Monday, December 16, 2013

Charles Ives: Essays Before a Sonata

Though his prose is often as challenging as his music, the writings of Charles Ives (particularly his Essays Before a Sonata and Memos) are of particular importance to the study of American Poetics, as they scrape at some difficult principals.

A central paradox of Ives's art is that, for all of the inventive technical breakthroughs of his music (so many that they have provided musicologists with enough tenure grist to feed several careers), his goals were never primarily technical. Innovation for innovation's sake, tempting though it might have been to countless composers who followed, couldn't have produced his art, nor would it have provided a significant enough goal to pull his substantial musical intellect through the uncharted waters he sailed.

In many ways, Ives is one of those extremely rare musicians whose intellectual orientation was more literary than musical. Richard Wagner is often discussed in a literary and philosophic light, placing him in a line of intellectuals running from Hegel and Kant through Schopenhauer to Nietzsche. This view of Wagner is so compelling that it can make his musical surroundings of Beethoven, von Weber, Liszt, Bruckner, and Mahler seem decidedly secondary--a mere happenstance of medium when considering his impact upon history. Ives's impact upon American and world history cannot be considered as immediate or as far reaching as Wagner's, but in his own way he occupies a similar position within American Poetics. It's Ives, arguably more than any purely literary followers, who expanded the vision of the New England Transcendentalists and their implications, relating these to different aspects of American culture and thought.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Carl Sandburg: Poor Man's Whitman

Most popular artists suffer some sort of extended backlash shortly after their deaths. There is an initial burst of recognition, to be sure, especially if they've been missing from the cultural scene for awhile before passing away. Communal guilt at the neglect shown in the declining years, perhaps, makes the country rush to the wake of the freshly deceased. Each surviving artist, critic, and various bastard progeny of the great one who is now gone seems eager to show where they fit in the grand civic family tree (usually with an eye on what's in the will). But then, once all the bones have been picked, and after each of the squabbling children have claimed their scrap of spotlight for inheritance, the inevitable backlash begins: the great one is now more of a burden than a help: the shadow is too long, too menacing. We must, after all, make room for ourselves.

Such has been the case, to a large degree, with Carl Sandburg. Wildly popularly in his own day, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, taught to at least two generations of school children in his own lifetime (with even schools named after him), he was rather quickly brushed under the carpet of poetic concerns shortly after his death in 1967. Born in 1972, my one and only exposure to him in school was a miniature from Chicago Poems, "Fog." I was in fifth grade, and "Fog" was one of five options for memorization and recitation. I chose it for one practical reason: it was shorter and easier to memorize than Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." And that was the last time I heard Sandburg mentioned during the rest of my education: the backlash was almost immediate and total.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Walt Whitman on Longfellow, Translation, and the American Poetic

America's specific strain of commercialism tends to turn human figures into cartoons, which in turn become stock characters in advertising schemes. An imprisoned bishop, who once rescued young women from sexual slavery by anonymous charity, is now remembered as an employee of Macy's: a fat, jolly elf dispensing toys for our insatiable appetites. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln hock cars each February. So long as they wear a powdered wig and stove pipe hat, we recognize them: all of our heroes become declawed, domesticated servants of the advertising agencies, eventually. Death is no deliverer from exploitation: Fred Astaire sold vacuum cleaners posthumously, Marilyn Monroe is the newest spokesmodel for Chanel. (Had Henry VIII been an American president, we'd likely see a cartoon King Hal selling women's hats.)

Poets, never high on any marketing executive's list, are nevertheless subject to a similar type of caricature--it is a bad national habit. Emily Dickinson is turned into a perpetually pouty teenager: her nuclear experiments and explosive results casually dismissed. Robert Frost's portrait hangs in our minds: the famous one never done by Norman Rockwell, with all of his dark hardness softened by the light bulb in the room. And Walt Whitman, perhaps the worst treated of all, has long become a flower child--naively open-armed, accepting of everything and anything, favored child of the universe wallowing in sensuality; amoral, materialistic, wholly non-judgmental and breaker of all ethical codes: the prophet and propagandist of selfishness.

Whitman's verse and his poetic theory are often popularly thought to be expressions of that very caricature, and while it would take several volumes to explain why this represents a shallow understanding of only selected parts of his poetic output, a quicker way to get a grasp of his poetic thought is to read his prose.

Because his verse was so revolutionary, we can make the mistake of thinking Whitman was, himself, a revolutionary: that he was oppositional in mindset towards other poets, aiming at overthrowing them all. Whitman disturbing the tea party with angry yawps, tearing down ivy covered walls, and wrecking the formal poems of the "Fireside Poets" with his surging waves might be the way we experience his verse, especially as a first impression in context, but his own writings suggest a more circumspect assessment.