A Letter to Those Who are About to Die

Certainly not the most self-love inspiring/invest me with hope/promise to give me beauty title for a poem. Mid-century American poet Kenneth Patchen could supply those sorts of things, but in his first book, Before the Brave  published in 1936, he was looking around him, and the things he saw and felt were ominous.

In that collection and this poem, Patchen seems militant and politically committed in tone, though the poems seem too immediate to the times for me to fully decode his advocacy. “A Letter to Those Who are About to Die”  indicates something’s coming, but it doesn’t simply say what. Violent revolt or revolution? Another World War? State-run oppression? Radical social change? If we study history, we know that it turned out to be some all of that. By the time Patchen was writing “A Letter to Those Who are About to Die,”  the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China were at hand or a few months away. Hitler was firmly in power in Germany. America was in economic crisis—and if you were poor, black or another ethnic minority perhaps only a generation away from another country that might be equally troubled, your life was now doubly challenged.

Kenneth Patchen 1939

A photo of the young Kenneth Patchen in the 1930s

 

I know the later Patchen, the pacifist, the poet of love, the painter of illuminated outsider pages, but this was an angrier voice, more desperate than I expected. He was all of 24 and he’d just found the love of his life—but this wasn’t a newlywed world of hope. Could we look back from our perch informed by 20th century history and say he was wrong, that he was over-reacting? No. The ovens, the bombs, the death marches, the battle beaches, the truncheons, the gulags, the lynchings, the public gunshots.

Someone called Patchen’s mid-century cohorts The Greatest Generation. They fought for and against these things, perhaps in roughly equal numbers, and there are claims in all alignments that some of the above list of horrors were necessary to defeat some others also of the above. Objective history can tell us this all happened, even if it can’t speak with one voice on which horrors were justified. As far as I know, Patchen was against all of those horrors, which made him an outsider in his generation. Idealist? Naïve? An individual who opted out from being blamed for history?

I’ve been taken this spring by a song of Andrew Bird’s “Bloodless.”  Bird’s an artist that I’ve previously admired more than I’ve wanted to listen too, but this song has a laid-back Curtis Mayfield/Marvin Gaye groove and heart that I can’t deny, with lyrics about the poets exploding like bombs “And it feels like 1936 in Catalonia.” That feels, in my present, like today’s Patchen poem.

 

Andrew Bird’s “Bloodless” official video.

 

So, even with that title that refuses to be attractive, I’m willing to give Kenneth Patchen a read and a performance, and you may be willing to give it a listen.*

Musically, my band and voice aren’t going to be keeping Andrew Bird awake on those nights when it’s music and not the parallels of the Spanish Civil war that interrupts his sleep. However, Patchen is one of those pioneers in combining spoken/chanted poetry with jazz-influenced American music, including collaborations with John Cage and Charles Mingus and a series of LPs with other musicians issued in the ‘50s. I do not expect or wish to frighten the ghosts of Cage and Mingus, only to honor their, and Patchen’s, independent spirit. The player gadget to hear my performance is below. There is no easy place to read the text of this poem on the Internet, but this link may work for those that want to read along.

 

 

 

 

*By coincidence, the Poem-a-Day from poets.org today is by Fatimah Asghar titled I Don’t Know What Will Kill Us First: The Race War or What we’ve Done to the Earth,”  which title probably equals Kenneth Patchen’s in click-through rate, even though the poem itself might ask us to read the title after the poem rather than before. I sat in a bakery this week and overheard two older white guys, looked my age or a bit younger, discussing the ridiculousness of fears like unto Bird’s and Fatimah Asghar’s these days in America. I wonder what Kenneth Patchen would say if he were to stop by?

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The Death of Richard Wilbur, A Difficult Balance

It was only days ago here that I was remarking that Richard Wilbur was still alive while talking about the roughly half-portion of dead white men in a collated list of the most anthologized modern American poems. His poem “Love Calls Us to Things of This World”  written in the middle 1950s was one of that list, and one of the few I had no memory of having read.

Richard Wilbur 1950s

The modest house, the pipe, the tweed jacket, the Brylcreem hair with the straightest furrow—
Richard Wilbur impersonating the 1950s so that we don’t have to

 

So of course I read it, and rather enjoyed it. You could do the same via the hyperlink. There are a few things in it that one might quibble about, the heightened language (even if that is undercut by its over-riding conceit, a meditation on hanging laundry) including words that stop the modern colloquial speaker, such as “halcyon,” and the brief but passing use of rape for an image which causes me a concerned pause and objection now. There need be nothing censorious about such thoughts, as they are about the writer with his peculiarities, his time, and his blinders. They might remind me of my own limits in these regards.

The obituaries point out a controversy over Wilbur that, like his poetry, I was not much aware of. He was increasingly thought out of touch with the later 20th Century with his, on the face of it, impersonal outlook, his wit in place of rage and heated vision, and his devotion to a classic verbal music of accentual/syllabic meter.

All that may be so. Like I said, I’m generally unfamiliar with Wilbur’s poetry. But let me bring up some possible approaches from our current century, now nearly matured to voting age, to query those opinions from the 20th Century. The first is, how much do we need our poets to act as the shaman and feel for us?  Does such a need say that we ourselves cannot feel or imagine adequately, or that we cannot validate or understand our feelings and visions until demonstrated by the artist? I do not know a complete answer for this. I know that artists expressions seem to have helped me clarify and understand visionary and intense things, but I also think that the lens of wit makes clear the limits of our perceptions and emotions. Is the ecstatic visionary who can make real and palpable the dark shapes outside the fire-circle the wise one, or is the wise one the one who sees clearly that we cannot see far into the darkness and are apt to stub our toes on rocks if we think otherwise? Can only the former move us to action, can only the later keep us from recognizing foolish action?

I don’t think I know the answers, though I do think I see some of the questions. Just yesterday I wrote about how one of the  Parlando Project mottos “Other People’s Stories” shows a paradox. I feel it’s interesting—no, I’ll go farther—it’s important for us to experience other people’s subjective experience, to inhabit it to the degree we can. To do that, I’ve chosen to predominantly present other writers’ self-expression here—but to do that, I rely on others who interestingly express their own subjective experience. So, in a sense, I require others to not follow one of the principles that my artistic project goes by.

That brings up another Parlando Project principle: “Various Words with Various Music.”  Does not soft and consonant music not sound softer and more consonant when considered in the context of loud or discordant music (and vice versa)?  To fully have either, you must have both. Wilbur may have seen enough darkness to look for truth where the light is, to try to see, as his poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” concludes, a “Difficult balance.”

These Fought

The lives, outside of art, of artists bear only a mysterious resemblance to their work. The concentration of time that must be brought to creating work drains many a writer’s life of incident. And so, an artist like Emily Dickinson can lead an outwardly constrained life while creating an inward empire. Or the man who would eventually be charged with the establishment of the first modern democratic republic could be, as a teenage poet, a love-struck supplicant. Nor does general good character align with artistic success—saints can write bad poetry and flawed people may write good poetry.
 
Today’s post features the words from an American who as much as any single person launched Modernist poetry in English. His associates and admirers, added to his detractors and opponents, make up an encyclopedia of 20th Century English literature. In the first part of the 20th Century, some of them would be profoundly influenced by his artistic ideas, and some would even be directly edited or personally mentored by him. One hundred years ago, in 1917, Carl Sandburg would say of him:

“All talk on modern poetry, by people who know, ends up with dragging in Ezra Pound somewhere. He may be named only to be cursed as wanton and mocker, poseur, trifler and vagrant. Or he may be classed as filling a niche today like that of Keats in a preceding epoch. The point is, he will be mentioned.”

Pound would live more than another half a century after this, his literary revolution flowing outward until few could see back to its instigator. And there’d be reasons his influence would be discounted: by the end of WWII, when Modernism, no longer insurgent, was about to become the established artistic order, Ezra Pound was a 60-year-old man confined in an outdoor steel cage open to the elements, awaiting to be charged as a war traitor with a likely sentence of execution.

Ezra Pound Booked for Treason

This guy is most responsible for English literary modernism, but that’s not what got him arrested.

 

The customary quiet and inward life of a writer, even an unnoticed one, looks good in comparison.

Though this treatment was inhumane, and the charge not without controversy, it was not unsubstantiated. Pound had spent the years leading up to WWII making common cause with the European Fascists that the United States eventually fought in that war, and when that war was being fought, he broadcast eccentric propaganda in his native English in service of his adopted country of Italy and Mussolini. Furthermore, his attraction to the Fascist cause was not an accident, a casual side-effect of his adopted country of residence. Pound wholehearted seemed to believe in the crackpot and yet deadly racist theories bolstering Fascism.
 
Remember earlier this month when we talked about the popular folk song celebrating Jesse James, versus the reality of James’ life as a racist terrorist?  Pound lacked the actual bloody hands of a Jesse James, but not the thought behind them.

So much more could be said on this, but that would take more room that we have today, and besides your thoughts and judgements on matters like this, as I said when talking about Jesse James, are more important than mine. Not only are they more numerous, but you are likely younger than me, and will get to use those judgements on things like this to guide your life.

Today’s audio piece, “These Fought,”  was written by Pound at the height of his fame and good influence—not after WWII, after WWI. Unlike some younger Modernists, Pound did not actually fight in WWI, but situated in England during that war, he saw the patriotic recruitment and the creation of cases for the war, a war that soon became mechanized slaughter beyond all previous imaginings, and he lost friends in that staggering slaughter. So, in “These Fought”  Pound caustically calls out the cases for the slaughter, and leads us to note that bravery in fighting WWI, or fortitude in opposing it, were in some sense equal in valor and, alas, equal in success.

To hear the LYL Band perform this, use the player below.

I Was Reading About Jesse James

When I was growing up and learning songs from Jerry Silverman’s folk songbooks, there was song called “Jesse James”  included in many collections and sung by a wide variety of singers—and any song that has been sung by the Kingston Trio and Nick Cave, by Van Morrison and the Pogues, by yes, by both Peter Seeger and Bob Seger, has to be the very definition of a “folk song.”

Pete SeegerBob Seger

Both these guys have sung thoughtful songs, but sometimes you need to think beyond the song yourself

 

Though “Jesse James”  takes some of its spirit from older English ballads celebrating legendary medieval populist outlaw Robin Hood, this American song is more about betrayal (James was killed by a gang associate in his own living room) and about telling us what an all-around bad-ass James was. We’re told he “killed many a man” (never why or how, though bravery is claimed) and that he robbed banks and railroads (but he “gave to the poor” and would “never rob a mother or a child”).

You can see how this sort of thing has a wide appeal. A tale of revenge on the rich and the powerful appeals to many, and banks and railroads were particular targets of late 19th and early 20th century rural populism, but the emotional core of the folk song “Jesse James”  is the betrayal and assassination.  No matter what the variation in the lyrics, there’s lots of mention of James’ cowardly assassin Robert Ford betraying the man who trusted him, shooting him in the back.

Woody Guthrie took “Jesse James’”  structure and melody and produced an incisive, though less popular, version of his own called “Jesus Christ”  which cast Jesus as a rebellious populist betrayed by a disciple—though it had to do without the “killed many a man” factor. So popular is the original “Jesse James”  ballad, that Guthrie likely knew that Jesse James’ action-hero rep would rub-off on his populist Jesus.

So, it was with interest that I followed up on the reality of Jesse James. One can assume that most heroes have feet of clay, portions of their behavior that show faults or inconsistency, but it turns out Jesse James doesn’t have feet of clay—the whole man is made of half-baked clay mixed with ample fresh dung as filler.
 
He’s a nasty piece of work. True, his character shows audacity, but that’s not the same thing as bravery. There’s no evidence I’m aware of that he ever killed an armed man who was opposing him, but lots of connections to killings of prisoners and bystanders. It was somewhat true that seeking cash through his robberies was a side-point to him, but his main motivation was to extend, defend, or to restore human slavery, or to take broad revenge on those who sought to end his career seeking those aims.

If there’s a defense for his actions, it would be some listing of the bad things done by his opponents, but then monsters often breed monstrous actions against them. It’s an argument against monsters, not a defense of the actions themselves.

Today’s piece “I Was Reading About Jesse James”  starts by asking you to think about this. I thought about trimming the piece’s instrumental coda shorter, but I have left it in. Consider the last half to be time for you to begin to ask those questions yourself. To hear the LYL Band ask those questions to music, use the player below.