American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Archive for December 2009

Between the Ghosts and the Guests

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Bob Arons in my father's room, trusty iPhone in hand.

For me this has been a more difficult year than most, beginning with my father’s stroke in February; then continuing through spring, when his survival was still uncertain; then through summer, when I was packing up his apartment; then through fall, as I waited for bed space to open up in a local nursing home. I’m still waiting.

Luckily for me, and thankfully for my father, numerous friends have helped in a substantive, ongoing way all through this travail, especially Bob. Bob’s loyalty to my father has been — there’s no other word for it — epic. “A poem including history,” if I can quote the old fascist in this context (Bob being a cousin of Joseph Rosen, and my father… well, I’ve written about that before).

Anyway, friendship aside, and perseverance aside, I’m glad that 2009 is done; pulverized into sand and trickled away. Now, instead of turning the glass over, let’s smash it, and learn to measure time in a new way.

Looking for an appropriate new year’s poem, I kept coming back to the one below. Not that my friends and loved ones are more dead than living — though I did lose my mother-in-law this year; I think of her often — only that “mist and shadow” block my sun. Temporarily, no doubt. 2010 is bound to bring more light. More clarity, if not more happiness, but more happiness surely. In the meantime, in loving memory of all those who did pass, here’s a poem written by Longfellow in 1870, when he was 63 years old, in the midst of a long twilight that began about nine years before, with the death of his beloved Fanny:

The Meeting

After so long an absence
At last we meet again:
Does the meeting give us pleasure,
Or does it give us pain?

The tree of life has been shaken,
And but few of us linger now,
Like the Prophet’s two or three berries
In the top of the uppermost bough.

We cordially greet each other
In the old, familiar tone;
And we think, though we do not say it,
How old and gray he is grown!

We speak of a Merry Christmas
And many a Happy New Year
But each in his heart is thinking
Of those that are not here.

We speak of friends and their fortunes,
And of what they did and said,
Till the dead alone seem living,
And the living alone seem dead.

And at last we hardly distinguish
Between the ghosts and the guests;
And a mist and shadow of sadness
Steals over our merriest jests.

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Written by Ben Friedlander

December 31, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Provenance

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(click on the image for a larger view)

Not poetry-related, but I thought I’d share anyway. The story of a book…

In the course of doing some prep work for next semester, I learned that the Bangor Public Library owns an original printing of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1860), the classic slave narrative by Harriet Jacobs. I love to hold an original edition, and this one in particular called out to me, as the author herself arranged for publication. It’s entirely credible to me that Jacobs once held this very copy in her hands.

So today I stopped by the library to take a look.

Because the book is precious, it’s kept in what’s called the  “cage,” an unfortunate designation given what Jacobs writes at the christening of her daughter:

When we left the church, my father’s old mistress invited me to go home with her. She clasped a gold chain round my baby’s neck. I thanked her for this kindness; but I did not like the emblem. I wanted no chain to be fastened on my daughter, not even if its links were of gold. How earnestly I prayed that she might never feel the weight of slavery’s chain, whose iron entereth into the soul!

But then again, maybe Jacobs would have appreciated the irony. The sentences above come at the end of a chapter called “Another Link to Life” — the other link being that very daughter gifted with a gold chain.

(click on the image for a larger view)

You can see from the photo above that the book was rebound at some point, with an art deco motif on the cover. I’m no expert on cover designs, but I’m guessing that this binding was added several years after donation, since art deco is associated with the later twenties and the book was given in 1918, as the book plate on the left indicates. The Bangor Public Library has a fair number of nineteenth-century items, many of them with original bindings, so there’s no reason to think the cover would have been changed as a matter of course. The point matters only because it gives some sense of how often the book was handled. I’d like to think it was handled often — often enough to require rebinding.

The book’s donor was Mary R. Spratt, principal of a now-defunct school on State Street, a fact I discovered with assistance from one of the reference librarians. I was curious about the book’s provenance, and thought there might be a story in it. The slave narrative was a neglected genre at the beginning of the twentieth century, little relied on even by historians of the period. This made me wonder about the person who cherished the book, who thought it important enough to give it to her city. I found the answer in an old newspaper file, an article on Spratt from the Bangor Daily Commercial, May 29, 1920: Read the rest of this entry »

Where’s That Back Pay!

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A little Christmas cheer for tough times, a Civil War poem by J. Ward Childs, of the 53rd Massachusetts Reg’t. Admittedly, the Christmas connection is very thin, but what the hay. Here’s the first stanza:

Boys, our back pay is a coming;
Nearly three months now is due;
And if Samuel don’t fork over,
We will put our Uncle through.
Yes, it’s coming: so is Christmas,
Which will get here first, I vow;
It is very hard to tell, boys,
But we’ll have it any how.

What I like best in the poem: the word “spondoolix,” an Americanism for money (derived from “greenbacks” according to Eric Partridge), which appears in the last stanza:

But, cheer up, boys, it’s coming,
Sure as rats it’s on the way;
Wont we have a time though, soldiers,
When we get hold of that back pay
The spondoolix must come down, boys,
That is all I’ve got to say;
For, that is what’s the matter, boys,
We must have that back pay.

For Christmas is coming, sure as rats. The spondoolix must come down, that is all I’ve got to say.

(The original broadside is reproduced below, thanks to America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets.)

Here’s the entry from Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English:

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 24, 2009 at 9:58 am

On Usury Laws

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Stan Apps has written a delightful essay on Pound’s “Usura” canto (link here), giving the poem credit for its beautiful language while calling in the chit for meaning. He does Pound a favor, taking the poem’s economic theory at face value — as Pound himself would have wanted — but of course this is no favor at all since Pound’s thinking is so shoddy in this context. Confronted with that shoddiness, many a critic has lent Pound a hand, and done such a good job, you cease to recognize the original structure. Other critics pause to gander, but move on quickly after noting the filth. A few others, very few, go through Pound’s premises room by room, identifying all the violations of code. The delight of Stan’s essay is its restraint: he observes Pound’s thought in all its ramshackle glory, but only in order to make a sketch, which he does with an architect’s eye. A piercing, disengaged appraisal.

My excuse for mentioning Pound here: Stan’s post brought to mind an 1836 essay by William Cullen Bryant, “On Usury Laws,” which adopts the exact opposite stance as The Cantos. For Bryant, money is a commodity like any other, entitled like any other to profitable investment; the usury laws, which fix the interest on loans, are a fetter on free trade. Like Pound, he denounces the ignorance of common understanding, but his ignorance is Pound’s corrective. Here is  Bryant’s opening paragraph:

The fact that the usury laws, arbitrary, unjust, and oppressive as they are, and unsupported by a single substantial reason, should have been suffered to exist to the present time, can only be accounted for on the ground of the general and singular ignorance which has prevailed as to the true nature and character of money. If men would but learn to look upon the medium of exchange, not as a mere sign of value, but as value itself, as a commodity governed by precisely the same laws which affect other kinds of property, the absurdity and tyranny of legislative interference to regulate the extent of profit which, under any circumstances, may be charged for it, would at once become apparent.

Bryant’s arguments are familiar enough: a lender’s return should be proportionate to risk; without that return, fewer loans would be made, and economic development would stifle. Also familiar: the laws hurt the very people they’re supposed to protect. OK, not very interesting. Worth maybe a sentence or two in a book on poetry and economics.

But it did give me a thought. Call it a thought bubble — better than an economic bubble: an episode of Deadliest Warrior, with Pound and Bryant doing battle. Crank up those computer simulations! If it’s not too prejudicial saying crank…

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 21, 2009 at 7:01 pm

For a Commonplace Book 7

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I found this gleeful dirge while poking through Documenting the American South; it comes from Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson, Twenty-four Years a Slave (1857), one of four “Songs of Freedom” appended to the final chapter — an antidote to the tearful death scenes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

The Slave’s Song When the Tyrant Master Dies

Come all my brethren and let us take a rest,
While the moon shines so bright and so clear;
Old master has died, and left us all at last,
He has gone to the bar to appear.
CHORUS: — Brethren, hang up the shovel and the hoe,
Take down the fiddle and the bow;
Old master’s gone to the slaveholder’s rest,
He’s gone where they all ought to go.

He will no more trample on the neck of the slave,
His back he’ll no longer score;
Old master is dead and he’s laying in his grave,
He is gone where they all ought to go.
CHORUS: — Brethren, &c.

I heard the old doctor say, the other night,
As he passed by the dining room door,
“Perhaps the old gentleman may live thro’ the night,
But I think he will die about four.”
CHORUS: — Brethren, &c.

Then old mistress sent me, at the peril of my life,
For the pastor to come down to pray;
“For,” says she, “old master is now about to die;”
And I says, “God speed him on his way.”
CHORUS: — Brethren, &c.

At four o’clock this morning the family were called
Around the old man’s dying bed,
And I tell you now I laughed to myself when I was told
That the old man’s spirit had fled.
CHORUS: — Brethren, &c.

The children all did grieve, and so did I pretend;
The old mistress nearly went mad;
And the old parson groaned so that the heavens fairly rend,
But I tell you now I felt mighty glad.
CHORUS: — Brethren, &c.

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 19, 2009 at 11:31 pm

A Kansas Condition of Text

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Kenneth Irby (from the back flap of his collected poems)

I’ve been rereading Kenneth Irby’s poetry with pleasure this week, in a book I didn’t even know was in production: The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962-2006 (North Atlantic Books, 2009) — a book that also includes a fair amount of writing new to me. Pierre Joris has already written a note, a brief one (link here). This will be more like a footnote; a lengthy one.

Irby’s work has deep roots in nineteenth-century American poetry. Whitman is a particular source — Whitman and Shelley provide the book’s epigraphs — though the result has little in common with the Shelleyan Whitman of Allen Ginsberg. Irby is hardly a “bard”! His Whitman’s tone is best caught, I think, in the sequence “Delius” (1974), about the British composer Frederick Delius, who made an orchestral setting of Whitman’s “Sea-Drift.” [1] It’s a moody piece of music, which like the sea touches disparate shores. In Irby’s poem, too, the sea is sound. His shores are places where the poem has left its lilac scent — the North Atlantic shore of Whitman; Grez-sur-Loing, in France, where Delius lived; Irby’s own California coast, at Point Reyes: Read the rest of this entry »

Variation on a Historical Theme

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I’ve been trying to get a fix on antebellum popular song, something that’s hard to do when you can’t read music. Something that’s probably hard to do anyway, since there aren’t any recordings. But even without reading music, it’s fun to nose around through the sheet music of the time. Something that’s easy to do thanks to American Memory, the Library of Congress website, which has an endless supply of it (drawn from the archives of Brown, Duke, and the Library of Congress itself).

What sort of stuff can you find there? Stuff like “Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe” (1853), an anti-abolitionist minstrel song with words by Charles Soran, music by Charles M. Stephani. I posted a page of the sheet music the other day, with a transcription of the lyrics. What follows are some contextual comments, of the sort I might make in the classroom … a first attempt to assimilate song to my account of the period’s poetic cultures.

I singled out this song in part because there’s a recording (link here) at one of my favorite websites, Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture; in part because the song illustrates so nicely the way art takes shape in response to historical events. And by “events” I don’t mean the overarching events like slavery and class stratification that gave shape to minstrelsy as a whole (a subject treated extensively by scholars, my favorite of these being William T. Lhamon in Raising Cain). I mean the more easily forgotten episodes that produce topical songs. “Topical” as in a medicine: something applied to the surface of the social body. Of course, when hucksters sell medicine, the result is often poison, and that’s the case here.

I won’t be speaking of the song as song, only of the sheet music as literary artifact. Not that I lack interest in the music. Rather, I feel inadequate to the task, not knowing, for instance, how accurate the recording might be in its instrumentation, performance style, or adherence to the score. I will say, though, that the available rendition — by Japher’s “Original” Sandy River Minstrels — reminds me of a record I had as a boy, from which I learned a number of classic children’s songs, among them two minstrel numbers that outlived blackface: “Jimmy Crack Corn” and “Oh! Susanna.” But to the sheet music… Read the rest of this entry »