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.

Sunset from Omaha Hotel Window

Have you ever noticed how little poetry deals with the world of everyday work, with the employments that occupy such a large portion of our lives? Some of this is due to the positioning of art as an escape from all that humdrum and haplessness. We go to poetry, or to music, partly to divert ourselves from it. It promises us the respite of beauty, or at the least a music to shake ourselves down from the defeats and stress of it.

On the poets’ part, some of that may be because poetry is almost never their “day gig”—and that other regular bills-paying job is, at some level, an embarrassment. After all, Lord Byron didn’t have that waitress job, Edna St. Vincent Millay didn’t have to sweat getting the reports done by EOD, and Homer didn’t have to stay awake wondering if he should raise a stink about how his co-workers are dumping too much of their work-load on him. Poets, if they are to make it to the level possible in our modern culture, can at best aspire to the level of college teaching with sabbaticals and a modicum of grants. That necessary rent-paying day gig is an admission that they are marginalized as artists.

Carl Sandburg seems unaffected by that embarrassment, one of the reasons to treasure him in his years as a pioneering Modernist. Since he was politically aligned as a socialist, some kind of workers-solidarity stance might be obligatory. Luckily, the early-20th Century Sandburg rarely reads that way, and his life demonstrates reasons why this is so. He was born of working-class immigrants, and all through his Imagist years, while he was focused on becoming a poet, he remained working class through and through.

You may not share Sandburg’s politics (any more than I share Ezra Pound’s), but even through the superficial changes in the decades since he wrote them, you can find in Sandburg poems a real, felt, understanding of day to day work for pay. His first three poetry volumes are filled with this understanding. Today’s piece, “Sunset from Omaha Hotel Window,”  from his Pulitzer Prize winning collection “Cornhuskers”  is suffused with this.

Much of Sandburg’s 1918 “Cornhuskers”  seems to be reflections published some 20 years later of his experiences while still a teenager in the 1890s when he hoboed out west from his native Illinois, working day labor and various farm jobs. Some of its idiom is unclear to me. I am not sure what is simply obsolete vernacular and what is figurative language invented by the poet.

hotel-by-a-railroad by Edward Hopper

He: You know my boss says I’m in line to be a supervisor if I just keep at it.
She: It says here “An image is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”

 

“Sunset from Omaha Hotel Window”  tells you right off it’s allegiance to Imagism. It’s titled like a painting or an art photograph, and while Imagism wasn’t dogmatic about visual images, the visual arts were undergoing their own revolution influencing Modernist poetry; and as a practical matter, visual images have a directness that lend themselves to Imagism’s rejection of abstract and tired poetic tropes. And the poem’s first lines start, like many an Imagist poem, with colors and objects: a sunset over the Missouri river valley separating Omaha from Iowa. But then a line that’s a bit allusive: “The long sand changes.” My first thought was “like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” That maybe what Sandburg was intending, but I don’t know if it’s some obsolete saying or something Sandburg invented. Sandbanks formed on a river channel are sometimes given this name, and that may be part of the meaning, and the wandering Missouri river has formed and erased many of them.

Later we meet up with two more lines like that: “Time knocks in another brass nail. Another yellow plunger shoots in the dark.” The first is partially clear, as the driving of a nail is a job of work with a sharply defined end. But why brass? It’s something akin to the still extant idiom “getting down to brass tacks” which is clearly understood to mean “getting down to the real, basic, concrete issues,” but the brass-tacks image that idiom presents, and its origin, is a mystery. The second part, the yellow plunger, I understand even less. I thought: meteor? Some meteors have discernable colors. The sun? He says in the dark, and his sunset is red from the first lines. As I sang it I just thought: shooting star, but I would welcome any ideas.

Still, the meaning of the poem is not hard to discern for any working person. As an Imagist, Sandburg doesn’t have to say what he’s feeling—weary, sad, cheated, worried, broke, lonely, unappreciated, angry—he just presents the scene. In my arrangement of this piece, I added repeats of Sandburg’s refrain “Today is a goner and today is not worth haggling over.” Time passes, work is done, and the issues of work, however numerous, enduring, undimmed, and uncontrolled by us are as stars—they are distant and present for a moment in Sandburg’s poem.

To hear the LYL Band’s performance of Sandburg’s “Sunset from Omaha Hotel Window” use the player below.

 

The Red Wheelbarrow

Obscurity in modernist poetry is a funny issue. What makes some writing hard to grasp, difficult to understand? Esoteric and little-known words like Wallace Stevens loved? Far-flung allusions to works in several languages like T. S. Eliot was prone to? Exploding normal written syntax and logical flow as Gertrude Stein did? Taking images into realms where direct one-to-one symbolic meaning is not only impossible, but more than likely, not the aim, as Tristan Tzara or Paul Éluard demonstrate? Presenting things “slant” in iconoclastic riddles as Emily Dickinson could? Writing works of epic length that few if any human minds can comprehend in their whole, like the Cantos of Ezra Pound?

And then there’s this poem, the basis of today’s piece, William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

The Red Wheelbarrow

The whole of it: 16 words, no punctuation, all lower-case

 

From empirical evidence you could say that it’s the very peak of the canon of modern American poetry. Remember that compiled count of the poems that appeared most often in poetry anthologies, most of which were explicitly focused on modern American poetry? “The Red Wheelbarrow”  is alone at the top of that list, included in over half of the anthologies counted.

Does that make it a “best loved poem”? Does it even assure that critics consider it great, much less the greatest? No, it does not. I think I first ran into it as a teenage student, in one of those anthologies used in some English literature class. Did my young teacher point it out as a poem of special merit? Did I view it as such? No. If I can trust my memory, if it was discussed at all, it was as if it was some kind of stunt, an intended provocation that so short and mundane a piece could be considered artful. “Now class, let’s get back to T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens.”

And how about critics? They largely part like the Red Sea on “The Red Wheelbarrow”.  If we look to one side, in among the mollusks and manta rays now behind the water curtain of the divided sea, we find those who care little for it. There’s nothing there demanding to be written about. No virtuosity is demonstrated to be noted and admired. And what important point is it making, other than, well, no point at all?

So, we turn to the other side, those swimming with bemused dolphins who wonder if they could leap across the band of Israelites walking on damp seabed, those critics hoping to demonstrate their microscopic perception of the hidden art in this terribly short and compressed poem. Carol Rumens is concise and representative of this when she says of Williams’ poem “This is his manifesto, surely–a poem quietly declaring how modern poetry works.” And she also warns “A naïve reading could take it as a comment about the great usefulness of wheelbarrows on small-holdings where chickens are kept.”

And then, here I am, now. No longer the teenage student who was sure someone had figured these things out, and I need only to find them. I can’t see far enough ahead where Moses and Aaron are, nor can I see far enough back how close Pharaoh and those charioteers are getting. I’ve got my hasty bread and a few grabbed things in my little cart, pushing it across the mud. I think I must be naïve. Yes, Williams is a modernist, as committed to the new way of writing as clearly as possible, a proclaimer of “No ideas except in things,” which means in retrograde, the things must be the ideas. If he had wanted to write a manifesto, he could, and did in the other poem that stated that dictum.

The obscurity in this poem is that there is no obscurity other than what we bring to it externally. There is no allusive, secret meaning, other than the secrets we’ve kept from ourselves, of our tools and our companion responsibilities.

Yes, there is art in these 16 words: the line breaks that ask us to hold our gaze, even in the middle of words, the “so much depends” warning that bids us look. The choice to look at just these simple common things, is a choice, is an idea. I think the dolphin side of the parted sea has smarter companions than the mollusks’ side; but I am looking down at my wheelbarrow, and Williams’ wheelbarrow, and saying naively, that it matters, even if I’m in the middle of the band, unable to see Pharaoh or Moses.

I’ve spent too long on the words again, but I feel I need to say a bit about the music I composed for my performance of “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I chose to use a twelve-tone row, a modernist musical idea from the same time as when Williams was writing the poem. It would be pretentious for me to say I got this from deep study of Schoenberg or Webern, though I’ve listened to a good deal of modernist music. However, “serialism” never stuck with me until I heard the prologue part of “This Town Is a Sealed Tuna Fish Sandwich” written by Frank Zappa. I’ve loved that piece from the first time I heard it.

Twelve-tone music subverts expectations of a tonal center or “important” scalar notes, so it can sound a little woozy or random, but, of course it has its pattern, by definition, which the mind’s ear can hear if you stop thinking in expectation of familiar patterns, which is the simple and profound thing it is asking you to do.

Click on the player to hear my performance of “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

 

Wally Wood

Back when I was kid there was something we were taught to be concerned about, our “vocation.” This was somewhat like the perennial question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but with a religious and spiritual aspect.

As the word “vocation” suggests, we, while still children, were asked to consider our calling, what task God would ask us to do with our lives. Yes, there as an expectation inherent in that, that some of us would find that we had been called by God to become Christian clergy, but at least in my small town and church, this was not set out as the answer most of us were to find. It was assumed that each of us would obtain a distinct answer fitting to our talents and the universe’s needs.

Jesus BaptismWally Wood's Joan

Religious paintings depict a calling as a clear and vivid action,, like in a comic book

The folks who provided religious instruction in my town were practical people, and I couldn’t picture any of them expecting us children to be visited by spirit birds, or hear mystic voices to lead our country into battle. Rather they expected a small inner voice to whisper to us that we should be family farmers, or mechanics, or nurses and so forth. In my family, I could look to a grandfather who I never knew, who was called to the Christian ministry, or to an uncle who followed his father’s path, or to the more complex stories of my parents, whose vocational path I’ll defer talking about for reasons of space now. It never occurred to me, but I could have asked my teachers or myself about my great-grandfather and namesake, who would have had to have been called to be a common laborer by this scheme. Somehow this talk of calling and vocation seemed a bit grand a process for that.

I never knew what to answer that question with until my late teens when I decided that I would be a poet. That’s certainly a grandiose enough answer for this religiously-infused process, but even in my naïve youth I knew that meant I’d be doing something else beside that with my lifetime. So, a calling, but no answer to what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Most decisions to become an artist of any kind expose a person to things that will mess up one’s life. First off, you are going to do something that is likely unlikeable—you are going to privilege your own interpretations of our common life as somehow more valuable than modest silence or undecorated space. Even successful artists most often have a majority of people judging what they produce as not worthy of their time, or generically replaceable by something similar but different from what you do. And these odds of rejection, combined with the concentration of effort needed for much artistic work, make many artists defend their self/center with self-centeredness.
  
So there, as so often here in the Parlando Project, I’ve violated one of the principles that I set out to follow: I’ve spent time here with my story, talking about myself. Alternate Parlando Project presenter Dave Moore avoided this in today’s episode “Wally Wood”  which Dave gave the longer title “Wally Wood’s Co(s)mic Philosophy.”

Here’s what Dave had to say about the piece:

“Wallace Wood was one of the great comic book artists of the fifties and sixties.  His detail work for EC Comics and Mad is still astounding to look at.  Like many, he was also an alcoholic, and increasingly bitter as he aged.  His words in the song are from a late interview in some fanzine.

I can’t draw, so far be it from me to draw conclusions about success or happiness.  Or the scope of a talented artist’s frustrated Fifties ambitions.  What strikes me most are the words ‘And yet’ after a pause.  No matter what he says, no matter how things ‘work out,’ it was worth it for me and all the thousands of others who enjoyed his work.  Go look him up, you won’t forget him.”

Wally Wood Self PortraitWally Wood - Art Ain't Pretty

Wally Wood, combustible master of line

What did Wally Wood add the “And yet” to? Listen and find out, using the player below.