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.

This Machine…

I know, I know. Some come to blogs like mine as a break from politics. Carl Sandburg used to mollify the editors of Poetry  magazine who wondered about the encroachment of his politics into his Imagist poetry by suggesting that no, he was a poet, an artist—and if a little politics snuck in from time to time, well he couldn’t help it being that it was part of him.

Well, he was a poet, but maybe he didn’t want Poetry  to know about the radical writing he was doing for the IWW at the same time he was writing his tight Modernist observations of our working life and living.

Woody Guthrie, who we might think of as the pluperfect tense of a protest singer, once said that anything that is human is anti-fascist, which would make a great deal of poetry into a political act, though I think he has to draw a rather gerrymandered line around the borders of human.

Many on the right find the continued use of racist and fascist as terms of approbation too broad a brush. I’d like to agree with them. I like exact words myself. I find in tired worn-out words a point of sadness, a heaviness in absence, a missed opportunity. But then sadness, oppression, and missed opportunities are not just dreary words I can discard for fresher ones, they are remaining realities.

Trump sucks the oxygen from a room, leaving only in the remaining vacuum assent or protest—but both of those are in an airless room.  I post this photo I happened upon this morning because some of you will find enough air to laugh*  and get some momentary relief from it.

There's no I in

Listen up team, there should be no “I” in “fascist.”

 

Will there be a few that won’t get the joke? Well that’s what I’m here for! The story I heard was that Woody Guthrie saw a sign in a war materials factory during WWII, and appropriated it for his guitar. I like that origin story, because it reminds me that my job as an artist is to get my work done, even though we’re in an emergency or emergencies—perhaps best to do it because we’re in an emergency.

This Machine

Woody Guthrie in the upper left, inspire and inspired, “The workers in song” moving clockwise from Guthrie: Pete Seeger, Tom Morello, the fighting typist, Carl Sandburg (with my suggested machine sign), and two unidentified war-factory workers from WWII.

 

Those two women riveting an aircraft part in the collage above? That’s a very real part of a victorious war machine. Maybe they would also be part of the Seattle village helping raise war-baby Jimi Hendrix, an artist who made imaginary things. What does something imaginary have to do with winning a battle?**  Every struggle, every war, is fought for things invisible as well as real. All progress is moving toward the invisible, like a future humanity that has moved beyond fascism and racism.

No new audio piece today, but of course there are hundreds of them to peruse here as part of the Parlando Project. Here’s one of them by Sandburg about work that you can hear with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*More joke explanation. Right now in the U. S. there is a frank and acknowledged effort to reduce voting by mail during the current pandemic. The hope among those in the current administration and Senate is that this might not increase the right voters but it could exclude more of the wrong ones. This assumes that potential right or wrong voters won’t get mad about this.

**As to imaginary things in service of the war effort, I found this article and picture of an elaborate disguise built on the roof top of the Boeing plant the article dates to WWII.  I have my doubts, the architecture and the long station-wagon dummy behind the security guard look post-war to me.

The Workman’s Dream

Well, here’s an odd choice for a new Parlando Project audio piece: today’s song has lyrics from British-American poet Edgar Guest. It’s likely that you either know who Edgar Guest is, or you don’t. And if you do, you may be older than me, which is a rapidly declining Internet demographic, as most providers refuse to offer service across the river Lethe.*

Famous American wit Dorothy Parker wanted to help you remember—sort of—Wikipedia reminds us that she once poetically needled him: “I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test than read a poem by Edgar Guest.” But now, folks may not remember Wasserman tests either. Wit has a short shelf-life I guess.

Edgar Guest was a public poet in a way that is unimaginable today. He had a newspaper column, a nationwide radio show; and ordinary, non-academic folks clipped and memorized his poetry in the first half of the 20th century. What did academic folks think of his poetry? Well, Parker nailed it.

Edgar Guest rocks the mic

Radio. It was a kind of wireless podcasting useful before YouTube.

 

His poetry is often folk-humor related, and his style isn’t always very elegant: doggerel. But unlike poets whose work is always with humorous intent, some Guest poems, like today’s, are meant to make a serious point, often in a sentimental way. While there’s no common objective criteria for “good poetry” it’s still safe to say that almost anyone who would have some criteria to evaluate poetry would agree that Guest wrote bad poetry—or at best, not very good poetry.

So, what am I doing, following up some posts featuring a poet like Yeats, who has both a popular audience and a rightful place as one of the most graceful lyric poets in the English language, with Edgar Guest?   Well, it’s my opinion that “bad poetry” or poetry that has intents and methods that are not in alignment with academic critical modes, may still have some value, some reason to exist. I don’t think this is a common belief, which is somewhat odd. While there are elements of theoretical snobbery in other arts, fans of serious novels may still like a quick plebian mystery series, cinephiles may enjoy an occasional piece of mass entertainment, jazz purists or avant garde composers may have surprisingly impure playlists—but serious poetry authorities tend to view not-great poetry as a Gresham’s law issue for their endangered art form.

I went looking for a Father’s Day text in the public domain and came upon this one. What struck me about it? Well, you and I may agree it’s sentimental, but it wears its working-class heart on its blue-color sleeve. Better Modernist poems have been written on this poem’s subject (Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”  for one)— but most of those are not available for my use today. And it’s not like poems about the world of work are all that common in Modernist lit. Instead, there are many poems about domestic life, lots about the human condition in general, erotic poems of love, visionary texts about the psychic borderlands, poems of scenic trips and museum pieces, poems about parenthood in its physical intimacy, and poems about economic and political injustice—but even the later are often absent the actual world and obligations of work.

Isn’t that odd? It’s as if poets are embarrassed to give evidence of their “day gigs.” Do we secretly expect that we are all still Lord Byron, with an inherited endowment? If we are any good should we be swinging from grant to grant, or have agents digging up the biggest returns as if we were rim protectors who can create our own shot while being a threat to sink the three from anywhere outside the arc? If we are serious, should we be beyond all that non-artistic, non-academic work?

Perhaps there are other reasons for this relative absence of the subject of ordinary work—and there are exceptions  in modern poetry—but even if we were to become one of those making a living with our pen or our mental flights alone, somewhere in our heritage we may have someone like the subject of Guest’s poem. I know I do. And from my age, from my era, I’ve even had the experience of being “the breadwinner” more than once in my life, the one working in a household and bringing in the outside income, while others do unpaid work.

This is no longer a gendered situation in our culture, but in my father’s generation this was the father’s prime job: the  job. Maybe for you this was another generation or even two generations back—we may have had forefathers. A lot of you had two parents doing “the job” (and yes, the unequal, unpaid woman’s work too) or one parent doing it all, or the most of the all.

That said, “It’s Father’s Day and everybody’s wounded.”**  This one goes out to those who didn’t get the service ribbons or the purple heart, who clocked in so we could write about time. In my case, they’re all gone now, but as Guest writes, I’ll sing “Out of this place of dirt and dust.”

The Workmans Dream

In the Broadside tradition, here are my chords for the song version I composed. I played it with a capo at the 1st fret, so the recording is in F minor. My piano, vibraphone and cello parts are simple: fifths, octaves and roots.

The player to hear my performance of the song is below.

 

 

*They say it has something to do with dog attacks on their installers, three-headed dogs at that.

**Leonard Cohen. For six minutes of REM performing “First We Take Manhattan”  see this link.

The Testimony of Harmonica Frank Floyd

I promised a return of Dave Moore earlier this month, and here he is, presenting a story that frames itself three ways. In today’s piece Dave reads a short passage from Greil Marcus’ 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock’n’Roll Music,  which in turn includes this story 20th century musician Frank Floyd told about himself. Marcus uses the not-quite-a-footnote career of “Harmonica Frank” to outline a grand story of American music forming itself from disparate sources, and Dave’s selection focuses on something particularly disparate and desperate in Floyd’s story, the diversity of work musical and otherwise that Floyd knitted together into a life. That litany of Floyd’s gigs is the coat of arms on the flag of “The old weird America” that Marcus’ famously invoked.


Beside the trick of playing harmonica like it was some stogie, all the while singing, Floyd would play two at once using both his nostrils and his mouth. Getting attention in those old weird America gigs wasn’t easy.

 

Way back early in this blog I had some fun with how my reading of Marcus’ conception had me misinterpreting a song my like-named great-grandfather had reportedly liked. And so, let’s not take Floyd’s claim to have invented rock’n’roll too comprehensively—America invented rock’n’roll out of its own needs and resources, which is essentially Marcus’ over-arching thesis in his seminal book.

I’m over half-way in watching Ken Burns’ Country Music  16-hour documentary series. I’ve got a few hours left to go, so please no spoilers, I don’t want to know how it comes out. It has drawn some criticism for being an overview with Burns’ characteristic trope of excerpting some figures to represent the greater points and leaving out or footnoting others. I suppose the later problem is inevitable but will also always be a fertile ground for argument, and the former, the survey course pacing that keeps moving forward with short excerpts of songs and talking heads (and yes, those won’t stay still pictures’), is something I’ve come to accept with anything that tries to tell a more than century-long story.*  We currently live in a world where much of the once rare and physically bound-up resources of our history, our cultural histories told by example, are widely available, constrained only by time and our levels of interest. Overviews, just as pieces about obscure figures, can inspire one to use those resources to find out more.

Decades ago, when the Internet was still young and more text-based, I was enormously frustrated by Burns’ similarly-scoped Jazz.  Some rare film clip or unheard recording would play for 10 or 15 seconds, and then a talking head would be cut to, telling us how important this one was, how we should pay attention to it, while the filmmaker was doing exactly the opposite.

Country Music  does exactly the same thing, but in a great many cases the whole thing is available fairly easily now. And in the middle episodes, where the “Country and Western” era played out for 20 years or so, I hear the music of part of my father’s life, one of the gigs he knitted together to make a living. I hear the songs that would play on his transistor radio sitting on the metal dash of his bread van, racks now empty and rattling after tray after tray of loaves had been carried into small-town grocery stores via his drives over two-lane roads. Over that insistent chorus of bare-rack snare-taps, the steel guitars and keening vocals cut through readily where we never talked.

Burns’ doesn’t have to play the whole song for those. I know it and I don’t know it instantly.

Well, there I go, off onto something else, talking over consideration of Dave’s presentation of Harmonica Frank Floyd and the many gigs Floyd did while trying to do his “something different,” songs and earn his daily bread. I think you’ll find Dave does a nice job of presenting Floyd’s story. The player to hear him tell it is below.

 

 

 

 

*You can’t win department: the criticism that you didn’t include everybody is the opposite side of you didn’t go deep enough on any one thing. As long as you accept that there’s some value in these survey-course/overviews then you are committed to not delving the depths on a particular issue, style, or person. Of course some get left out, just as the canon of poetry leaves some out—but as we do here with some of our pieces over the years, as Marcus’ did by including the obscure figure of Harmonica Frank, as to some degree Burns did by including another harmonica player: DeFord Bailey in his survey, that should just inspire other, corrective and extending work.

A Misplaced Landmark in Modernist Poetry Part 1

Readers here know I have an affinity for the lesser-known, the forgotten, the underpraised participants in the Modernist movement. In any historical or literary period, there have to be some that are overlooked. Why? Geographic, gender, racial prejudice? Bad luck or spotty publishing history? Yes, all those can play a role.

But today’s case is a weird one. He’s a white guy and not obscure, his breakthrough masterpiece sold well the year it was published and then for decades afterward. The early American Modernists praised it, recognized it as a Modernist work. There’s circumstantial evidence that it could have even influenced them when they produced their now esteemed breakthrough masterpieces.

Yet, it’s largely left out of the cannon today, and as such it’s also left out of the short histories of the emergence of English language Modernist poetry. One way to focus that story is to point to the publication in 1922 of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  as the moment in which everyone had to stop and take notice of this new poetry.

Let me roughly state some things that were remarkable about this landmark work.

It was episodic. A longer poem, it was made up of shorter poems, retaining the compression of short lyrics while telling a larger, multivalent story. Characters drifted in and out.

It was written in free verse. It didn’t rhyme, it didn’t use a strict and unvarying meter, while still making use of the other tactics of poetry. Since this was still somewhat novel, the sound and form could take off from and seem to readers like a non-rhyming translation of poetry from a foreign language, even an old language like Latin, Greek, or Hebrew.

It’s highly skeptical and iconoclastic about modern society. War and business was corrupt, humanity shortsighted. Dialog was often in deadpan with an emphasis on the first syllable, as if spoken by ghosts.

There’s an anachronistic, satiric element to some of the talk too. Everyday people of the current era may speak at times in the form of older literature, and we’re meant to note this as strangely halfway between a sense that time has not changed humankind and it’s eternal problems, and a sense that modern folk are not really as noble as the classical fore bearers.

Though written by a man, women’s voices and a woman’s viewpoint are prominently given a place in the work.

Love and sex was not a balm in this world. In fact, partners are invariably at odds, yet often still yoked together somewhere between torment and ennui. So degraded is the sexual politics and power in this account, that rape is a crucial trope, with references to Ovid’s mythic tale of Tereus rape of Philomela serving as a talisman.

Endurance is still celebrated; one must suffer but keep on, even if it be in vain. Music, yes even popular or folk tunes, may help make this more bearable.

Oh, I may have confused you! I’m not speaking about Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  I’m talking about this popular yet now misplaced Modernist breakthrough: The Spoon River Anthology  by Edgar Lee Masters. I’m going to talk more about it and present a few pieces from it in the Parlando Project manner, but before we end today with a piece from Spoon River,  here’s something that never was impressed on me as I learned about American literature, and in particular Modernist English poetry: “The Spoon River Anthology”  was largely written in 1913-1914 and published in 1915. Eliot was writing “Prufrock”  then, but it had not been published. Pound was making his transition from poetry as we presented here in our “Before they were Modernists” series into Imagism, with the first publications his new style in the U.S. in 1913. My personal favorite, Carl Sandburg was starting to write in this new compressed style with a cache of poems published in Poetry magazine in 1914.  Others,  Alfred Kreymborg and William Carlos Williams’ East-Coast-based and more avant garde journal of new verse is yet to come, it began in the middle of 1915. Franz Ferdinand is an obscure central-European duke who has yet to lend a name to a successful Scottish post-punk band.

Edgar Lee Masters

It’s been a quiet week in Spoon River, not so many rapes, murders, and early deaths as usual: Edgar Lee Masters

 

How much of this new verse style had Edgar Lee Masters read and how much of his style was he independently inventing and discovering from the 19th century’s Whitman (or Stephen Crane) and even older classical sources? Given that both Masters and Sandburg were present in Chicago and developing a similar sound for their free verse (while differing in sensibility) at the same time, it’s possible that there was a cross-influence there. One thing this timeline makes clear: The Spoon River Anthology  was not some later attempt to popularize or adopt the revolution of Modernist English language poetry to tell a Midwestern story, it’s created roughly at year zero.

The Spoon River Anthology  presents itself as a series of epitaphs for dead residents of Midwestern town like the one Masters grew up in, some short enough to be carved on a burial monument, others bending the form a bit into short monologs spoken by the dead. The lifetimes of the speaking dead vary and overlap but appear to be from two to three decades before the American Civil war until the early 20th century.

For an initial subject I’ll take one of the sons of the initial settlers,* who tells us he got 40 farm acres as his inheritance, and who sums his life and aims up in a few lines. His name was Cooney Potter.

The player to hear my performance of his Spoon River tale is below. For those of you that have waited for me to drop the synths, we’re back to acoustic instruments today: guitar, piano and tambura.

 

 

*Well, hmm, yes there were those other folks, the ones who lived there before.  Even though the Black Hawk War of 1832 between some indigenous peoples and these settlers and their government was fought in the Midwest during the times of this settlement, I don’t recall it or the Native Americans being addressed in Spoon River, though the 1861-1865 American Civil war fought by two factions of the settler government is significantly mentioned.

Ollendorf’s Wife

I’m going to do something this time that I’ve done before but is rarely done.

I’m going to revise someone else’s poem without their permission—which I would feel bound to obtain, but the author Orrick Johns is long dead. The last time I did this, it was Rupert Brooke’s work I used, and my excuse was that his fragment that I presented here as On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli”  was likely an early draft left unpolished due to Brooke’s death.

Orrick Johns published “Ollendorf’s Wife”  in his first book-length 1917 collection Asphalt and Other Poems.  There’s little online to help me make sense of Johns’ life, but it’s probable that Asphalt and Other Poems  collected early work Johns had written in his twenties. While most of the poems are short lyrics, Johns works there in several styles. The poems are rhymed, not the free verse of “Blue Undershirts”  that made such an impression on William Carlos Williams. The opening section, “Asphalt” is an odd set of doggerel poems in dialect. I have trouble reading dialect poems, and from my vantage point as a mid-20th century man I can’t make out what ethnicity Johns is representing in these poems. There’s a lot of dropped consonants and dere’s, dem’s and de’s. I assume these poems are intended to be proletarian poetry and demonstrate John’s solidarity.

Another section “The City”  has other poems dealing with social issues of the day, but without the distraction of dialect. It includes one of the book’s longer poems, “Second Avenue,”  infamous in its moment of possible fame for being the poem that beat out Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence”  in The Lyric Year’s  poetry contest.

Almost nothing in Asphalt and Other Poems  grabbed me. Nothing passed the Emily Dickinson test, there was no spectral cold and the top of my head remained attached throughout. While it was trying to depict its modern world, the music was awkward for me, with some forced poetic diction and conventional sentiments that made it more similar to Margaret Widdemer than Millay or Sara Teasdale, contemporaries that were writing prize-winning short rhymed lyrics at the same time as Johns. Like Widdemer, and unlike Millay or Teasdale, the poetry in this book of Orrick John’s is understandably forgotten.

There was one poem in a section titled “Country Rhymes”  that did seem to have a germ of something though.

Ollendorfs Wife 1 Page final

Johns’ poem as it appeared in “Asphalt and Other Poems”

 

Like T. S. Eliot, Johns grew up in St. Louis, but unlike Eliot he stayed in the Midwest for college. The “Country Rhymes”  section reflects that longer experience, and nowhere better than in “Ollendorf’s Wife.”  First off, the poem is generally free verse, with uneven line lengths and sparse rhymes. And it has some vivid images. Ollendorf’s wife significantly has no name of her own in the poem. She works her farm plot assiduously, with no love showing in her face, but also as if it’s her last child. How many children, like her name, go significantly unmentioned? The fields she works, and the farm wife are “drawn together” by a “knowledge…greater” than “each other’s best.”

At its core, this poem works by the things it leaves out, fulfilling Hemmingway’s Modernist theory that you can remove the most important things in a story correctly, and by doing so depict them all the more intensely.

So out of care for “Ollendorf’s Wife,”  I revised it, intensifying that paring away of the unneeded, leaving only the cutout cameo around the farm-wife’s charged day in a life. I added nothing really, but took away words that restated something otherwise established, and rewrote lines aiming to make connections stronger. I made one additional repeat of the “day after day” phrase, because there the repetition is  the image. Though I intended to perform my revision, I generally wasn’t thinking of making the poem more “sing-able” as I changed things, but I suspect that factor worked its way in as well.

Ollendorfs Wife revised

Here’s my revised version of Orrick John’s poem

 

As I said at the beginning, this is not something that is commonly done. There are poems that use the subscript of “after a poem by…” but those poems that are revised and re-voiced are usually much older or in a different language than the new version. Obviously, such an act could fail as well as succeed. You are the judge in this case. The gadget to hear my performance of my revised version of Orrick John’s “Ollendorf’s Wife” is below.

 

Smoke and Steel

Today is May Day, the international labor day, so I spent it working, looking through poetry books for something about our lives of work. There’s less there than there should be I think, the world of work somehow not seeming as poetic as human love and desire or as sublime as the observation of nature and things of the spirit without any human sweat in it.

This lack leads me to admire poets who address this imbalance. And the first one that came to my mind turned out to be the one I ended up using today: Carl Sandburg. That Sandburg might come to mind for others too as a poet of labor probably didn’t help his reputation at the start of our current century. He doesn’t come by that classification lightly, having had a career as an itinerate worker and labor organizer before he began as a poet, and even while he was publishing groundbreaking works of early American Modernist poetry like his Chicago Poems  in 1917, he had a second, less well-known life as a Socialist radical.

Carl Sandburg at work

Carl clocking in in his later years when his day job was goat farmer

 

Somehow Sandburg survived both the post WWI and post WWII red scares without great harm to his reputation, but by late in the 20th century there was less interest in Modernists who wanted to write about work and labor issues. The bohemian fringe more or less looked at straight work as an unfortunate event*, and the academic establishment was more interested in aesthetic rigor and the ability to carry lightly evidence of a full-fledged college education for its poets.

Proletarian writing had been done already. Time to move on.

As I keep reminding you and myself, our current century is now old enough to vote, it’s approaching adulthood. It might want to re-evaluate those judgements the old century made about its youthful innovators.

So, for today, May Day, I took the opening to Sandburg’s longer poem that gave its name to his 1920 collection Smoke and Steel and turned it into a labor hymn. “By this sign all smokes know each other.”

The player gadget to hear it is below. If you want to read the whole poem, or just read along to the opening section I used, the full text is here.

 

 

 

*as leading beat-generation scholar and theorist, Maynard G. Krebs put it in his famous essay “On Work, An Existential Examination” “Work!?”

The Story of Dave Moore and the Lake Street Review

Did I skip over Dave Moore the poet and writer to get to Dave Moore the words and music guy? Perhaps. Let’s step back away from the 1980s and recap a bit in word-print silence, without any musical noises at the beginning.

I met Dave almost exactly 50 years ago in 1968. And my first encounter found him reading his poetry in a church. He was also publishing what would have been called an “underground newspaper” in those days, an occasional Ditto-machine-printed* dozen pages or so of social, political and cultural comment, which I eventually contributed to. 1968 was a fabled year, like unto 1989 or perhaps some year coming soon in our current folly, full of momentous and contentious events. Odd as it may seem, it felt important to engage with them on paper, even for a small audience.

Dave left for Wisconsin to continue college, I ended up in New York to not. We didn’t see each other for over five years.

When I decided to cover Bob Dylan in reverse, and left New York for Minnesota in 1976, I ended up staying with Dave for a while and helping him work on rehabbing a run-down house he was living in. Dave had hooked up with a group of writers, the Lake Street Writers Group, all of whom lived a few blocks from that central east-west commercial/industrial strip in Minneapolis. As a group it was an unusual mix, including bartenders and low-paid workers, most with some college under their belts, but now in their mid-20s trying to figure out what to do with life that didn’t formally give college credits. These experiences gave the group something of a blue-collar, we’ll earn our cultural worth, not be awarded it, air that I liked. I too joined in the group.

Ditto machine Ad

The Revolution Will Not Be Duplicated…for less than 1/4 cent a copy! Just think, I could run off a few pages of this blog and have them in mailboxes by the morning!

Besides the usual get-together/critique/talk thing that writers’ groups have done forever, the Lake Street Writers Group ran a little magazine, The Lake Street Review. The first two bootstrap issues were printed on Dave’s Ditto machine, the magazine’s post office box was Dave’s too, and Dave was co-editor in the beginning along with the founding spirit of the enterprise, poet Kevin FitzPatrick.**

I asked Dave what poetry he remembered writing or publishing from this era today, and he reminded me that in the mid ‘70s he was concentrating more on stories. “Oh,” he recalled, “There was a song ‘Ballad of Mr. Lake Street vs. Mr. Id’  in the Lake Street Review.” That piece of Dada was attributed to John Lee Svenska in print, but it would have predated his work with Fine Art or the LYL Band by several years.

What would you get if you combined blue-collar with Dada? One answer would be some of the first songs Dave wrote for the LYL Band. Yesterday’s “Evil Man”  would be one example, the man in the title morphing from childhood bully to sociopathic businessman to stickup man. You could see this as a new expression of the notable Woody Guthrie line about “Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen,” but by having the evil man fade in and out of these equivalented roles from verse to verse, the Dada this-beside-this comparison is made. In today’s piece, Dave’s early ‘80s song “The Night Inspector,”  the Ubu Roi rides a fork-lift in a factory. To give you some relief from the audio quality of the archival recordings from the early ‘80s, this performance is a later one where I sing Dave’s song with acoustic guitar. Go go Night Inspector (player) Gadget…

*I’m reminded that Fugs’ founder Ed Sanders was able to raise his ruckus in the ‘60s Greenwich Village scene at first by being the owner of a similar machine on which he printed his own little magazine and flyers. Ditto machines were better than Mimeograph machines. Mimeo machines printed in purple and their printed pages stank of that can’t-be-healthy-for-you volatile ink that is probably responsible for some of you getting lower mid-century grades than your parents expected on school tests. Ditto machines produced pages that looked more like “real” printed work with dark black text.

**Kevin FitzPatrick has continued to write poetry dealing with this milieu for his entire career, including a great number of poems, too rare in our culture, that deal with the complexity of day to day work as an employee. Here’s a link that will let you read part of his introduction to some selected poems of his, where Kevin talks about the life experience from this Lake Street Review era that helped inform his poems.

The Temple of Summer

I spent Saturday riding my bicycle on the Mesabi Trail and visiting Hibbing, the Minnesota Iron Range hometown where Bob Dylan grew up non-ferrous.

To the visitor, the landscape there has a strangeness. Since the late 19th Century, open pit iron mining has been the industry of the region. An open pit mine is not the kind of underground tunneling and mole-dark pick-axe work you might visualize when you hear the word “mine.” Instead it is the removal of cubic miles of earth with explosives and huge shovels, work my wife describes as “making your own Grand Canyon.” The iron gives exposed rock and dirt a Martian red hue, and this colossal earthwork of generations of open pit mines has added extra hills, ridges, gorges, and small lakes. Though trees and brush eventually regrow and give these acts of men something of the appearance of nature, some hills retain the terraces where the trucks drove, giant Northern ziggurats or Mayan temples, now sprouted with pines—the Hanging Gardens of Bob Dylan.

postcard mesabi iron range

“Making your own Grand Canyon”

 

Since Bob Dylan grew up here, the strangeness of this landscape may not have impressed him in his youth, but an adulthood away might have eventually revealed its uniqueness. It is a singular place on a Labor Day weekend where one can see the mark of daily labor sculpted in a giant tableau.

How many of us can say the same for our labors? Children are raised, daily cares are met, that meeting makes a decision, a sick person is comforted and will live another couple of decades, the number of widgets on the planet increases infinitesimally, a project that will impact things for a few years is completed. In contrast, in the land around Hibbing, Virginia, and Mountain Iron, vistas are forever altered to mark a work life.

Virginia MN Bridge view

A view from the highest bridge in Minnesota spanning part of a no longer active open pit mine now filled with water outside the town of Virginia. The landscape you are viewing is man-made, not a natural feature.

 

An artist’s work, for all the literary pretentions to immortality, is at least as ephemeral as other work. The work is finished, and the earth has not changed its face. The work is read, seen, heard by its handful, and it melds at best into a memory in some part of those.

So, punch a clock or not, these are the same jobs, the same work. The poem, the performance, the painting, no less, no more, the product effort of applied human energy as any other work.

Occasionally, someone gets to be a Bob Dylan, and the vistas change. Leonard Cohen said that giving Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain. I stood next to my bike on the state’s highest bridge spanning a man-made gorge and thought, maybe somehow, even subconsciously, this landscape gave Bob the idea.

Iron Range Truck

“Cruising down the highway in a Greyhound bus/All kinds of children they was hollerin’ at us…”

 

Today’s audio piece will not remind you of the Bard of Hibbing, as it is a fuzzy epitaph using Mellotron instead of giant earth-moving trucks to get its rocks off me. Here’s wishing all Parlando Project listeners a lanquid fall into the fluffiest possible snowbank. As you exit the Temple of Summer, listening to the music using the player below, I remind you that the Parlando Project appreciates your attention, but still needs listeners and readers. If you can, let others know what we’re doing here, and if you’re new to us, you may want to check out our archives with 250 other audio pieces combining various words with original music.