that Shakespeare uses it when burlesquing the “rude mechanicals” and their ardently inept art in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  But Whitman is not making fun. He says nothing about the quality of their songs or singing, but the very length of his list indicates he values something in their number and variety. Overall (or overalls?) there’s celebration of masculine traits in the poem, though some work associated with women — and specific, specified work, not just sentimental “remember the ladies” stuff — is included in his list.

It’s fitting that in this summer month, as a holiday weekend approaches, that he ends his poem with a party, a get-together, but throughout “I Hear America Singing”  songs continue in work, in comradeship, in love. I would wish you too just as happy a July 4th.

It’s complicated to judge if American poetry disproportionately influences the world in our time, but one doesn’t have to go hard to make the case that American music has done so in the time since Whitman’s death. Whitman speaks of poetry as a bardic art, and so he uses “song” and “poetry” interchangeably when he speaks of his art, even if later most have come to see these as separate arts and that it’s important to distinguish between them.

Whitman asked that — more than that, promised that — there’d be many significant American poets to come. He got musicians. Close enough Walt.

Whitman-Hughes

Checking on the predictions of two American poet-prophets: Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes

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Some decades later, one of the poets that Whitman prophesied wrote an “answer record” poem to “I Hear America Singing.”  In “I, Too”  Langston Hughes, an Afro-American poet, decided to add one more labor example to Whitman’s litany. Hughes’ poem is sung from the position of a servant.**  In Whitman’s 19th century time, many/most of the jobs that Whitman cataloged would have been self-employed, and it’s clear that Hughes’ worker isn’t. Furthermore, as an Afro-American his segregation from the “company” is double-more with his class status. Make the food, serve the food, wash the dishes — but you won’t eat in the room with the guests.

Hughes too is going to prophesize a future America then from his 1925 present. Don’t speak too soon, the wheel’s still in spin he says in effect about that stay-in-the-kitchen status. He’s going to spin that wheel.

Nearly a hundred years later*** how have things worked out with Hughes’ prophecy? Poets have written. Songs have been sung. Work from American political mechanicals has gotten us partway there to equality of opportunity, to recognized accomplishments, to appreciation of Black beauty.****

Is this an unpatriotic thing to say on this holiday, that our workmanship on some important civic matters is slipshod? I’m no prophet, but if I was one, I might say that some day we could build the temple in time where we can see beauty presently while being ashamed in the past tense, just as Hughes promises.

What Americans could build this temple? If not us, who else?

For some of you there will be player gadgets to hear the two audio pieces today just below this paragraph. If you don’t see them, this highlighted hyperlink will play “I Hear America Singing”   and this one will play Langston Hughes’ response “I, To.”   Want to read along? Here a link to Whitman’s poem, and here’s one to Hughes’ poem. You may also notice that I used essentially the same music for both texts today. That’s me trying to show the two poems conversation. The first is the more formal presentation, the second a simple acoustic guitar folk song. Feel free to sing along with the “I, Too”  final chorus, including the line I’ve added to the original poem.

“I Hear America Singing”

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“I, Too”

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*I note that in his catalog Whitman mentions specifically house carpenters, the job his father held. He also mentions wood-cutters. Ezra Pound’s family had connections to the lumber industry, and in Pound’s poem “A Pact”  about Whitman, Pound calls out Whitman as a wood-cutter while patting himself on the back as the more developed “carver” of wood, a job further down the supply chain and further up the artistic hierarchy. Sick burn Ezra.

**Details of this aren’t completely clear, perhaps intentionally. Hughes poem’s speaker could be enslaved, or he could be a paid domestic servant. He could even be a restaurant worker, a job that Hughes himself held for a short time. Early in his life, his poetry career got a boost when he left some poems at the table of diner Vachel Lindsay when that Illinois poet visited the establishment where Hughes worked. Lindsay read them, thought they had value, and touted Hughes as a result.

***When the country was younger, July 4th was a day for speeches on our history. Now, for me, so strange to be so old, and how disappointing how slow citizenship equity is. In my youth, it was common to speak of racial justice and full rights as being an American goal a hundred years old, using the end of slavery as the starting line. And now we near 100 years from Langston Hughes’ poem. The famous “arc of history” is such a long archway that one should wonder why it hasn’t collapsed in the middle.

****Speaking of I hear America singing: disproportionally the reason that strains of American music are known worldwide is due to Africans taken to these American shores. American singing, American music, has many tributaries, many are important, even the many-ness itself is important — but as I’ve said here before: I am an American musician. Most of the notes are black.

Reapers

Let me continue in our celebration of National Poetry Month. Yes, but.

Though some of my international readers may not suspect this, others of you may wonder how I’m doing after another incident were someone in my metropolitan area was killed in a government incident that seems unnecessary and unjust. I’d describe my overall reaction as numbed thought, and I’ll leave it at that. It’s not that I don’t have thoughts, but in our instantaneous world, thousands have already written and there’s no scarcity of takes — if you need anyone to supply a template or echo for your own response, you can have that in abundance.

I continue because I think there’s still a shortage of what poetry and music can bring to us. Poetry, like many tweets or blog posts, can make arguments, present hot takes of their authors; but it also can work differently, it can take an attentive reader or listener and by attracting them and presenting something to pay attention to, allow its audience to form their own changes in perception.

Today’s piece, “Reapers”  by pioneering Afro-American Modernist Jean Toomer attempts that. In his 1923 book-length work Cane,  where this poem first appeared, Toomer presents such things, moments and situations that ask for that response from its readers. That’s an inefficient process. How many will read, how many will really read in that extension where we accept the task of creating a whole-hearted response to what the author presents? Some things work on one, quick, reading. We may already believe we know, we agree. A brief amen is all that is called for. Other work may just seem slight to our moods and perception, and we skip any deeper step. Today’s poem is called “Reapers,”  but I think here of the Christian parable of the sower.

“Reapers”  presents two rural scenes. In the first, harvesting or mowing is being accomplished as it had been done for millennia with the reapers being people with scythes. With intent they ready their blades, sharpening the edges with abrasive stone honing blocks. Toomer presents the scything that follows as silent music, a rhythmic swinging represented with precise meter and one pair of perfect end-rhymes followed by another pair of perfect rhymes that are in themselves near-rhymes to the first pair.

In the second scene we are taken to an era particular to Jean Toomer’s time. The mower, the reaper, is a mechanical machine drawn by horses,*  the immediate ancestor to our present engine-driven farm machinery. That machinery was likely not as silent, but instead of presenting the clank of its mechanism, Toomer auditorily zooms in on the squealing sound of a “field rat” picked up and wounded in its belly by the mechanical, systematic blades of the horse-drawn mower.

horse-drawn mower

“I see the blade, blood-stained, continue cutting…” a small version of the horse-drawn cutter in Toomer’s poem

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This poem is easy to see as a pair with another we’ve presented here, a poem by Robert Frost, “Mowing.”  Here’s a link to the text of Toomer’s “Reapers,”  and here’s a link to the text of Frost’s poem. In Frost’s poem, the reaper with the hand-swung whispering scythe scares another animal, a plausibly Edenic snake. Toomer’s rat is not so lucky. Did Frost’s reaper, working like the scythe wielders in the first half of Toomer’s poem, stop their motion and take their poet’s eye, recorder, and projector to the escaping snake? In Toomer’s further observation he asks us to see and hear the horses and more directly the machinery of the mechanical mower that has no such observation, and the horse’s driver is intent on operating them, not the work itself. They do not stop, it’s not their design, they continue, cutting, blood-stained.

I will not write a post here about systematic racism. It’s a term with some value of conciseness, and from that, the easiness of easy rejection or restatement. The term has one mooted objection for example: that it’s not even racism — which to any extent that’s true doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse. Ethnic prejudices leading to evil acts are as old as recorded history, likely as old as the first bone scythes and then metal, beaten, plowshares — but Toomer’s poem asks us to watch its successor: a colder mechanized blade of efficient expectations and ways of doing.

A player gadget to hear my performance of Toomer’s “Reapers”  in my modest acoustic guitar setting may appear below. If you don’t see a player, this highlighted hyperlink will open a tab or window to play it too.

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*My father, born around the time of Cane, late in his life wanted to make clear to me that he’d driven horse-drawn farm machinery in his youth. He did this late enough in my own life that I heard him, and thought, and think, about what he was trying to present to me in that.

Mowing, and the Meaning of Work

This Monday is American Labor Day, so here’s a poem about work from Robert Frost: “Mowing.”   Like a lot of Frost’s early poetry it’s an example of words that want to sing, and so I’ll sing them today. Also like a lot of Frost’s best poetry it seems simpler than it means. It doesn’t scare the reader or listener away with its surface, but if you really stop to ask why it says exactly what it says, a more complex and subtle work emerges. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem if you want to follow along.

The Scythers by NC Wyeth

That about scythe’s it up. NC Wyeth’s “The Scythers”

 

On first reading this poem is a description of mundane work, mowing a field with the time-honored hand tool: the scythe. How old is that tool? It goes back to the pre-historic days of agriculture, to the making of the first blades for that, and then for the battles over that. It was still in use in Frost’s youth, in the late 19th century. And in the house I grew up in, in the mid-20th century in Iowa, in the crook of a tree in the big back yard there was a scythe caught there, high above my head, stored, captured, put away until it seemed as natural as any other part of the tree.

So, the poet or his speaker counterpart is mowing with a scythe. And since that poet is Frost, we get sound imagery regarding that work. The Imagists contemporary with Frost didn’t require their images be visual, but as a practice they strongly preferred them to be. Frost, on the other hand was the audio guy, not the word painter. The scythe as it swings and cuts, punningly sighs, but Frost has it as a whisper. About this, the poet is curious: if it’s whispering, what’s the scythe (and by extension, the work the man and tool are doing) saying?


The maker of this video on Frost’s poem demonstrates the sound

 

Frost’s poet says he doesn’t know. Interestingly he speculates it might be talking about the heat of the workday, and the phrase he uses “The heat of the sun” may well be reminding him of a poem from Shakespeare we recently featured here: “Fear No More.”   Shakespeare’s poem and the connection with the scythe has with the “grim reaper” brings in an overtone of death.

And then he speculates it may be about why  it’s whispering, why it’s not speaking something out-loud and plain.

Next the poem moves on to the realness of work inherited from its physicality. It’s not a dream or imagination without consequence. And it’s not some fairy story. Gussying it up with such trappings or comparing it to mental work with no embodiment would be enervating it. The poet instead calls this work “earnest love.*” This isn’t some secret crush, even with the whispers and all, this is actually sweaty stuff.

Frost then drops one of his better-known mottos: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” That line is end-stopped with a period, and set off that way it’s a statement that real work on real things is superior to mere fancy. But this is Labor Day, so I performed it as if there’s a colon after “The fact is” and that its meaning carries on through the period and into the last line. The sweet dream then is the scythe whispering and the concluding matter of the hay.

What is the scythe whispering?

Because after all, there’s an unanswered question from the poems opening. What is the scythe whispering? It’s something intimate it wants to say, that good work  says, but doesn’t say. It says it is—paid or unpaid, self-employed or employed, the labor of a poet or of a farmer, done grudgingly or with joy, appreciated or overlooked—it says it is done with love. Not the magic love, not the imagined love. The earnest love.

Happy Labor Day to the readers and listeners here. Wishing you good work and earnest love.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Robert Frost’s “Mowing”  is below.

 

 

 

 

*This section of the poem, lines 10 through 12 in this unusual sonnet, is the most mysterious. I had to perform it before I could figure it out. There may be an overtone here (something that English folksong often made a practice of) of farm work being used as a metaphor for sexual lovemaking. There are snakes, flowers, and then named flowers that are “orchises” which are a genus of flowering plants and also etymologically testicles. Frost made a choice for what flowers he names, and his poet/scyther could have scared off a field mouse or chipmunk not a snake.

On the other hand, he may be just saying that like all artists his work will fail, some flowers get scythed. And the snake could be a Garden of Eden thing.

Or the flowers and snakes may be the beauty and the evil of what we do, that the Grim Reaper scythe will cut off.

Mark Twain Tonight in an Iowa Library

Reader Benjamin David Steele remarked this month that he didn’t know I was from Iowa. It’s true, I don’t talk often about being from somewhere, part of my goal of not talking directly about myself as much as many successful blogs do.

Perhaps that’s my contrary streak. Yet if one has that trait, it may be that it can change direction on itself and careen 180 miles an hour the other way. Here’s something I was going to include as an aside in one of the two Mark Twain pieces preceding this one, but it was too long to be that.

Twain’s books weren’t all I thought of when I performed those Twain pieces ribbing poetry and poets this month. I thought of Hal Holbrook, who liked to say that he played Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens did, and I also would think of a beautiful, silent library—but to get to those places I need to think first of my father.

My father had no straightforward vocational life, much like the one I later had. If one thinks of the midcentury male American life as the one-job man during those decades, you may be demographically informed, but wrong about him. He set out to be a Protestant minister, as his father and one of his brothers had been. He changed his mind, ran the third grocery store in a tiny town (didn’t work out), worked on a loading dock, and then took a job driving a bread-truck delivery route between the many little towns in my section of Iowa. The workday was long, the trucks leaving from a barn on the outskirts of the county seat 30 miles away at dawn, driving there on the tractor-putting two lanes and repurposed stagecoach routes. In the afternoon on his route, he’d come through my hometown supplying the two grocery stores that still remained on the one-block main street. In the summer, I could arrange to ride along with him, sitting on the bare treadplate step to the right of the only seat, the driver’s, in his bread van as we’d both leave off for another small town. Behind his driver’s seat and my sideways crouch, the entire back of the box truck was filled with sliding wire racks to be filled and then emptied of loaves, buns, dessert bread products, and doughnuts. Between us, a doghouse cover for the truck’s engine and the long shift lever. My dad had a small transistor radio on a ledge near the windshield which, if there wasn’t an afternoon baseball game, was tuned to a country and western station—but there was music in the truck too, a thrum from the engine between us and an ostinato chiming from all those metal racks behind us.

We talked some, but it was mostly these loud musics and the everyday weight of the afternoons.

I sometimes wonder now if I’m recalling that sound when I play a Telecaster with its bridge pickup that can chime and clangor moreso than any other electric guitar: that sound of 1960 country music combined with those metal racks, all jumping like yapping puppies on their ledges as we traveled over the rural roads.

In each town, a store or two, the bread from trays transferred onto shelves, a few commercial words and small talk with the store owner, and back to the truck and eventually back to the county seat and the bread company’s office and truck barn. There my dad would unload the retrieved old bread and do by hand a series of books on the day’s commerce, something that took about an hour.

I watched this once or twice from my adolescent what’s-this-got-to-do-with-me nonchalance. Most days I had a more desired way to spend this hour.

The county seat had two things our smaller town didn’t have, a hobby store that is another story, and a library multiple times the size of the small one in my hometown. I could be dropped off within walking distance of either while my father did his end-of-day business.

The Kendall Young Library had all the things you’d find in most larger libraries then: multiple levels with steep stairs, the Dewey Decimal System arrangement, a card catalog, newspapers threaded onto majestic wooden rods as if daily Torah scrolls, a quiet and light somehow better than any other quiet and light: a romantic, forest of books light, a quiet of words.

My mother had worked out how to get books by mail from a statewide library system, and that kept me largely supplied throughout my childhood, but there’s a something difference in being in the presence of books and their specific possibilities. History was my main passion then, so that if some of these books in the library were old,* that was no drawback.

On one day there, I may have collected some books more quickly than usual, and I wanted to see what else was in this place. At one side of the largest room there were a couple of record players, a selection of records, and headphones.  I don’t know if it was the records or the headphones that caught my eye first. That records could exist in library-sized collections was a marvel, but headphones signified exotic hi-fi technology, though they were more likely only an accommodation to the word-quiet of the library.

One of the LPs that was there was the 1959 “original cast recording” of Mark Twain Tonight,  a one-man Broadway show in which the young actor Hal Holbrook in aged makeup played the 70 year old Mark Twain giving one of his turn of the century stage talks.

Holbrook continued to ride that act’s horse until he was playing a man more than a decade younger than he had become.**  I was about to find out why it worked so well. I put on the record and enclosed my head in the ‘phones.

Holbrook’s script (such as it was, he always worked from a surplus of Twain material, not a fixed text) was a master of the seamless excerpt. His Twain at first seemed for a moment frail, you wondered if he was going to falter, but the dry jokes were moistened as he worked the timing with an invisible stage cigar on the recording.***  Twain may have been a historical or literary figure, but the first 20 minutes had as much funny skewering of various hypocrisies for me as a contemporary issue of Mad  magazine. But along about the middle of the record, things got quite a bit darker. I’d gotten to the second side and a withering compression of the situation of Jim, the escaped slave thrown together with the runaway Huck, each escaping exploitation, when the hour or so expired and I needed to join my father for the ride home. My head came out from between the cups of the headphones, but I’d been inside part of Twain’s book. Huck and Jim couldn’t go home. I had to, and could.

That was my mother’s and father’s doing—both that I could take this journey that could stop at this library, but also that I had a home to return to. I rode home with my father, he was wearing his checkerboard shirt woven to match the printing on the wraps around the loaves of bread.

Kendall Young Library views

Period and 21st century views of the Kendall Young Library. How could I not have seen that skylight?

 

I did two things to check against this memory today. I re-listened to what may be the same recording I heard that day in the library, this time on Spotify. I found it much as I remembered it, which compliments the impressiveness of Holbrook’s performance. And I looked online for pictures of the Kendall Young Library. Here my memory got an adjustment. I recall, yes, that it was a fancy building, but the pictures reveal a beau-arts building more exquisite than I remembered. I was most shocked to see that it has a domed stained-glass skylight, something that no doubt helped with that light I recalled, but that I’d never noticed then with my head in books and sound.

No audio piece today, but thanks for reading.

 

*The old books were likely less old that I am today. I know I enjoyed books there from the 1920s through the 40s, which seemed like centuries ago then. Perhaps a teenager today with a City Lights chapbook or a Beatles LP considers those too archaeological finds from a stratum nearer the pyramids than their weekly life.

**I wonder, how did the makeup have to change from the 34 year old portraying Twain at 70 to the 80 plus old Holbrook doing the same.

***In preparing for what would be his most durable role, Holbrook wanted to know about how Twain himself performed. He has said that he had access to a recording made by an actor-impressionist friend of Twain doing his imitation of Twain in 1934 which is the only recorded clue extant. For visual business, there was also a silent Thomas Edison film of the 70-year-old Twain. Though Twain died in 1910, it’s not far-fetched that we might have had recordings of him. He was fascinated by technology and was known to have used recording devices, as well as having known men like Edison who made them.