Here’s a short post presenting a short poem,performed now here as a short song. The poem is “Beehive” from Jean Toomer. If you meet the poem, as I did, first as a series of words on a screen, you might be drawn into it as a pretty lyric poem which leans into a poetic tactic: repetition. Three words get refrained heavily: silver, moon, and bees.
Of those, moon is the least surprising, for if one was to take all the poems ever written the moon would likely take a top spot in the category of celestial objects. Sure, the sun would give it a contest, stars indeterminate would be in the running too, but the added changeableness of the moon, and in English the longing of its doubled vowel sound, gives that word a poetic familiarity. Silver then comes along for the ride with moon, though it’s not the only color that is used to describe the moon in other poems. The final highly repeated word, bees, is more clearly a choice, not a convention.
Here’s Toomer’s poem as a chord-sheet for my musical performance.
I had fun during this year’s marathon Emily Dickinson reading typing a chat notice every time a bee appeared in a Dickinson poem, and my opportunities there were plenty — but Dickinson’s leitmotif choice can be easily explained: she had a great interest in plants and gardening, and so the busy pollinator could be like Blake or Rilke’s angels to her, an important object in her understanding of how things are signaled and accomplished. That’s how I understand Dickinson’s bee,* but Toomer’s choice to use bees six times (not counting associated words hive, comb, buzzing, drone, and swarm) in this 80-word poem is my task today.
If one wants to think about this poem in addition to enjoying its word-music and flow of images with their surface lushness, the bee here seems a clear image for labor. Toomer published this in his book Cane, which gives his impressions of southern American agricultural labor. Toomer himself was the child of an enslaved man. The laborers in his book from the Last Decade to be Called the Twenties, are part of a feudal arrangement that barely rises to the level of Capitalism, and that scheme is enmeshed with a blunt racial caste system. Because the book is set in the past it may be easier to see the sharp edges and crushing weight of such things for some of us — however much the haze of the present day occludes our present vision. The moon is silver, the color of coinage, this work is part of an economic system, the beehive. The speaker is a drone, a worker. The bees are portrayed as agricultural workers not poets (the pollination is of a “farmyard flower” not artistic flower-show candidates.) They appear alienated to the degree they’re thinking at all, yet our poem’s bee is unable to separate themselves from the hive, the swarm.
Does that reading damage the poem for you? I can imagine it might for some. “It was a pretty poem” might be a response to the above. And of course I could be wrong — poets themselves have told me I misread their poems. I’m not an expert on Toomer, I’m merely here exploring with you.
You can hear my musical performance of Jean Toomer’s “Beehive” with the player many will see below. Those who don’t see the player can use this backup highlighted link.
*Dickinson’s bee is most often singular from my casual memory. Toomer’s here in this poem is always plural, though the quiet quitter dreaming of lying on their back drunk with “lipping honey” seems a single drone’s desire.
Is it even possible to mention Stonehenge without risking the unbidden memories of the feet-to-inches comic debacle from Spinal Tap? Well, that’s one reason I’m a little hesitant to introduce today’s piece in our Halloween Series this year.
But still, I’ve been talking and singing about ghosts, ancestors, spirits, and their home fires a good deal, and I remembered this performance by the LYL Band of this song I wrote after visiting an altogether homier set of Neolithic English standing stones at Avebury several years back. I understand Stonehenge is fenced off, and that enforced distance probably does little to staunch the tales of quasi-Medieval druids with magical rites floating stones in the air. Avebury’s large henge basically had a country hamlet grow up inside it, there’s even a pub in the midst of the circle. You can walk right up to the stones, feel these cool earth-aerials, measure them against one’s own height and age. A walk around the Avebury henge is a good walk, and one may also look over the equally amazing earthen ditch-works that are part of the site. As you stroll a flock of official government sheep wander the grassy meadow keeping overgrowth at bay without internal combustion clatter. So at Avebury, as I was walking around all this, I did not think of druids. I thought of men and women who dug and moved that earth, dug and moved those stones, erected them watching over each other.
There are several rings in the henge at Avebury, and the stones are individual in shape and size, furthering the thoughts I had while visiting the site.
Did they have some chieftain or matriarch who planned and ordered its construction? Perhaps. What belief was being expressed in large rocks? Some likely, at least to the level that metaphor asks of us. But as I said, I thought of who did the work — the sweaty, hard-breathing, hand-callousing work. They worked stones with stones, dug with pickaxes made of antlers. At night in what huts did they sleep, on dried grass beds perhaps? And in that night they no doubt slept hard after their day of work, dreamt dreams harder than those of old poets who need only to move words around. If the energy of the earth and sky was transmitted up and down those big stone antennas, so too must the energy of their dreams be drawn in there. And I was there where they must have slept, dreaming under night breaths, their aches soothed by the rest. Dreaming of what? Children, parents, lovers, siblings, colleagues, whole days of rest, the mighty thing they would construct, a story, a prayer, a melody, the little joys of a meal or exactly good weather?
Not druid magic in my thoughts at Avebury, but I felt those dreams might be — no must be — harder than the dulling mutes of time. They sparked around in their heads, and when their heads became skulls and then dust, where is that spark, and can we read it still, tune it in? A belief, at least to the level of metaphor, felt we could. That’s the song.
Here’s the songsheet. If you ask for scenery to back your performance of this, get the measurements right.
The player many will see below will play “Avebury Song #2,” and if you don’t see it, you can use this alternative highlighted link. I hope to complete at least one more new Halloween piece to present here yet this month, though the moving pieces of my life doesn’t make that sure.
The Temple of Summer is guarded by two pillars:
Memorial Day for those who gave up their lives in war,
And Labor Day for those who gave up their lives in peacetime.
This Monday is American Labor Day.* What constitutes a laborer, a worker? Someone who works for someone else, who doesn’t own their own business? Are poets and musicians workers, or small businesspersons? These things are not simple — after all, that musician-derived term “the gig economy” shows that grants of independence can be superficial. Anyway, let me defer that discussion and say that poet and musician Carl Sandburg was a worker, knew he was a worker, and understood work. It should be no surprise that I’ve chosen to present three poems from his 1916 breakthrough collection, Chicago Poems for Labor Day — or for any working day if you read this later. They’re observed and written in the situation of their time, but let’s not dismiss their concerns and experiences as outdated this Labor Day — at least, not without hearing Sandburg out.
How many times, even today, when someone seeks to portray the working class, is a white male presupposed? Sandburg doesn’t make that mistake as his “Working Girls” will show. My wife, a nurse, came home this week concerned around a strike deadline, and it’s safe to say that women have carried proportionally more of the stress of the past few years in the workplace. She tells me her coworkers are riven by this announced possibility. Some of the most stressed, see this as adding to their stress; others see this as an attempt to remedy some of what’s wrong in their field. Sandburg sees a dialectic in his river of working women, though his poem’s more about the general wearing-down of a life of work.
“Happiness” is probably the best-known of the three Sandburg poems in today’s piece. It’s significant to know that Sandburg is a 1st generation immigrant, and he writes continually of the immigrant experience in his poetry. I don’t think it’s too hard to translate from Sandburg’s immigrants to today. My weekend summer nights here in my neighborhood feature accordion music as this poem mentions, though the singing is in Spanish for my ears. Oh, my wife and teenager sometimes have trouble sleeping, and then there’s this noise. I have trouble sleeping too, but I also hear this Sandburg poem in my head, accompanying from his time the Mexican songs from the yard three houses down the street.
Consider this on a holiday: no one feels leisure like a working person.
“Muckers” may take a little translation. When I was growing up, closer in time to Sandburg’s than today is, a ditch digger was not a job description so much as a derogatory term. It stood for someone who had no ambition, no skills, no ability to advance. If you lacked those things, you might be cursed to become “a ditch digger.” It was essentially workplace hell — and the inhabitants, damned by their sins of omission. My father once preached a sermon I can recall from my youth in which the dignity of a ditch digger’s work was proclaimed. The detail he spoke of then, the part I can remember, was that some care as well as muscle was required to carve out a stable and straightaway ditch.
Sandburg’s poem takes a red-wheelbarrow to the job site, writing (as he would often do) an Imagist poem concerned not just with concise precision in the observation, but more at why so much depends on what is observed. And he’s got a punch line, one anyone who’s ever suffered through the worthlessness of unemployment will understand.
Together these three poems I perform today celebrate those who give up their lives in peacetime. “You dreamy poet,” some may be saying now, “That’s the way of the world. Don’t you know?” Oh, Sandburg knows. He went to work at 13. I was self-supporting at 18. The difference between us and some other poets is that we’ll write and sing about this. It’s as universal as love and heartbreak, near as universal as death, and it’s the mundane ground upon which poetry and music and all the arts are stroked upon.
Carl Sandburg: proud to be the guitar strangler, rockin’ maker, stacker of tracks of wax, hex-string player, and folk-rock maven of Modernist poetry.
My musical performance is longer today than most Parlando pieces, but then it does present three poems and asks for a quantity discount. After working out and executing the acoustic guitar and “punk orchestral” setting of Emily Dickinson last time I wanted to plug in a Stratocaster and wail a bit, and so what you’ll hear today is a live electric guitar performance recorded then. One production oddity I’ll note: I recorded the two chordal “rhythm guitar” parts after the lead melodic part. The player gadget to hear the performance is below for many of you, and I provide this highlighted link for those viewing this blog in ways that cannot display the graphical audio player.
*My teenager reminds me that “Labor Day” is not the international workers day that is May Day. I remind them that American Labor Day came out of the labor movement too, and no matter how you parse things, having two days to celebrate work and workers is not too much, no more than we should be embarrassed in America to have a Veterans Day and a Memorial Day.
“Twenty hours of sleep…” my wife responded. “goals!”
Hot Girl Summer: Freya, in her liminal state between 20 hours of rest, bird and clam eating, boat wrecking, and being adored by her Norwegian fans.
Now as far as I know the great American poet Emily Dickinson never got to observe a walrus. On one hand, Emily did have a privileged life as the child of a successful lawyer, but then it was the 19th century and they had fewer smartphones, washing machines, lawn tractors, induction stovetops, and air conditioners. At least in her youth her parents believed strongly in self-reliance and careful household finances, and so distained servants, since after all they had a pair of daughters who could do that work. If we think of the later-life Emily Dickinson as the housebound hermit, you may not know that the younger Emily Dickinson divvied up the household work so that she had more outdoor chores compared to her sister.
One of the things I learned when I visited the Emily Dickinson house a few years back was that across the main road in front of the Dickinson house the family also had a field they farmed. And then on the house’s main lot there was an orchard and food garden which were largely the creature of Emily and her mother. Harvesting hay from the field was probably men’s work, but I was told that Emily would be tasked with bringing the harvesters water and food during their work. All that came back to me as I read this charming poem of Dickinson’s that is generally known by it’s first line: “From Cocoon forth a Butterfly.” Here’s the full text of the poem if you’d like to follow along.
There are three or four characters in this little poetic drama. There’s our Butterfly (joined by others of her kind later), a “notwithstanding bee” who is proverbially occupied pollinating and presumably making honey, and the harvesting men. The fourth character is animated by the poet herself, a flower which despite being a plant is described as “zealous,” waving in a summer breeze for an afternoon.
Our main character, the Butterfly is described as if she’s an idle lady. She seems to have no task, something she flaunts in the poem. The field workers, the men, have obvious tasks. That hay won’t harvest itself. The bee, a cliché of purpose. The flower is a bit more ambiguous. If we assume Dickinson chose zealous carefully, the flower may be ardently worshiping the summer day or perhaps it’s divine author, shuckling in vegetative prayer.
Which character does Dickinson identify with? Maybe a little with all of them, if not entirely with one. If one has farm tasks (or for that matter the artistic tasks of a poet) the idle lady making a show of her leisure isn’t your model, even if you may feel a bit of envy — and yet poetry can be charged as like a butterfly, a piece of beauty that seems to do nothing. The men are doing useful work (see Robert Frost on mowing in this poem) but though Dickinson tends a garden this haying is not her work. Same for the bee. Dickinson no doubt knows the bee’s work, appreciates it too, but it’s not her work. We know Dickinson is highly knowledgeable about flowers, and often makes them the subject of her poems, but this zealot flower? If she’s serious about that characterization, she stands outside that level of belief.
The closing stanza, like her more famous “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” poem resolves this separation from her, the observer of it all — Vanity of Vanities, all is Vanity — and so the purposeful actors and the purposeless Butterfly will all be gone by end of day. Emily the poet remains, as does her poem if we take the time to observe with her again, many days and decades later.
Before I leave you with an opportunity to hear my performance of Dickinson’s “From Cocoon forth a Butterfly” I want to put in a note here about the lack of activity here this summer. I share some of the concerns of my spouse, and I am also trying to reevaluate this Project to see if I can make what I do here more useful, or beautiful, or something. Traffic and listenership always drops off in the summer, so a good time to reevaluate, and you may see fewer new pieces until autumn.
To hear my performance with original music you can use a player gadget many will see below. Don’t see any gadget? This highlighted link is here as a backup for you.
*Showing a connoisseur’s appreciation for the swan greater than William Butler Yeats’ I’d say. Yeats only looks at his swans, and yet the great poet distains at putting his tusks into one like Freya. Walruses also eat clams, which as far as I know have never moved Yeats to poetic transport. Apparently, Norway has a problem with lots of invasive clams, which may be why Freya has been hanging out in Oslo.
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.
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.
*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.
***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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
*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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
* 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.
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.
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.
*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.
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.
I enjoyed some dissonant chord colors and an “Is it in major or minor?” rub in this one’s music.
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.