Thursday, February 09, 2006

When it occurred to me last Sunday that Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945, was a great source for thinking further about neglectorinos in poetry in general, I noted that

Nelson attempts to describe all of American poetry over that 35 year span by starting with its most despised position, leftwing doggerel in radical newsletters, and proceeding outward from there.

And followed that up by pulling my copy of Cary’s tome out of the bookcase, thinking to myself how a third reading might not be such a bad idea – particularly since the first two were of slightly different versions, the first time in manuscript, the second in hardback. That makes a difference, actually, since in the hardback the footnotes are treated as end-notes, but in manuscript they ran across the bottom of every page. Nelson’s primary text – punctuated by eight color plates and over 50 other illustrations from the small presses of the period to demonstrate exactly how these poems existed & operated in context at the time they were published – is not so much a history as it is a meditation on canonicity, on how canons are formed with some poets invited into the Pantheon while others, most actually, are gradually airbrushed from the histories of their time so as not to clutter future histories with messy & contradictory “facts.” It’s the footnotes to this discussion that is the history, richly detailed. There are 270 of them altogether & in the manuscript they often take up half or more of any given page. Even in small-type end-note form, they run some 73 pages and make Repression and Recovery the only book I know that could legitimately – and usefully – be read for its footnotes alone.

Nelson notes – I want to say “at the beginning,” but that’s really because the primary text has so very few paragraphs (and no chapter or section divisions at all) that it feels like we’ve barely just begun even tho we’re already on page 62 – that no organization on the American left during the period in question put the role of poetry more prominently than the International Workers of the World, the Wobblies or IWW. Over the next few pages Nelson briefly discusses the work of the three most prominent Wobbly poets, Ralph Chaplin, Covington Hall and Arturo Giovannitti.

Later that day, as I’m thinking about what I want to read & write about over the next week or two, I glance over the stacks of unread books of poetry I keep up in my bedroom – that’s in addition to the eight-foot-tall bookcase I have of them there. Sitting literally atop the leftmost stack of books is Arrows in the Gale & Other Poems by the same aforesaid Giovannitti, just republished by Quale, the same press that issued Holly Iglesias’ Boxing Inside the Box. Quale publisher Gian Lombardo definitely has a thing about publishing works with an edge, items that nobody else might dare handle.

Arrows in the Gale is just such a project. The title series – roughly the first third of the book – is the volume that Giovannitti published first in 1914, the book that cemented his legacy as the Wobbly Poet. The other poems were mostly written later & not gathered into book form until 1962, three years after his death at the age of 73.¹ “The Walker,” written while Giovannitti was in jail awaiting trial for murder in 1912² is his most famous poem. It’s interesting to think not only of Walt Whitman, but of Ginsberg’s Howl, when reading this text.

I hear footsteps over my head all night.

They come and they go. Again they come and they go all night.

They come one eternity in four paces and they go one eternity in four paces, and between the coming and the going there is Silence and the Night and the Infinite.

For infinite are the nine feet of a prison cell, endless is the march of him who walks between the yellow brick wall and the red iron gate, thinking things that cannot be chained and cannot be locked, but that wander far away in the sunlit world, each in a wild pilgrimage after a destined goal.

* * *

Throughout the restless night I hear the footsteps over my head,

Who walks? I know not. It is the phantom of the jail, the sleepless brain, a man, the man, the Walker.

One-two-three-four: four paces and the wall.

One-two-three-four: four paces and the iron gate.

He has measured his pace, he has measured it accurately, scrupulously, minutely, as the hangman measures the rope and the gravedigger the coffin – so many feet, so many inches so many fractions of an inch for each of the four paces.

One-two-three-four. Each step sounds heavy and hollow over my head, and the echo of each step sounds hollow within my head as I count them in suspense and in dread that once, perhaps, in the endless walk, there may be five steps instead of four between the yellow brick wall and the red iron gate.

But he has measured the space so accurately, so scrupulously, so minutely that nothing breaks the grave rhythm of the slow, fantastic march.

* * *

When All are asleep, (and who knows but I when all sleep?) three things are still awake in the night. The Walker, my heart and the old clock which has the soul of a fiend – for never, since a coarse hand with red hair on its fingers swung for the first time the pendulum in the jail, has the old clock tick-tocked a full hour of joy.

Yet the old clock which marks everything and records everything, and to everything tolls the death knell, the wise old clock that knows everything, does not know the number of the footsteps of the Walker nor the throbs of my heart.

For not for the Walker, nor for my heart is there a second, a minute, an hour or anything that is in the old clock – there is nothing but the night, the sleepless night, the watchful night, and footsteps that go, and footsteps that come and the wild, tumultuous beatings that trail after them forever.

* * *

All the sounds of the living beings and inanimate things, and all the voices and all the noises of the night I have heard in my wistful vigil.

I have heard the moans of him who bewails a thing that is dead and the sighs of him who tries to smother a thing that will not die;

I have heard the stifled sobs of the one who weeps with his head under the coarse blankets, and the whisperings of the one who prays with his forehead on the hard, cold stone of the floor;

I have beard him who laughs the shrill sinister laugh of folly at the horror rampant on the yellow wall and at the red eyes of the nightmare glaring through the iron bars;

I have heard in the sudden icy silence him who coughs a dry ringing cough and wished madly that his throat would not rattle so and that he would not spit on the floor, for no sound was more atrocious than that of his sputum upon the floor;

I have heard him who swears fearsome oaths which I listen to in reverence and awe, for they are holier than the virgin's prayer;

And I have heard, most terrible of all, the silence of two hundred brains all possessed by one single, relentless, unforgiving desperate thought.

All this have I heard in the watchful night,
And the murmur of the wind beyond the walls,
And the tolls of a distant bell,
And the woeful dirge of the rain,

And the remotest echoes of the sorrowful city

And the terrible beatings, wild beatings, mad beatings of the One Heart which is nearest to my heart.

All this have I heard in the still night;

But nothing is louder, harder, drearier, mightier or more awful than the footsteps I hear over my head all night.

* * *

Yet fearsome and terrible are all the footsteps of men upon this earth, for they either descend or climb.

They descend from little mounds and high peaks and lofty altitudes through wide roads and narrow paths, down noble marble stairs and creaky stairs of wood – and some go down to the cellar, and some to the grave, and some down to the pits of shame and infamy, and still come to the glory of an unfathomable abyss where there is nothing but the staring white, stony eyeballs of Destiny.

And again other footsteps climb. They climb to life and to love, to fame, to power, to vanity, to truth, to glory and to the scaffold – to everything but Freedom and the Ideal.

And they all climb the same roads and the same stairs others go down; for never, since man began to think how to overcome and overpass man, have other roads and other stairs been found.

They descend and they climb, the fearful footsteps of men, and some limp, some drag, some speed, some trot, some run – they are quiet, slow, noisy, brisk, quick, feverish, mad, and most awful is their cadence to the ears of the one who stands still.

But of all the footsteps of men that either descend or climb, no footsteps are so fearsome and terrible as those that go straight on the dead level of a prison floor, from a yellow stone wall to a red iron gate.

* * *

All through the night he walks and he thinks. Is it more frightful because he walks and his footsteps sound hollow over my head, or because he thinks and speaks not his thoughts?

But does he think? Why should he think? Do I think? I only hear the footsteps and count them. Four steps and the wall. Four steps and the gate. But beyond? Beyond? Where goes he beyond the gate and the wall?

He goes not beyond. His thought breaks there on the iron gate Perhaps it breaks like a wave of rage, perhaps like a sudden flood of hope, but it always returns to beat the wall like a billow of helplessness and despair.

He walks to and fro within the narrow whirlpit of this ever storming and furious thought. Only one thought – constant, fixed immovable, sinister without power and without voice.

A thought of madness, frenzy, agony and despair, a hellbrewed thought, for it is a natural thought. All things natural are things impossible while there are jails in the world – bread, work, happiness, peace, love. But he thinks not of this. As he walks he thinks of the most superhuman, the most unattainable, the most impossible thing in the world:

He thinks of a small brass key that turns just half around and throws open the red iron gate.

* * *

That is all the Walker thinks, as he walks throughout the night.

And that is what two hundred minds drowned in the darkness and the silence of the night think, and that is also what I think.

Wonderful is the supreme wisdom of the jail that makes all think the same thought. Marvelous is the providence of the law that equalizes all, even, in mind and sentiment. Fallen is the last barrier of privilege, the aristocracy of the intellect. The democracy of reason has leveled all the two hundred minds to the common surface of the same thought.

I, who have never killed, think like the murderer;

I, who have never stolen, reason like the thief;

I think, reason, wish, hope, doubt, wait like the hired assassin the embezzler, the forger, the counterfeiter, the incestuous, the raper, the drunkard, the prostitute, the pimp, I, I who used to think of love and life and flowers and song and beauty and the ideal.

A little key, a little key as little as my little finger, a little key of shining brass.

All my ideas, my thoughts, my dreams are congealed in a little key of shiny brass.

All my brain, all my soul, all that suddenly surging latent power of my deepest life are in the pocket of a white-haired man dressed in blue.

He is great, powerful, formidable, the man with the white hair, for he has in his pocket the mighty talisman which makes one man cry, and one man pray, and one laugh, and one cough, and one walk, and all keep awake and listen and think the same maddening thought.

Greater than all men is the man with the white hair and the small brass key, for no other man in the world could compel two hundred men to think for so long the same thought. Surely when the light breaks I will write a hymn unto him which shall hail him greater than Mohammed and Arbues and Torquemada and Mesmer, and all the other masters of other men's thoughts. I shall call him Almighty, for he holds everything of all and of me in a little brass key in his pocket.

Everything of me he holds but the branding iron of contempt and the claymore of hatred for the monstrous cabala that can make the apostle and the murderer, the poet and the procurer, think of the same gate, the same key and the same exit on the different sunlit highways of life.

* * *

My brother, do not walk any more.
It is wrong to walk on a grave. It is a sacrilege to walk four steps from the headstone to the foot and four steps from the foot to the headstone.

If you stop walking, my brother, no longer will this be a grave, – for you will give me back my mind that is chained to your feet and the right to think my own thoughts.

I implore you, my brother, for I am weary of the long vigil, weary of counting your steps, and heavy with sleep.

Stop, rest, sleep, my brother, for the dawn is well nigh and it is not the key alone that can throw open the gate.

Some of Giovannitti’s work is in the simplest ABAB rhyme schemes. Others are prose poems written before the First World War. As in the case of the poem above, Giovannitti’s poetry often is spotty & theatrical, especially in longer forms – there are real moments in “The Walker,” but that’s what they are. This is an approach which makes sense if you expect that a significant number of your “readers” will in fact be getting the work live, orally, rather than from the page. Not only was the IWW an organization whose membership included many recent immigrants, Giovannitti himself emigrated from Italy to Canada at the age of 16, studying at a seminary associated with McGill University before moving to New York, where he took courses briefly at Columbia.³ He wrote books in Italian as well as English.

In many ways, Giovannitti seems a classic type if we think about neglectorinos, the poet who composes for a “non-literary” audience. This is, of course, what Billy Collins & Ted Kooser claim to do as well. It’s worth thinking about the differences between their conception of this kind of a popular mode & Giovannitti. They’re entertainers, he’s an organizer. But each, a half century after they have passed, is likely to be viewed as much as a symptom as a poet. Not surprisingly, Collins & Kooser have been well rewarded for their populism, both the poems & the project of Arturo Giovannitti is far more ambitious. He after all is the one who wanted to change the world.


¹ Or maybe 75. Different sites on the web tell slightly different stories.

² In what was not an unusual scenario for the time, the actual shooter was a police officer & Giovannitti & his co-defendant were three miles away at the time. But as IWW organizers, they were the ones charged.

³ Considering that Louis Zukofsky, who attended Columbia roughly 20 years later, was often painfully aware of having grown up in an immigrant family compared with many of his classmates, one can only imagine Giovannitti’s experience at the school.