The 1947 Club: The Fall of the Magicians by Weldon Kees

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I’ve decided to join the 1947 club!

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There’s a 1947 club in the blogosphere and this week people are reading books published in 1947.   The Fall of the Magicians by poet Weldon Kees was published in 1947.  Kees was one of the stranger blokes of the 20th century poetry world and also among the best.  Born in 1914 in  small Beatrice, Nebraska–a largely agricultural town just a tad north of the Kansas/Nebraska border—named after the teenaged daughter of a judge[by the way, it’s a bit like those cities in the USA with street names like Cindy Lou Drive or Patty Jane Boulevard or Annie Avenue] where Arby’s and Dairy Queen are in the top ten restaurants, according to Trip Advisor.  Was that even a sentence?  In 1885 40 acres of Beatrice were dedicated to the institution of “Feeble Minded Youth”.   With well over 1000 residents this institution (renamed the “Beatrice State Home” in 1945) may well have loomed over the everyday life of young Weldon Kees.

It took a while for Kees to get out of Nebraska, although he did have some schooling at the University of Missouri.  He arrived in New York City in 1941, ready to write and listen to jazz.   In 1950 Kees drove across country with his wife, Ann, to San Francisco where he worked with jazz musicians on ballads and torch songs and began taking professional photographs.  Ann had a nervous breakdown because she watched too much of the Army-McCarthy hearings on television.  They made her psychotic, which was an eminently reasonable reaction.   Kees started telling his friends that he wanted to commit suicide or that he wanted to disappear to Mexico and reinvent himself.    His car was found, abandoned, near the Golden Gate Bridge.  For decades people watched and waited for the real Weldon Kees to emerge from Mexico or some other hiding place.  That did not happen.  Perhaps he did end his life in July, 1955, at the age of 41.

About half of Kees’s poetry appeared in the 1947 volume, The Fall of the Magicians.  Kees explored America and its people through these works which include much bitterness and sardonicism.  The first poem, “Eight Variations” begins with:tapirs

Prurient tapirs gamboled on our lawns,

But that was quite some time ago.

Now one is accosted by asthmatic bulldogs,

Sluggish in the hedges, ruminant.

 bulldogsad

Readers are probably saying:  this is what’s wrong with poetry.  Tapirs are not prurient nor are the likely to have gamboled in our yards.  But you could also see that previously things were very sexy and full of meat and energy. Today’s bulldogs are slow because of their asthma.  They ruminate rather than play.  “Eight Variations” has got a Wallace Stevens quality beginning with the “prurient tapirs” and including haunted houses, Rousseau, couples called the Millotsons and the Farnsworths wintering on the coast of France, Victorian beadwork, grapes, and chimneys.  There’s a wasteland touch too:  the “brown weeds” in “parched and caking land”.  Beauty is a “topic for ill-mannered minds,” “gossip,” and “remote despair”.  As in Eliot’s The Waste Land when the typist home from tea has a quick and unsatisfying round of sex with the “young man carbuncular” the woman at the end of “Eight Variations” stands with her back turned to her lover, “quite alone”.   “Eight Variations” may be derivative, but it remains its own piece of art and social criticism.

My beloved poet, Donald Justice, a contemporary of Kees wrote that no one poem by Kees “stands out” and “there are no epics” but I would say that some of the poems do stand out from the really very high bar that Kees had already reached in this 1947 volume.

So why read Kees if he’s derivative?  He is original.  He found his own rather apocalyptic meaning is ways that are different that Eliot, who reached what he considered spiritual salvation and Wallace Stevens, who is always measured and a bit oracular but impersonally so, in most poems.

One of the best known works in this volume is “For My Daughter,” a sonnet:

For My Daughter

Looking into my daughter’s eyes I read

Beneath the innocence of morning flesh

Concealed, hintings of death she does not heed.

Coldest of winds have blown this hair, and mesh

Of seaweed snarled these miniatures of hands;

The night’s slow poison, tolerant and bland,

Has moved her blood. Parched years that I have seen

That may be hers appear: foul, lingering

Death in certain war, the slim legs green.

Or, fed on hate, she relishes the sting

Of others’ agony; perhaps the cruel

Bride of a syphilitic or a fool.

These speculations sour in the sun.

I have no daughter. I desire none.

This must have been written this past weekend in response to Donald Trump’s view of women, correct?  No, it was written in 1940 but first published in a volume in 1947.  This sonnet to a daughter is decidedly unconventional and defies other famous poems written by fathers to daughters, such as those by Ben Jonson, Longfellow, Yeats and others.  The speaker is worried that his innocent  daughter is doomed to dreadful experiences:  death and before that perhaps meanness and marriage to a “syphilitic or a fool.”  The final couplet surprises the read:  The speaker admits that he has no daughter; he does not want a daughter, hence his speculations are sour.  Yet Kees, to my mind, is expressing his anxiety about the children of a world at war, the children of a world where innocence is doomed.  It seems to be an excellent poem to read in conjunction with “The Second Coming” by Yeats.

This volume also contains “Five Villanelles” which proceed along an increasingly menacing trajectory.  The first examines a crack in the house:

The crack is moving down the wall

crackinthwall

The crack is moving down the wall.

Defective plaster isn’t all the cause.

We must remain until the roof falls in.

It’s mildly cheering to recall

That every building has its little flaws.

The crack is moving down the wall.

Here in the kitchen, drinking gin,

We can accept the damndest laws.

We must remain until the roof falls in.

And though there’s no one here at all,

One searches every room because

The crack is moving down the wall.

Repairs? But how can one begin?

The lease has warnings buried in each clause.

We must remain until the roof falls in.

These nights one hears a creaking in the hall,

The sort of thing that gives one pause.

The crack is moving down the wall.

We must remain until the roof falls in.

The second villanelle laments the bad behavior of men and how they go on to ruin women; the third villanelle looks at the “snug vantage point” of publishers who live to turn down works:  “I turned down Joyce myself.  It was the thing to do.”   In the fourth villanelle people are paralyzed and numbed because no messages will come.  They are entrapped in a soundless, speechless world.  The series of villanelles culminates in one that is about eternal war: “The truce was signed but the attack goes on.”

I plan to write more this week and hope that I will be accepted into the 1947 club.

William Wordsworth anticipates the material age

“The World Is Too Much with Us”

William Wordsworth

The World Is Too Much With Us (1806)

The world is too much with us: late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The sea that bares her bosom to the moon:
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for every thing, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.- Great God! I’d rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn

Wordsworth’s words and ideas seem ever-fresh to me. We do “lay waste our powers” with too much work, too much spending, too much debt, too much buying, to much chasing after credit cards. I can hardly boast that I am close to nature when I prefer nature through the mediation or poetry, novels, paintings, or other art works. I’d much rather listen to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony than walk through the fields.    This preference for art is a learned taste and one I am trying to remediate by walks

But by and large I’d rather experience “nature” through the eyes and words of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley or other poets than experience it for myself. I, too, am out of tune.  True confession.

Wordsworth would rather be a “pagan” than be out of touch with nature. I wonder what he saw as preferable to paganism?   At least he sees paganism as better than materialism.

Sometimes I like to paraphrase poems–the results are always terrible but this exercise (best done privately) helps me to clarify what I think the poem is about and what kinds of aesthetic merits are deeply lost when I translate poetry into prosaic English.
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Paraphrase:  The need for material goods seems more and more urgent and I’d rather go shopping than go on a walk. I’d rather work to earn money so that I can buy something….maybe a Hermes scarf or a Mont Blanc pen. True, I don’t have time for nature and I don’t look at the moon because I can’t stop watching reality tv. I’d rather see Taylor Swift  than the ocean or the flowers. But really, I’m not totally happy about this and I’d just as soon get back in touch with the days of Woodrow Wilson or Herbert Hoover if it meant that I could appreciate natural beauty again.
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See how much is lost? Not that I ever thought of Herbert Hoover as being Protean….wordsworthstrangefits

Wordsworth, brooding.

“He mutter spiffy”

berryman

 

So Long? Stevens

He lifted up, among the actuaries,
a grandee crow. Ah ha & he crowed good.
That funny money-man.
Mutter we all must as well as we can.
He mutter spiffy. He make wonder Henry’s
wits, though, with a odd

… something … something … not there in his flourishing art.
O veteran of death, you will not mind
a counter-mutter.
What was it missing, then,
at the man’s heart
so that he does not wound? It is our kind
to wound, as well as utter

a fact of happy world. That metaphysics
he hefted up until we could not breathe
the physics. On our side,
monotonous (or ever-fresh)—it sticks
in Henry’s throat to judge—brilliant, he seethe;
better than us; less wide.

—John Berryman
—from His Toy, His Dream, His Rest

Dream Song

John Berryman’s brilliant “Dream Song” is a good way to end the Wallace Stevens’s birthday week.  He loves Stevens, but feels that something is missing.  Of course the “funny money man” mutters spiffy.  But Henry feels that something is lacking.  He cannot quite put his finger on it but wants to issue a “counter-mutter”.    I don’t agree with his idea that Stevens does not wound, for I have been wounded by Stevens as often as any other great poet.  Perhaps more.  Stevens can wound me.   But different sorts of weapons wound different readers and perhaps Berryman is responding to some of the late poems that can seem very solemnly intellectually and even a bit cold.   Henry, Berryman’s alter ego, ends up asserting that while Stevens is brilliant, he is “less wide” than Henry.   It’s possible that Henry’s trauma’s are more deeply personal than those which Stevens reveals in his own poetry.  The dream songs are a brilliant and cohesive and very project; Stevens worked, I think, more broadly and widely than Berryman.

 

grandcrow

“How he rolls the vocables!”

rouse

“A Rouse for Stevens”

(To Be Sung in a Young Poet’s Saloon)

by Theodore Roethke

 

Wallace Stevens what’s he done?

He can play the flitter-flad;

He can see the second sun

Spinning through the lordly cloud.

He’s imagination’s prince:

He can plink the skitter-bum;

How he rolls the vocables,

Brings the secret — right in Here!

Wallace, Wallace, wo ist er?

Never met him, Dutchman dear;

If I ate and drank like him,

I would be a chanticleer.

( TOGETHER )

Speak it from the face out clearly:

Here’s a mensch but can sing dandy.

Er ist niemals ausgepoopen,

Altes Wunderkind.

( AUDIENCE )

Roar ’em, whore ’em, cockalorum,

The Muses, they must all adore him,

Wallace Stevens — are we for him?

Brother, he’s our father!

theodore_roethke

This rollicking  burlesque for young poets in tribute to Stevens just adds to the accumulation of respect Stevens received from other poets.   The jaunty style, the setting, the word-play are a fitting tribute to Stevens.   The Great Man of Hartford inspired many light verses in his honor.  Why?  Because Stevens can be so much fun to read.  Stevens can be a joy to imitate.  “Er ist niemals ausgepoopen,” probably means that “he is never screwed up” to offer  a very mild translation.

Roethke is a poet I cherish more with each passing decade.  He has affinities with Stevens and even if he’s squeamish about the line “Brother, he’s our father” much of his verse seems to be engaging with Stevens–conversing with him or talking back to him.

 

Listening:  “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  It’s somber organ chords and it’s repetitions make it a perfect autumnal piece.   And yet it’s also of a very English pastoral mood.  Like “The Lark Ascending” its aim seems to transcend the melancholy and lift the listening spirit.   I play this in tribute to Neville Marriner.  As my mother aged, the music of Delius and Vaughan Williams moved her more than any others and she reread Thomas Hardy with a fervency that I can identify with.

 

 

 

Saffron Ice-Cream

This is yet another part of my week-long tribute to the birthday of Wallace Stevens.  This short poem by British poet, Martin Bell (1918-1978) picks up on the gourmet/gourmand interests of Stevens.  It also reflects the variety of Stevens’s diction from the “Doggone” to the “rococo” and the dissonance between the praise and the bray.  “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” is certainly invoked.   It’s a nifty  six-line tribute to two men who toiled to illuminate the unconscious, the active imagination, and the many links between art and the human mind.

Martin Bell:

 

Wallace Stevens  Welcomes Doctor Jung into Heaven

‘Doggone, they’ve let you in at last, Doc! Gee,
I’m real glad .’ And indicated angels puffing horns
Rococo with praise and bray and bray,
And proffered to him saffron ice cream cones
Topped up with glacé cherries and chopped cashew nuts.
‘Ach! Horn of Plenty,’ the good Doctor said.saffronicecream

 

Notes on the day:  I’m currently listening to Haydn’s String Quartet Opus 76, number 5.  What harmonic playfulness!  He mixes his notes to achieve the “cantabile e mesto” attribution he gave it:  “singing and sad”.   I think 2016 can fairly be called the year of the string quartet for me.  I have had operatic years, symphonic years, years of concerti and ballet.  Years of all cello all the time and years of Maria Callas and Edward Elgar.

 

Reading:  I am currently reading White Trash:  The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by historian Nancy Isenberg.  I am only one generation away from “white trash” so I find the book particularly intriguing.  I am also reveling in the opposition:  The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchincloss, the saga of the headmaster of a prestigious New England boarding school.

“Lions in Sweden”: Happy Birthday, Wallace Stevens

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William Stafford on Wallace Stevens:

If I Could Be Like Wallace Stevens

The octopus would be my model—
it wants to understand; it prowls
the rocks a hundred ways and holds
its head aloof but not ignoring.
All its fingers value what
they find. “I’d rather know,” they say,
“I’d rather slime along than be heroic.”

 

My pride would be to find out; I’d
bow to see, play the fool,
ask, beg, retreat like a wave—
but somewhere deep I’d hold the pearl,
never tell. “Mr. Charley,”
I’d say, “talk some more. Boast again.”
And I’d play the banjo and sing.

 

I like the many Stevensian elements Stafford has included, although the Octopus seems to point much more to Marianne Moore than to Stevens.   “I’d rather slime along than be herioc” is a good motto for the true artist, who is caught up in his work and not looking for accolades.  Stafford humbly chooses the banjo as his instrument; ceding the guitar, I think, to Stevens.octopus

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Arpeggios of Autumn: Happy Birthday, Counselor Stevens

Today marks the  137th birthday of Wallace Stevens.   I cannot claim that I understand his work, but I am swooped into his colorful aesthetic world of gorgeous peacocks and bananas and colorful language and sound-effects.   He’s a poet of jollity and melancholy.  He’s a poet of range and arrangement.  He’s a poet of euphony and cachinnations.  He’s a poet of sensuous and sensual arousings and carousings.

I cannot explicate the pleasures of Stevens for you if you do not get them at once.   Imagine you are in an exciting art museum full of canvases splashed with color amidst some that are solemn and thoughtfully grey and cerebral.  That is Stevens.  You may not understand it  all, but it’s exciting especially if you allow yourself to enjoy the experience.   And in the museum there is a zoo of colorful animals living an active life of grooming and bellowing and making mating displays.  rousseaupainting

Here’s a taste of Stevens:  “Tinsel in February,” “Mrs. Alfred Uruguay,” “Tom-tom, c’est moi,”  “apostrophes are forbidden on the funicular,” “Old pantaloons, duenna of the spring!,”,”In the Clear Season of Grapes,” “Soupe Aux Perles:  Health-o, when ginger and fromage bewitch”, “Dezembrum,” A sunny day’d complete Poussiniana,” “Jot these milky matters down,” “The plum survives its poems,” “The moonlight / Fubbed the girandoles,” “Floral Decorations for Bananas,” “Gloomy grammarians in golden gowns.”

Yes, it is not great to take things out of context but these brief snippets of Stevens will, I hope, convince you that entering his glittery and giddy world can be a pleasure.