Back Yard

Just a couple of posts back I said that early Carl Sandburg poetry can be just as aligned with the ideals of the Imagist school as the Trans-Atlantic poets such as the then contemporary work of Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, H.D., Richard Aldington, F. S. Flint, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and T. E. Hulme was. Yet he’s rarely mentioned as such.*  Why might that be?

My guess is that there’s an issue with Sandburg’s more expansive mode, present in some of his work, Whitmanesque in character and scope. The Pound and Eliot school of Imagism wasn’t much on Whitman, charging him with lack of craftsmanship and concision. And then there’s the issue of cultural affinity, which while outside the text, is important. Of the above, only Lowell was from a wealthy background** (and Flint’s childhood seems positively Dickensian) but they all saw themselves as culturally elite. Most were familiar with classical languages, some had Ivy League educations (though none were Oxbridge, save for Hulme who was thrown out after a bit more than a year for rowdy behavior), most had spent time in Europe , even Williams, the most American-focused of these.

Sandburg? Born working class to two immigrants in the Midwest***. Drops out of school at age 13 to go to work. The jobs he had in the first 40 years of his life were modest in prestige, but varied in location and nature. Coal-heaver, farm laborer, Army private, milk-truck driver, political organizer, bricklayer, “The Front Page” era urban journalist. What T. S. Eliot knew about the whole of literature, Sandburg knew about the whole of working-class work and life.

One could make one mistaken generalization from Sandburg’s biography, that like Whitman self-advertised himself, he’d be “one of the roughs,” a man whose art would be artless and as unconcerned with the niceties of aesthetics as the correct fork for which dinner course. But just like the lazy assumption that there’d be no poets in foxholes, the idea there are no aesthetes who punch a clock is bogus. Sandburg’s early work is as concerned with Modernist beauty and style as working-class dignity—and he is very concerned with working-class dignity!

Is today’s Sandburg piece, “Back Yard”  an Imagist poem following the three Imagist rules? Let me paraphrase them:

Direct treatment of the thing: that is, the focus in the poem is on the image itself which will be described, instead of the image being a decoration and figure of speech within the body of a poem more concerned with its moral or message for which the image is only a “like” illustration. Conciseness: no extra words, and though not stated, it’s corollary is no less-apt words used only to make the rhyme. And freer rhythms: word-music, like sound-music, is not required to limit itself to only extraordinarily regular and repetitive rhythms.

Direct treatment? The outdoor, summer night scene is just that. One is hardly aware here that it’s an image, it seems like simple reportage. Is it merely the “hardly news” that on a summer night if one is outside, perhaps sitting on an open porch, you’ll hear and see other people outside too?

Concise? Pretty much. It’s not In A Station of the Metro,  or The Pool,  or The Red Wheelbarrow,  there is some re-iteration in it, even a single line refrain, but even by the standards of lyric poetry, this is a short poem. The elements of the scene are evoked, but there’s little extravagant or showy description. One element that many Imagist poems share (though never a formal rule AFAIK) is that colors are used to simply describe objects, though since this is a moonlit night scene the colors are more monochromatic.

A follow up question: how minor and mundane is “Back Yard”  really? I can’t claim it’s a poem of great originality—but that’s not the job of every poem, and this is more a poem of the continuity of change, a moment of shared perception, not a striking new vision.

I think its intent, in it’s just over 100 words, is for us to see a chain of life in a Chicago night early in the 20th century; and in its everyday exactness, state those things that might link to a night tonight where we live today. The silver moonlight in the scene seems almost a preservative, everything is frozen in that direct moment. In my night tonight it may not be an Italian boy with an accordion, but Mexican music from the back yard at the end of the block. The couple Sandburg says will marry next month, are now-dead grandparents of people as old as I am. An old man has fallen asleep in the late and waiting moment, his back-yard cherry tree’s fruits held in a moonlit unmoving until his eyes close. He will likely pass on sooner than the marrying couple, and his dreams and those long-ago cherries will be returned to the place that dreams, fruit, and poems go and come from.

The poem closes with a perennial thought delivered in the scene’s description. The clocks, the poet relates, say he too must go. The clocks say that to all of the characters in his poem, and by extension to us, his audience. Sandburg, the artist, the poet, has the job like the moon to fix this moment in silver. Was he thinking here of the silver of his brother-in-law Edward Steichen’s art photographs? What does he mean by the poem’s closing line? What are the “silver changes?” My best understanding is they are the endless succession of such fixed moments. There will be more and more silver changes, a great richness, even as we are entirely not there.

Edward Steichen Nocturne-Orangery Staircase

Fancier than my back yard: “Nocturne-Orangery Staircase” (1908). Sandburg occasionally collaborated with his brother-in-law and pioneer in fine art photography Edward Steichen.

 

For the performance of “Back Yard”  I decided to intersperse some other night moments, sung as commentary on Sandburg’s poem. You can hear it with the player gadget below. Want to read along? Here’s the text of the poem.

 

 

 

 

*Yes, Imagism is only a label, a piece of sticky paper put on some writers and writing. But because Imagism was so vital to the formation of English poetic Modernism, excluding Sandburg, “The Forgotten Imagist” from its usual ranks was part of how he was diminished in the late 20th century. The artistically-chosen stark simplicity of Imagism was admired, but similar directness in Sandburg was seen as populist simple-mindedness. For an example, here’s a long review of a late 20th century  biography, where the dagger is that Sandburg’s poetry was “dumbed-down Whitman” and the charge seems to be that he was a pretentious yokel who was also a phony who pretended to be a yokel.

**I’m of the impression that Eliot and Pound’s family had at least upper-middle-class wealth too, but my informal memory is that some estrangement or streak of independence led them to live outside their families’ wealth.

***Sandburg’s home-town area, the Quad Cities and its surroundings in Iowa and down-state Illinois, was a surprising well-spring of writers in his time.

Ollendorf’s Wife ‘Bout Changes and Things

Despite Orrick Johns’ lack of poetic fame, our curious audience seems to be responding to “Ollendorf’s Wife.”  Are you forgiving my unilateral revision of Johns’ 1917 words?

OK, here’s another rule breaker. The same day that I recorded the acoustic version of“Ollendorf’s Wife”  I also recorded this folk-rock performance with bass, drums, organ, and electric guitars. Is it better or worse than the acoustic version? I can’t say.

By subtitling this post/version “’Bout Changes & Things” I’m making an obscure reference to a quixotic mid-60s LP by Eric Anderson. Anderson was one of a handful of Greenwich Village folkies well positioned in the ‘60s to step into the new post-Bob Dylan breakthrough were the singers were expected to write their own songs with poetic sounding lyrics. ’Bout Changes & Things  had some of Anderson’s best early songs, songs that were already getting covered by some of the same acts that might also use a Dylan song.

However, about the time it came out another sea-change was occurring. Everyone’s folksinger records were starting to use electric instruments and drum-sets. Earnest acoustic guitar LPs with maybe Spike Lee’s dad on standup bass or Bruce Langhorne on “second guitar” were no longer what was expected. Dylan goes electric! The Byrds were having hits with folk songs and glorious electric 12-string guitars, John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky had formed the Lovin’ Spoonful.

The trend was so strong that the production equivalent of revisionist history was resorted to. Tom Wilson overdubbed some session men on top of an already released but unnoticed Simon and Garfunkel song “The Sounds of Silence.”*  Alan Douglas took old tapes of Richie Havens and added new instruments to make “Electric Havens.”**  The former created a hit record and launched a career. The later couldn’t stop the undeniable soul force that was Havens.

Producers and Piano Players

Producers and piano players: Alan Douglass with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus
Tom Wilson producing “Like a Rolling Stone” with Bob Dylan

 

Eric Anderson just went back into the studio and re-recorded his whole album with a band, and it was released as ’Bout Changes ‘n’ Things Take 2.  It did nothing for his career, and maybe even hurt it. It probably seemed not authentic, scene chasing, or some other sin.

Bout Changes and Things x2

Revisions: One set of songs, two albums.

 

So, there you go, one guy in Greenwich Village years ago who seemed at one point the equal of a lot of other up-and-comers but turned out to be a damp squib that didn’t ignite. And another guy. Same story.

To hear my folk-rock performance of “Ollendorf’s Wife,”  use the player below.

 

 

 

 

*Tom Wilson is another one of those “Why don’t more people know about him” characters. Besides midwifing Simon and Garfunkel’s first hit, even a brief look at who he worked with listed in his Wikipedia article should amaze anyone with any interest in mid-century American music. This labor of love web site can tell you more.

**Alan Douglas has an impressively varied producer’s resume similar to Wilson’s, but his ghost could probably stand to be less well-known. His overdubs of Havens work are largely forgotten, but he spent a couple of decades redoing tracks in the Jimi Hendrix archives (including replacing parts on the tapes with newly recorded session men) in an effort that was increasingly seen as fraudulent and cheesy. It’s not that I can’t see their critics’ point regarding Douglas’ Hendrix releases, and the resulting recordings are a mixed bag, but I indulge in the same sins of reusing and re-doing other artists work.

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!?”

Everyday Alchemy

I don’t have much to say yet about Genevieve Taggard, who wrote the words I perform today. Unlike (for example) Jean Toomer she’s not one of those writers who are only names to me, because until this month I’d never heard of her. I came upon Taggard reading John Dizikes’ Love Songs,  a lively group biography of nine women in the poetic milieu of New York City during the first part of the 20th Century. I’m only halfway through the book, and he’s starting to tell about Taggard.

Genevieve Taggard

Genevieve Taggard

 

I’m told that, like Millay and Teasdale, Taggard began writing with a nuanced eye about love, that subject that combines not just desire and it’s thwarting, but also easily branches into the nature of relationships between people. I have so far read only two or three of Taggard’s poems from this era, but overviews of her career mention that after the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism, she was one of the writers who moved to direct political engagement on the leftist side, which in the ‘30s in the U.S. most often meant alignment with the Communists.

Taggard died fairly young in 1948, and her career never reached any heights to fall from. As it was, the second half of that century that I share with her was not very kind to many of those who made that move. For some their Red past was overlooked if they themselves acted as if they had overlooked it too. Some recanted their former beliefs, and of course there are reasons one might do that.*

Why would this harm an American artist like Taggard who didn’t live until the rise of an anti-Stalinist and non-Soviet Union aligned New Left? This was the era of the New Criticism, which took the stance that politics was an inferior non-Parnassian and transitory arena compared to art, and besides many of the New Critics “private” political views were conservative. Poor Taggard. Writing about love was considered a minor poet’s subject, the sort of thing non-serious women were prone to do, but leaving that and engaging in party-line political action wouldn’t gain anything from New Criticism either.

None of Taggard’s work is in print and I may never get around to finding, much less reading, her politically engaged work, so I can’t really speak to its quality.**

I figure I’ve just lost half my readers now, and I’m unsure why I brought this up, other than when I read “Everyday Alchemy”  at the end of a chapter in Dizikes’ book, I was transfixed. Is this a political poem or a love poem? This is a poem that is both heartfelt and sharp in its analysis. Like much great art it’s balanced on razor’s edge, one half clear-eyed on the unfairness of the emotional burdens placed on women by men, and one-half equally sure that society gives poor and working-class men no other peace. In eleven lines Taggard speaks volumes on this. It’s nearly 100 years old, yet has it outdated? As poetry it works well too, ringing word-sounds via consonance and assonance, fragmented phrasing in a relentless dance. This is what it sounds like when doves cry.

Everyday Alchemy

If you’d like to read along while you listen, here’s the text of Taggard’s poem.

 

When I say a love poem can be as complicated, as analytical as any, “Everyday Alchemy”  would be a great example. I’m told the 1930’s Taggard considered most of her early poetry about love as a mistaken focus after she moved on to her later political stuff. However, observers note that this poem, published in her first love-poem book For Eager Lovers, was reprinted again in her reputedly socialist realist volume Calling Western Union  in 1936. This poem works both ways.

Here’s my performance of this remarkable poem, available with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

 

*This is a complex story, and I’m skipping over so much history and passion here, but it’s one of those things that is impossible to summarize adequately in a couple of sentences.

**I am seeking to get a hold of her 1930 biography The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson  via my local library system however.

I Am the People, the Mob

Last week was a tough week to bear, from the guns of Louisville through Pittsburgh and the man with the bomb plan and his sheets of flag stamps. Evil should not surprise me, it should not baffle me—and yet it does baffle me. Should I also feel sad along with bafflement? A good question for lengthy political analysis, but that won’t change how I feel beholding this.

I’m not naïve. I’ve lived a long life, and I’ve met a fair cross-section of Americans in it. Ignorance, racism, clan and gender prejudice—humans are prone to this. If I had a great deal of experience outside of the U.S., I would expect to find these things elsewhere too. But now and here, we have a benighted charlatan—in over his head—who trashes around in these things, knowing in some simple, instinctual, skunk’s way that this cloud of stink will confuse us from considering him.

In a few days our imperfect democratic republic will have an election. I do not suppose to know what will happen. I’m a poet and musician, go elsewhere for predictions. Poetry and art allow us to see more vividly across our temporary borders of place and time, but that sort of perspective doesn’t necessarily make us better prognosticators. In poetry and music, like in history, everything is possible, and over the long time, a great deal of the possible will become.

So here I sat, in this mere and disturbing week, having trouble considering the attempted and achieved beauty of my arts—because, in this stink and sadness, what can be meaningfully beautiful?

Carl Sandburg wth guitar

Carl Sandburg essays a look that Leonard Cohen would cop to sometime later

As I did earlier this fall feeling like this, I turned again to reading Carl Sandburg for my soul’s sake, for the early 20th Century Sandburg had seen every evil I have seen, and yet retained an embrace of humanity. Often here I focus in on the neglected Modernist Sandburg, the forgotten Imagist Sandburg of short poems that sing our overlooked, ordinary, humanity. Sometimes I fear the more expansive, Whitmanesque voice that Sandburg also used has drowned out the individuality of his shorter, less shouty poems.

But I needed him to shout some of his heart into me this week, so here’s Sandburg’s “I Am the People, the Mob.”  The player is below to hear it.

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.