It Is Not Always May

I cannot start any presentation of a Longfellow poem here without noting his extraordinary fall from esteem and fame. Once, through a combination of the historical moment in the growth of the United States, his talents, and a desire to write earnestly meaningful poems, Longfellow seemed our national poet. Did it seem, when that was so, that this would be for all time—or at least for an age longer than a decade or two short of a century?

Any reading across this project’s nearly three years will show that I find worth in the less-well-known, the overlooked. But nothing that is honestly popular can be unworthy of examination—after all, even manifold problems and failures of art in that which drew a large audience tell us something about that audience, our fellow human beings. Which case now, overlooked or popular, is Longfellow?

Choice Thoughts from Longfellow

Imagine a current poet whose rep could generate a board game where one wins quotes from their poems (image from Maine Historical Society collection)

 

If Whitman, Dickinson and Frost—or their unseen ghosts in our zeitgeist—still motivate our inner singing muses, can we understand that trio—our current national poets—as reactions to Longfellow, making him still a prime-mover of some interest?

So, let’s listen to “It Is Not Always May”  today. Rhymed metrical English language lyric is not easy to do, and harder to do if you want it to sound easy, and this one is pretty good. Yes there’s a bit of “poetic diction” here, words and word-order that we’d never say in actual speech, and I suspect that would be true even in 1842 when this poem was published, but it doesn’t greatly harm the poem.

The imagery is largely conventional, though as a seasonal poem we may expect some of these ready-mades to be checked off: birds, bird-song, budding trees, the young, the frolic. Can one do a winter poem without snow and stasis, an autumn poem without colored falling leaves, and so on? Yes, this is possible, and originality can be a great strength—but there’s a certain resonance with the choir of poets to sing those ancient notes in one’s own song. Conventional and outdated it may be, but I rather liked the clouds as sailing vessels in a river-fed harbor awaiting a west wind to up-anchor from New England for the “Old World.” And the poem’s refrain: “There are no birds in last year’s nest,” which Longfellow identifies as a Spanish proverb, has its vividness too.

Oh in my soul, I think the Imagists were right, that too many poems use conventional images as mere counters, pro-forma symbols, not real vivid objects we can consider as existing outside the poetic line. But I could just see Longfellow and the sea-side clouds as an actual charged moment.

And how about this poem’s sentiment? Well many acceptable modern poems have opinions, outlooks, sentiments, and so the charge against Longfellow isn’t really that, rather it’s sentimentality, the idea that he has no original outlook, no fresh take. What would his readers in the days of his fame have thought? A feature, not a bug? Longfellow was the premier “Fireside Poet,” suitable for reading to the family, suitable for school-books and children’s illustrated early readers. Did they view this poem as a basic truth to be reminded of, or did they view this as sufficient in itself? I assume some thought each.

Yes, I want more than that from poetry. Reassurance and singular conventional answers aren’t even what children want and need exclusively. But this poem is balanced in a way that I can admire. It’s a carpe diem poem without a smarmy pickup line, a song of the life-death cycle that plays the undertones, a poem that asks subtly for youth to be irresponsible, or responsible to their youth not earned wisdom (“to some good angel leave the rest”).

Do we need a new Longfellow today? I’m not sure. I would be pleased if more people appreciated poetry more widely, and as I’ve argued elsewhere here, that “not great poetry” does no harm, and might even do some good for more unusual or challenging poetry. I think I forgot to say clearly enough in my recent series on “Are Song Lyrics Poetry” that to a large degree we’ve asked song-lyrics to fill this role of poetry in my lifetime. But I do believe we needed a Longfellow at least once to establish the ground on which our foundational modern poets erected their structures.

So, it’s fitting that I chose to sing this May poem of Longfellow’s, even given the limitations of my singing voice. Once more I was drawn to using the less and more than realistic Mellotron flute and cello sounds to signify a pastoral scene. Even with my limitations, “It Is Not Always May”  sings well and easily, and I urge you to hear it with the player below. The poem’s text is available here if you’d like to read along.

 

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The Young Intellectual

I spend an invisible part of the iceberg in this project looking around for material that I think might work combined with music. One thing invariably happens when you look broadly at something: you find connections that you didn’t expect you’d find.

Here’s something I’ve noticed this fall: around 1875 or so, in a small, little-thought-of area of the U.S., a bunch of people were born who went on to leave a mark on our nation’s culture, even if only one of them retains any fame now in the 21st Century (and even that exception is undervalued in my estimation).

Geographically the area I speak of is the region where the Mississippi and Rock rivers meet in the Midwest, which had transitioned from what had been an important point for the Native-American tribes at the beginning of the 19th century and before, to an area that supported settler towns which grew up around river-based commerce and industry. “Transitioned” of course is a passive word for a slow-motion invasion and conquest by the European Immigrant-Americans, which included the short Black Hawk war of 1832 that left a great many Native-American names, but fewer Native-Americans, in the area. Eventually states were created here bearing those native names: Iowa and Illinois.

Who’s in the cohort from this area and time?

My relative*, Susan Glaspell, born in Davenport Iowa in 1876. Glaspell and her husband (George Cram Cooke, also born in Davenport, 1873) eventually midwifed the birth of Modernist American drama in Provincetown Massachusetts and New York City.

Carl Sandburg was born 1878 in Galesburg Illinois. Sandburg was a big noise in the first half of the 20th Century, and I maintain he is now the forgotten Modernist, and a man who strived to weave several important American threads.

Arthur Davison Ficke (born 1883 in Davenport) a now lesser-known, but fascinating figure that I’ve yet to grapple with. Like Ezra Pound, he was drawn to Japanese art, and like his post WWI hot-crush, Edna St. Vincent Millay, he attempted to utilize older forms such as the sonnet in an increasingly Modernist age. As part of this friction, he and his friends Witter Bynner and Marjorie Allen Seiffert (born 1885 in Moline across the river from Davenport) concocted the Spectrist movement, parodying the -ics and-ists schools that were forming in Modernism. Oddly, the parodist seems to have been captured by his game, and Ficke later reconsidered Modernist poetic tactics.

Muriel Strode born 1875 in rural Bernadotte Township Illinois. I haven’t quite gotten a grip on her yet (though she was sometimes styled as “The Female Walt Whitman”), but she wrote a number of books early in the 20th Century combining a sort-of-Kahlil-Gibran-like popular non-denominational spirituality with Nietzschean self-improvement. She’s the most little-known here by far. So little is known about her that one can’t really use biography to help sort out what she’s getting at.

There was even a younger generation that called Davenport it’s hometown. Floyd Dell (born 1887) the editor of The Masses  which in the early 20th century linked Modernism with left-wing politics until the red scare of 1917 closed it down, and Bix Beiderbecke (born 1903), the live-fast-die-young jazz composer and cornetist.

Folks from where the Mississippi meets the Rock river
They’d make one hell of a roundtable. From the upper left: Susan Glaspell, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Davison Ficke, Floyd Dell, Muriel Strode, and Bix Beiderbecke.

 

But since we last time touched on Dorothy Parker, let’s present a piece I slightly modified from a poem by Don Marquis, born 1878 in the tiny settlement of Walnut Illinois, but educated in Galesburg. Don Marquis is usually filed (like Parker) as a humorist, but like Parker he worked in various genres including collaboration with the Krazy Kat cartoonist George Herriman. Unlike some of the others here, it appears that Don Marquis’ most consistent connection to Modernism was to satirize it. Today’s audio piece, which I call “The Young Intellectual**”  pricked the romantic presumptions the young Modern of his time might suffer from. I updated part of one verse (the original next to last line was “I’ll start a Pale Brown Magazine”) when I performed it, an update I choose just so we can more easily feel offended or amused by his humor now. The player to hear the LYL Band performing this is below.

 

 

*My Great-grandfather lived on the Iowa side of these river-towns and worked in war-industry factories there. My father’s mother and her sister also grew up in the Davenport area. Alas, many of them died before I was old enough to ask questions, and one thing I regret about my youth is that I didn’t query those that were around.

**I’m not sure I qualify as an intellectual, but I’m sure I’m not young—so, Marquis can’t be talking about me now, can he. Like Ficke, Marquis also parodied Modernist verse, rather broadly from the examples I’ve read in his Hermione and Her Little Group of Thinkers  from 1916. Marquis’ greatest success was a series of later newspaper columns that became a series of books about “archy and mehitabel” ostensibly created and typed by a cockroach hopping on the typewriter keys in Marquis’ office. Archy, the cockroach/author, is also something of a free-verse poet, and Archy’s poems are a much subtler expression.

Don Marquis in the Tribune

Marq Daddy? He looks like an urban swell here, but the country he comes from they call the Midwest