Thursday, March 31, 2022

Robert Frost / let what burrs will stick to them

Nature-Themed Poster © Roy R. Behrens 2019
Louis Untermeyer, FROM ANOTHER WORLD: The Autobiography of Louis Untermeyer. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939—

…[the poet Robert Frost] was the friend of [British poet and critic Lascelles] Abercrombie whom [American poet Ezra] Pound had challenged to a duel, the weapons to be unsold copies of their books at thirty paces. (p. 208)

[Frost] wrote to me: “There are two types of realist—the one who offers a good deal of dirt with his potato to show that it is a real one, and the one who is satisfied with the potato brushed clean. I’m inclined to be the second kind. To me the thing that art does for life is to clean it, to strip it to form.” (p. 209)

[Quoting from Frost’s preface to his own Collected Poems:] “Scholars and artists thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ. Both work from knowledge; but I suspect they differ more importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.” (p. 210)

Monday, March 21, 2022

too late / sick, dried up, and have no strength

Vachel Lindsay album cover
Eleanor Ruggles, The West-Going Heart: A Life of Vachel Lindsay. New York: W.W. Norton, 1959—

From Cambridge, Massachusetts, the psychologist and philosopher William James acknowledged receipt of The Tramp’s Excuse and War Bulletin Number Three [which the poet Vachel Lindsay had sent him without asking]. Lindsay had read James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, pondering it in the light of his [own] visions, and James was touched that this unknown youth should turn for “comradeship” to an academic personage like himself.

Only it was, he said, “too late, too late!”

He [James] was writing in October 1909, ten months before his death. “I am sick, dried up, have no strength to read aught but the barely needful for my own tasks, have grown, moreover, positively to hate poetry in these last years. I can only stand old poems learned by heart in my childhood and adolescence. How then should I shoot the rapids and ride the whirlwind and tramp the wilderness with you?”

James was not at all sure that he understood the “Map of the Universe.” “I do think Bulletin No. 3 anarchistic; I do think it incoherent; but I do think it may represent an excellent personal religion. Don’t enter the Catholic priesthood, whatever you do! Your semi-automatic inspirations are very interesting, in conjunction with your free attitude toward them…

“Go in peace and God be with you, brilliant being that you are, and leave me to my decrepitude.” [pp. 160-161].


[Sixteen years later] In Washington [DC], in the dining room of the Wardman Park Hotel, a brown-skinned bus boy in a white jacket ignored senators and oil magnates, sidled shyly up to the wall table at which the only poet in the crowded room sat opposite his wife and laid a slim manuscript by [Vachel] Lindsay’s plate, That evening Lindsay opened his recital in the little theater of the hotel by reading the poems the boy had given him. It was the beginning of fame for the young Negro poet Langston Hughes” [p. 353].

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Vachel Lindsay | the fate of an unbroken colt

Index of American Design (Public Domain)
Eleanor Ruggles, The West-Going Heart: A Life of Vachel Lindsay. New York: W.W. Norton, 1959, pp. 185-186—

Though by day the sky was a bright Kansas blue and the sun descended on the prairie like the stroke of a golden hammer, there was darkness and death at the Weaver place. Both Frank and his brother Forrest, who worked with him, had a certain hard attractiveness—“but their cruelty,” pronounced Lindsay in his diary, “was bottomless.”

On Sunday, July 7, he was in the sitting room writing letters when he heard a fearful row out beyond the barn. Frank and Forrest were exciting themselves by disciplining Dick, a frisky broncho colt, whom they had tied up and were beating over the head—one with a doubletree [a harnessing cross bar], the other with a pitchfork handle—while Forrest plied himself with swigs of whisky so that he could be as mean as Frank.

Lindsay heard the roars, oaths, thuds of the bar and stick, whinnies of pain and tattoo of hoofs all the long afternoon till at six o’clock Frank's fat and patient wife May ran over to the barn and protested, reminding the men it was Sunday and warning them they wouldn’t be blest and would lose a day’s harvest.

On Monday morning the little broncho Dick was hitched to the reaper along with three large mules. He went dancing out to the field, looking devilish, defiantly objecting to keeping his head on a line with the others and hauling the great load almost by himself. That night he came dancing home. On Tuesday he went out again dancing for battle, but returned at night dragging and panting.

On Wednesday, just past the hottest hour, Lindsay was working in the field with Forrest. About three o’clock the pony, who till then had been feebly dancing, went mad. He strained against his halter. His eyes were distended. Blood oozed from his mouth. His hide—a mass of wounds from Sunday’s torture—was clustered thick as fly paper with thirstily sucking flies.

Lindsay, who had never quite overcome his childhood terror of horses, put fear behind him and between them he and Forrest managed to pull the lunging animal away from the mules and restrain him by two halter ropes while Frank, the more savage brother, was sent for. Frank, cursing, tried to lead Dick back to the barn, but when they reached the pasture of long uncut prairie grass the pony sank down into it and kicked the air convulsively with all four feet. Then his heart broke and he died.

“If God gives me grace,” Lindsay pledged, alone with his diary, “some day I shall write his memorial—THE BRONCHO THAT WOULD NOT BE BROKEN.”


NOTE In the decades following World War I, Nicholas Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) was among the best-known poets in the US. His most popular poems include “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” and “The Congo.” He traveled across the country, by walking, surviving in part by “singing” his poems and working as a short-term farm worker. Overcome by financial difficulties and depression, he took his own life on December 5, 1931, by drinking a bottle of lye. 

The aesthetic value of rhymes, alliteration, and other language patterns, not unlike those that Lindsay used, are discussed in a 30-minute video here (free, with online access).

Saturday, March 12, 2022

as if jack were struck dumb in the pulpit of golf

a bouquet of golf clubs
Burges Johnson, As Much as I Dare: A Personal Recollection. New York: Ives Washburn, 1944, p. 105—

After I had married and moved to Long Island, my cousin Tristam Burges Johnson died most dramatically in Washington DC.…While he was playing golf with Edgar Poe [a descendant of the writer] a storm threatened; there was no rain but some muttering of thunder. Poe went back to the club house, but Tristam walked across the links with an iron club over his shoulder to follow up one more shot, was struck by lightning and instantly killed. There was no other lightning flash and no rain storm followed. Naturally it made a dramatic story for the papers. Dr. [Henry L.] Stimson, who had not seen me for a long time, saw the headlines and [confusing Burges Johnson for his cousin] announced from his pulpit the death of a young man from his congregation. Then he wrote a letter to my young wife which I have always wanted to have framed because it seems to me that it is the only truly appreciative statement of my many virtues that I have ever read. Dr. Stimson was naturally embarrassed when he received my wife’s reply and I think always felt that the lightning had hit the wrong man.

* Edgar Allan Poe (1871-1961), who was Attorney General of the State of Maryland in 1911-1915, was a second cousin of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), the celebrated writer. As a student at Princeton, he was the quarterback and captain of the football team in his junior and senior years, and was named All-American in 1889. After a football game in which Princeton beat Harvard, 41–15, someone from Harvard asked a Princeton alumnus whether Poe was related to “the great Edgar Allan Poe,” in response to which the alumnus said, “He is the great Edgar Allan Poe.”

Friday, March 11, 2022

recalling the death of Iowa poet Michael Andorf

Michael Andorf (1947-2022) was an Iowa-born poet, who, at earlier times in his life, served in the US Navy, worked on farms for numerous years, and operated a snow plow, as a road maintenance worker. He and I grew up at around the same time, only a few miles apart. And while I was long familiar with his name and his poetry, the two of us didn't actually meet until about ten years ago. 

When we did connect in person, it was largely because of our memories of a wonderful teacher of Literature and Theatre (at Independence High School), named Florence Helt. She was something, we agreed, and two of us were forever convinced that she had been a key factor in our shared thirst for writing. 

In 2013, while I was teaching graphic design at the University of Northern Iowa, Michael agreed to come to my class as a visiting speaker. He read a number of his poems, which the students then responded to by designing digital images that "belonged with" each of those poems. When printed, multiples of the book were produced, assembled and bound in the form of a book. We gave signed copies to Michael, and a single copy was given to each student designer, as well as to regional archives. 

In recent years, I've remained in touch with Michael, primarily through emails. I have always enjoyed his humor, and a chance to read his latest poems. I was saddened to learn that he died less than a week ago, on Saturday, on March 5, 2022. Here is an online connection to a pdf version of the book of poems that he, my students, and I produced just nine years ago. Please do share with others.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

the world's prettiest girls live in Des Moines IA

Roy R. Behrens, "Allen Ginsberg in Cedar Falls" in The Iowa Source, Vol 39 No. 3 (March 2022), pp. 13ff— 

In the 1960s, as a high school student in Iowa, I was an avid follower of MAD Magazine. I also subscribed to the Village Voice. Concerned about my waywardness, my mother arranged for me to meet with a religious elder for an advisory conversation. I was a youthful artist then, and during that meeting the subject turned to visual art. The sagacious elder said to me that, only that morning, he had read an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that claimed that “Modern Art is a dung heap.”

Moments later, I was somewhat put at ease when he laughed goodnaturedly and said that it was his opinion that there was no reason for anyone to worry about me—I was simply going through a phase. Most likely, the source of my problem, he said, was that I was reading “too much MAD Magazine.” Out of politeness, I didn’t respond. But in my mind I wondered if the source of his problem was that he was reading “too much Wall Street Journal.”

I recall that a further concern at the time was my new-found interest in the Beat Generation and in writers referred to as “beatniks.” A few years earlier, a former football player from Lowell, Mass., named Jack Kerouac (one of whose high school classmates had been Ray Goulding of the hilarious Bob and Ray radio comedy team) had published a rambling, unorthodox novel called On the Road. Among my chief interests was literature, controversial or not. I had first read Kerouac’s book around 1962, including that now-famous passage in which he lamented having traveled through Iowa too quickly—“past the pretty girls, and the prettiest girls in the world live in Des Moines.”

When On the Road was first released in 1957, reactions from critics were radically mixed. As its notability spread, so did the fame of its author, who soon became referred to as the King of the Beats. His book was a pivotal influence on a generation of writers, musicians, and others, among them the Beatles, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and Jim Morrison.… more>>>

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

in which William Bailey meets Albers at Yale

Josef Albers at Yale
American artist William H. Bailey, excerpted from an Oral History Interview conducted during October 10 through December 5, 2012. Available online at the Archives of American Art

[While attending Cooper Union in 1953, and looking for an alternative school, someone] told me about Josef Albers and Yale. He said, "You might try going up there, because this man Albers has just arrived, and he’s changed everything there. And it should be a really interesting place.”

And so, I took a train up to Yale—to New Haven. I was told that I couldn't see Albers because I didn't have an appointment. Just then Albers opened the door to his office and said, “Do you want to see me, boy?” I said, “Yes.”…

I had this same little envelope of drawings, and a few black and white photographs of paintings that I had done. He showed me into his office, which was a spartan room with a door for the desk, and sawhorses holding the door up. Plain straight chairs, a huge plant by the window, glorious light coming in through the window, and this little man dressed [in] various grays, I remember. A gray suit, another kind of woven gray tie—probably woven by [his wife] Anni [Albers]—and a white shirt. Silver hair coming sort of Hitler-like across his brow. He looked at the things, and he proceeded to give me the most ferocious critique I'd ever had in my life. I was stunned, because people had always been very nice to me. They’d all agreed—whatever other things that were against me, yes, I was talented. He wouldn't grant me even talent! He just ripped into things! And then, here and there, he'd say, “But this is—here you see something! And here.”

So I was in this stunned state, when things calmed down. And he asked me about my life, and about the war, and what I’d been doing, and my ambitions and so on. And finally he said, “Okay, I take you!” I hadn't been applying. I mean, I just was there to find out about things. He said, “I take you.” I said, “Wait a minute! How much does it cost?” He said, “I don't know—ask the secretary!”