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November 22, 2009

Max Who?

 

Max Eastman (1883 - 1969) was an American poet, and political activist whose friendships and associations included some of the most recognizable names of the last century – including Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, Isadora Duncan, Ernest Hemingway, Sigmund Freud, H.L. Mencken and George Bernard Shaw. Eastman led a long and busy life - he wrote and published and advocated his opinions regularly and with conviction. So why isn’t he better known?

To put it most simply, because of those opinions. Over the course of his lifetime they swung through every point on the political compass from socialist to conservative as he went from activism, to disillusion, to bitter resentment. Generally speaking, if you hold on to your beliefs, and stay fixed in your opinions, you will have supporters and detractors and become a symbol of the left, or of the right, or more rarely, of moderation. If, like Eastman, you keep evolving in your views, your audience may not evolve with you. They may, in fact, revolt against you, or in Eastman’s case, forget about you altogether.

This is too bad in some respects, because Eastman, as it turns out, was not a bad poet. He wrote essays on poetry as well as several books of poems, and even a book on literary criticism. I have just finished editing Eastman’s 1918 anthology, Colors of Life, for the web. It includes a sampling of his earliest work, some imagist and narrative pieces, and selected songs and sonnets.

http://theotherpages.org/poems/books/eastman/eastman011.html

Here are a few samples:

 

Rainy Song

 


DOWN the dripping pathway dancing through the rain,
Brown eyes of beauty, laugh to me again!

Eyes full of starlight, moist over fire,
Full of young wonder, touch my desire!

O like a brown bird, like a bird's flight,
Run through the rain drops lithely and light.

Body like a gypsy, like a wild queen,
Slim brown dress to slip through the green--

The little leaves hold you as soft as a child,
The little path loves you, the path that runs wild.

Who would not love you, seeing you move,
Warm-eyed and beautiful through the green grove?

Let the rain kiss you, trickle through your hair,
Laugh if my fingers mingle with it there,

Laugh if my cheek too is misty and drips--
Wetness is tender--laugh on my lips

The happy sweet laughter of love without pain,
Young love, the strong love, burning in the rain.

 

The Net

 


THE net brings up, how long and languidly,
A million vivid quiverings of life,
Keen-finned and gleaming like a steely knife,
All colors, green and silver of the sea,
All forms of skill and eagerness to be--
They die and wither of the very breath
That sounds your pity of their lavish death
While they are leaping, star-like, to be free.
They die and wither, but the agéd sea,
Insane old salty womb of mystery,
Is pregnant with a million million more,
Whom she will suckle in her oozy floor,
Whom she will vomit on a heedless shore,
While onward her immortal currents pour.

Note - This third one is a little intense; you may wish to skip it. This is an even more graphic anti-war piece than Wilfed Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est."

 

In a Red Cross Hospital

 


TODAY I saw a face--it was a beak,
That peered, with pale round yellow vapid eyes,
Above the bloody muck that had been lips
And teeth and chin. A plodding doctor poured
Some water through a rubber down a hole
He made in that black bag of horny blood.
The beak revived, it smiled--as chickens smile.
The doctor hopes he'll find the man a tongue
To tell with, what he used to be.

So just how polarized were Eastman’s politics? In his youth he was a fervent socialist. As an editor of The Masses and publisher of The Liberator, he was an advocate of the ‘workng man’ and criticized US entry into World War I, and was twice arrested under the Sedition Act, being acquitted on both occasions. In 1924 he traveled to Russia to see Marxism first hand. The things he saw there - the political machinations of Trotsky and Stalin at close range - were a very sobering experience. In the end he wrote a calm, objective summary of the new Russian state – a work that was widely quoted but may have made him unpopular with former readers and associates.

Eastman wrote copiously on literature, psychology, philosophy, and social issues. He translated the works of Trotsky, whom he had befriended. He spent the next decade traveling and lecturing on literary, social and psychological topics. However, by the end of the Great Depression he was writing anti-socialist articles for Reader’s Digest and the conservative National Review.

By the 1950s things came full circle. Eastman grew ever more right wing in his opinions and his politics. He was a supporter of Eugene McCarthy and of the witch hunts for communists and communist sympathizers that ruined and blacklisted so many other writers, actors and artists in the 1950’s. Eastman went from being an activist to persecuting anyone who associated with activists, and betrayal is a form of misery that garners no company. Hence you ask, Max Who?

 

 

November 13, 2009

And now for a little light verse...

OK, after some solemn storytelling over the past few weeks it is probably time for some light verse. I mentioned Gelett Burgess in passing a while back. He wrote quite a few other works in addition to his infamous Purple Cow. When I get a chance, I’ll parse through his many books and add a few pieces. In the mean time I’ve added a few poems by Arthur Guiterman, and American poet, born in Austria in 1871 (a year that seems to have spawned numerous poets). He too was a prolific poet with a dozen or so books and serialization in The New Yorker magazine.

http://theotherpages.org/poems/new.html

Guiterman has a similar light touch of humor, whether he’s spoofing Marlowe, as in The Passionate Suburbanite To His Love, or whether he’s needling germophobic parents, as in Strictly Germ-proof (an apt selection in todays’s age of ‘Global Pandemic’ mania) which includes the lines:

They said it was a Microbe and a Hotbed of Disease;
They steamed it in a vapor of a thousand-odd degrees;
They froze it in a freezer that was cold as Banished Hope
And washed it in permanganate with carbolated soap.

The “it” by the way, was a rabbit. Even when Guiterman’s thoughts turn to mortality, it is in a humorous way, sort of a lighter version of Dorothy Parker, as in this poem:

On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness

THE tusks which clashed in mighty brawls
Of mastodons, are billiard balls.

The sword of Charlemagne the Just
Is Ferric Oxide, known as rust.

The grizzly bear, whose potent hug,
Was feared by all, is now a rug.

Great Caesar's bust is on the shelf,
And I don't feel so well myself.

Guiterman had a thoughtful side as well, poems such as In the Hospital and Heritage are good examples. Heritage, by the way, would be a good choice for Earth Day.

Also added recently are a poem by John Hall Wheelock, and two by John Gould Fletcher.

November 08, 2009

The Cockroach Poet and the King of Bohemia

 

Thirty-eight poems have been added. See the What's New Page (http://theotherpages.org/poems/new.htmloems/new.html) for a detailed listing.

About 2/3 are by Don Marquis, who has been very under-represented in the collection. Most are from Dreams and Dust, but there are two pieces of light verse from Noah an' Jonah an' Cap'n John Smith . Marquis is best known for his later poems -- supposedly written by a cockroach named Archy that used his typewriter after-hours.

The remainder are poems by George Sterling - another California poet, and disciple of Ambrose Bierce. Two things to note about the relationship: First, Sterling wrote a rather mediocre, rambling, overly descriptive and dark poem called The Wine of Wizardry. It reminds me of really bad scenery and special effects from an old Voyages of Sinbad movie. Howver Bierce, loyal to his disciple, praised it as the greatest work of American Poetry, and stuck with his praise despite the incredulity of others. Within the first few lines of the poem there are hints that he was not exactly sober when he wrote it.

Secondly, Sterling wrote poems in praise of his mentor, "The Master". One in particular, To Ambrose Bierce is essentially cursing anyone who dare defame or sully Bierce's name or reputation .

MASTER, when worms have had their will of thee,
And thou art but a voice along the years—
A star in the companionship of spheres
That are Fame's firmament—may God decree
That song and song's hostilities shall be
A sword within my hands, a flame that sears
The liar's mouth that slanders thee, nor fears
The vengeances of Truth's supremacy!

O Fates that on the tomb of greatness dead
Permit the viper and the toad to bask,
Lend me your youngest lightnings, and impel
My spirit as a whirlwind to the task
To char the liar's tongue within his head—
Like ashes on the adamant of Hell!

The irony (if not downright humor) in this is that the vast majority of Bierce's verses essentially call other people just that - liars, cheats, posers and charlatans. Bierces wrote countless scathing pieces about his contemporaries. Of course, THEY may have deserved it.

Sterling was also refered to as the King of Bohemia - he was the organizer of an annual theater sojourn in the local woods - writing some of the plays as well as acting in them.

Sterling is sometimes refered to as the Poet Laureate of San Francisco. He hung around with a literary crowd including Bierce, Jack London, Mary Austin and the recently featured Nora May French.

Sadly, the Bohemian life was not so care free for many of this group. Nora May committed suicide (while in Sterling's house), as did Sterliing's wife at a later date. Sterling himself succumbed to depression, alcohol, and likely drug use. He committed suicide in 1926.

His better stuff, I think, are his shorter pieces, like The Gleaner - a simple but powerful piece. I can almost see his personified Memory, searching for the people he has lost.

The Gleaner

OF ALL WE love or long for, what can last?
The brief arbutus shines where shone the snow;
The panic winds o'er dying flowers blow;
Far in the quiet woodland dies the blast.
Soft on the forehead of the hill are cast
The fleeting splendors of the afterglow;
Where sang the brook the desert lichens grow.
Who runs, shall find the feet of Change are fast.

Yet in the solitude of all that died
A Shadow roams the somber fields, long known,
Where ashen gardens house the pilgrim sands,
And mournful stars behold at eventide
How wanders peaceless Memory alone,
Seeking in dust the vanished lips and hands.

George Sterling
oems/new.html) for a detailed listing.About 2/3 are by Don Marquis, who has been very under-represented in the collection. Most are from , but there are two pieces of light verse from . Marquis is best known for his later poems -- supposedly written by a cockroach named Archy that used his typewriter after-hours. The remainder are poems by George Sterling - another California poet, and disciple of Ambrose Bierce. Two things to note about the relationship: First, Sterling wrote a rather mediocre, rambling, overly descriptive and dark poem called . It reminds me of really bad scenery and special effects from an old movie. Howver Bierce, loyal to his disciple, praised it as the greatest work of American Poetry, and stuck with his praise despite the incredulity of others. Within the first few lines of the poem there are hints that he was not exactly sober when he wrote it. Secondly, Sterling wrote poems in praise of his mentor, "The Master". One in particular, is essentially cursing anyone who dare defame or sully Bierce's name or reputation . MASTER, when worms have had their will of thee, And thou art but a voice along the years— A star in the companionship of spheres That are Fame's firmament—may God decree That song and song's hostilities shall be A sword within my hands, a flame that sears The liar's mouth that slanders thee, nor fears The vengeances of Truth's supremacy! O Fates that on the tomb of greatness dead Permit the viper and the toad to bask, Lend me your youngest lightnings, and impel My spirit as a whirlwind to the task To char the liar's tongue within his head— Like ashes on the adamant of Hell! The irony (if not downright humor) in this is that the vast majority of Bierce's verses essentially call other people just that - liars, cheats, posers and charlatans. Bierces wrote countless scathing pieces about his contemporaries. Of course, THEY may have deserved it.Sterling was also refered to as the King of Bohemia - he was the organizer of an annual theater sojourn in the local woods - writing some of the plays as well as acting in them. Sterling is sometimes refered to as the Poet Laureate of San Francisco. He hung around with a literary crowd including Bierce, Jack London, Mary Austin and the recently featured Nora May French. Sadly, the Bohemian life was not so care free for many of this group. Nora May committed suicide (while in Sterling's house), as did Sterliing's wife at a later date. Sterling himself succumbed to depression, alcohol, and likely drug use. He committed suicide in 1926.His better stuff, I think, are his shorter pieces, like The Gleaner - a simple but powerful piece. I can almost see his personified Memory, searching for the people he has lost.OF ALL WE love or long for, what can last? The brief arbutus shines where shone the snow; The panic winds o'er dying flowers blow; Far in the quiet woodland dies the blast. Soft on the forehead of the hill are cast The fleeting splendors of the afterglow; Where sang the brook the desert lichens grow. Who runs, shall find the feet of Change are fast. Yet in the solitude of all that died A Shadow roams the somber fields, long known, Where ashen gardens house the pilgrim sands, And mournful stars behold at eventide How wanders peaceless Memory alone, Seeking in dust the vanished lips and hands. George Sterling

November 05, 2009

Nora May French

I've recently run across a group of California poets I was previously unfamiliar with. The first of these is Nora May French, who reminds me in some ways of Muriel Stuart. Her life was short, eventful, and unhappy in many respects. Her poetry is concise, sometimes verging on imagist, with unexpected word choices. It is thoughtful, wistful, but not as somber or tragic as her actual life. I use 'tragic' here as it is appropriate in both the classical and modern senses. Several similar versions of her biography are available online. She started writing poems at age 12, and had written about 70 by the time of her death by suicide in 1907 at age 26. her friends published a number of her works in 1910.

A sampling:

Between Two Rains

IT IS a silver space between two rains;
The lulling storm has given to the day
An hour of windless air and riven grey;
The world is drained of color; light remains.
Beyond the curving shore a gull complains;
Unceasing , on the bastions of the bay,
With gleam of shields and veer of vaporing spray
The long seas fall, the grey tide wars and wanes.

It is a silver space between two rains:
A mood too sweet for tears, for joy too pale—
What stress has swept or nears us, thou and I?
This hour a mist of light is on the plains,
And seaward fares again with litten sail
Our laden ship of dreams adown the sky.

Ave Atque Vale

IT GATHERS where the moody sky is bending.
It stirs the air along familiar ways—
A sigh for strange things forever ending.
For beauty shrinking in these alien days.

Now nothing is the same; old visions move me:
I wander silent through the waning land.
And find for youth and little leaves to love me
The old, old lichen crumbling in my hand.

What shifting films of distance fold you, blind you.
The windy eve of dreams, I cannot tell.
I know they grope through some strange mist to find you.
My hands that give you Greeting and Farewell.

San Francisco New Year's, 1907

(Nora moved to san Francisco in the later part of 1906 - the great earthquake and resulting fires leveled much of the city in April of that year)

SAID the Old Year to the New: "They will never welcome you
As they sang me in and rang me in upon my birthday night—
All above the surging crowd, bells and voices calling loud—
A throng attunded to laughter and a city all alight.

"Kind had been the years of old, drowsy-lidded, zoned with gold;
They swept their purples down the bat and sped the homeward keel;
The years of fruits and peace, smiling days and rich increase—
Too indolent with wine and sun to grasp the slaying steel.

"As my brothers so I came, panther-treading, silken, tame;
The sword was light within my hand, I kept it sheathed and still—
The jeweled city prayed me and the laughing voices stayed me—
A little while I pleased them well and gave them all their will.

"As a panther strikes to slay, so I wrenched my shuttering prey.
I lit above the panic throng my torches' crimson flare;
For they made my coming bright and I gave them light for light—
I filled the night with flaming winds and Terror's streaming hair.

"They were stately walls and high—as I felled them so they lie—
Lie like bodies torn and broken, lie like faces seamed with scars;
Here where Beauty dwelt and Pride, ere my torches flamed and died,
The empty arches break the night to frame the tranquil stars.

"Though of all my brothers scorned, I, betrayer, go unmourned,
It is I who tower shoulder-high above the level years;
You who come to build anew, joy will live again with you,
But mightiest I who walked with Death and taught the sting of tears!"

November 03, 2009

Scarrier than Halloween



I have recently updated Stephen Crane's War is Kind and Other Lines to the latest Bookshelf format.  Crane was a Journalist, Author, and Poet, known for his war dispatches, and in his novel, The Red badge of Courage.

Crane also wrote two books of blank verse - he called them 'lines' instead of poems. Most of them reflect his grim, damaged view of the world - immersed in war and its tragedies; Irate at the inequity and injustice he had observed in early industrialized urban life in New York - things Upton Sincliar would write about a few years later in Chicago. Crane also was a very prolific writer but never seemed to make financial ends meet. He was often in ill health, beset by critics both real and perceived, and frequently criticized for his associations.

Little wonder that his poems have such a somber tone - Not simply ironic, but darker - like Ambrose Bierce's short stories. Much of Crane's view of life can be summed up by line number three:

III

To the maiden
The sea was blue meadow,
Alive with little froth-people
Singing.

To the sailor, wrecked,
The sea was dead grey walls
Superlative in vacancy,
Upon which nevertheless at fateful time
Was written
The grim hatred of nature.

Or the better known line number twenty-one:

XXI

A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."


Crane's subject matter is the indifference (or hostility) of nature, and the failings of man and all of his institutions - from the prophet to the politician, from the church to the newspaper. Many of his poems revolve around the falibility of the individual - sometimes we are clueless, and sometimes we know better, but make the wrong choice anyway:

XXII

When the prophet, a complacent fat man,
Arrived at the mountain-top,
He cried: "Woe to my knowledge!
I intended to see good white lands
And bad black lands,
But the scene is grey."

XIII

The wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
"Ha," he said,
"I see that none has passed here
In a long time."
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
"Well," he mumbled at last,
"Doubtless there are other roads."

But not every one of Cranes lines is a recipe for depression. Take this one for example, reminiscent of Yeats' Cloths of Heaven:

XXIV

Ay, workman, make me a dream,
A dream for my love.
Cunningly weave sunlight,
Breezes, and flowers.
Let it be of the cloth of meadows.
And -- good workman --
And let there be a man walking thereon.

So judge for yourself which is scarier in the end -- the contrived stories that surround All Hallow's Eve (Halloween), or the dark, mysterious allegories of Stephen Crane? And mind you, beware the snakes.

--Steve

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