“. . . the outcry of old beauty Whored by pimping merchants. . . “ (a short poetry lesson)

A Nike sweatshop, China. The flunkeys and their Crash.

A Nike sweatshop, China. The flunkeys and their Crash.

Stephen Crane was born in 1871 and died in 1900. Americans who attended public high schools before 1971 read his Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), a realistic picture of war by a man who never saw war. His Maggie—A Girl of the Streets (1893), is the earliest novel in the “American Realist” tradition.

A few days ago someone mentioned Red Badge to me, and I realized I remember it only vaguely. In about 1995 I read Maggie for a graduate seminar at UTD with Professor Harvey Graff in the history of childhood in America.
I Googled Crane thinking I might get Nook versions of his novels and read them again—they’re simply written and short! I ran into Crane’s poetry, to which I had never paid attention—an obvious oversight.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry, on the other hand, I read quite often. Ferlinghetti, last of the “Beat Generation” poets still living, was born in 1919. At 95 he writes a weekly column for the San Francisco Observer and still helps run City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Crane was one of the “modern” poets when Ferlinghetti was in high school.

The impact of a million dollars
Is a crash of flunkeys,
And yawning emblems of Persia
Cheeked against oak, France and a sabre,
The outcry of old beauty
Whored by pimping merchants
To submission before wine and chatter.
Silly rich peasants stamp the carpets of men,
Dead men who dreamed fragrance and light
Into their woof, their lives (Stephen Crane).

The impact of a million dollars is to create a “crash of flunkeys” (crash: a plain-weave fabric of rough, irregular, or lumpy yarns; flunkey: “a person who performs menial tasks”); that is, the impact of a million dollars is to create a rough or utilitarian fabric of people who perform menial tasks.

The menial task these “flunkeys” perform is to create “yawning emblems.” This “fabric” of menial laborers creates a “fabric” of phony Persian carpets, the “outcry of old beauty, Whored by pimping merchants to submission before wine and chatter.” The reproduction of old beauty (“yawning emblems”), rather than making something beautiful, prostitutes both the workers and their phony Persian rugs.

The merchants who own the means of producing these yawning emblems and who sell them are pimps.

Mark Parker, the pimping merchant

Mark Parker, the pimping merchant

The flunkeys are dead men who “dreamed” that the fabric of their lives would be “fragrance and light.” It is not.

In a poem for UNESCO World Poetry Day, March 21, 2001, which he read at UNESCO’s celebration at Delphi of the prophetic in poetry, Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote

Great Oracle, sleeping through the centuries,
Awaken now at last
And tell us how to save us from ourselves
and how to survive our own rulers
who would make a plutocracy of our democracy
in the Great Divide
between the rich and the poor
in whom Walt Whitman heard America singing.

Unlike Stephen Crane’s poem, this needs no “unpacking.” . . . who would make a plutocracy of our democracy in the Great Divide between the rich and the poor.

Walt Whitman did not hear America singing between Mark Parker, Lloyd Blankfein, Brendan Eich, Mary T. Barra, Virginia Marie Rometty, Stanley O’Neal, Doug Coe, Darrell Issa, or Antonin Scalia.

I know that at least one friend who often reads my posts will now be either be venting about my not understanding how “capitalism” works and how regulation and government intervention are ruining America and destroying the ability to create jobs for the flunkeys, or he will have stopped reading.

I am not writing about government or capitalism or regulation or anything political. I’m writing about greed—corporate greed, small business greed, your greed, government greed, and yes, my greed.

When I was younger I would think about sweat shops making Nike Shoes, and I would think about seats in Congress for sale either to the highest bidder, and I would think about horrid men (I’ve never heard of a woman member of “The Fellowship”) who trample the religious integrity of people around the world, and I would think of the bankers who are making billions simply from making billions, and I would think of judges who have ensconced themselves as the friend of those people, and I would think of myself with six pairs of jeans and fifteen shirts and a pipe organ in my living room and my iPad my iPhone and my two functioning computers here on my desk and a paid-for car and health insurance that keeps me from having seizures and from being suicidal, and I would think, “Something must be done politically; there must be a way to change things.”

After all, by what right do Mark Parker, Lloyd Blankfein, Brendan Eich, Mary T. Barra, Virginia Marie Rometty, Stanley O’Neal, Doug Coe, Darrell Issa, Antonin Scalia, and I have to enough to eat and extra clothes in our closets and cars and homes and luxuries too numerous to name? By what right do we have homes when people are sleeping in doorways—yes the doorways of Neiman Marcus—and in homeless shelters crowded and dirty? And by what right do we have the means to be cared for when we get sick when 50,000,000 people in this country and billions of people world-wide do not. And by what right to we travel around the world having fun and/or making more money—I am determined to see Easter Island—when most people in the world never get more than a few miles from home—unless because of wars and natural disasters they become refugees.

By what right?

It grieves me more than my chronic, clinical, incurable depression does that I can do nothing—or so little it seems to be nothing—to make life significantly better for any one of those people.

It breaks my heart. As it should yours.

“The Impact of a dollar upon the heart,” by Stephen Crane
The impact of a dollar upon the heart
Smiles warm red light
Sweeping from the hearth rosily upon the white table,
With the hanging cool velvet shadows
Moving softly upon the door.

The impact of a million dollars
Is a crash of flunkeys
And yawning emblems of Persia
Cheeked against oak, France and a sabre,
The outcry of old beauty
Whored by pimping merchants
To submission before wine and chatter.
Silly rich peasants stamp the carpets of men,
Dead men who dreamed fragrance and light
Into their woof, their lives;
The rug of an honest bear
Under the feet of a cryptic slave
Who speaks always of baubles,
Forgetting state, multitude, work, and state,
Champing and mouthing of hats,
Making ratful squeak of hats,
Hats.

“To the Oracle at Delphi,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Great Oracle, why are you staring at me,
do I baffle you, do I make you despair?
I, Americus, the American,
wrought from the dark in my mother long ago,
from the dark of ancient Europa–
Why are you staring at me now
in the dusk of our civilization–
Why are you staring at me
as if I were America itself
the new Empire
vaster than any in ancient days
with its electronic highways
carrying its corporate monoculture
around the world
And English the Latin of our days–

Great Oracle, sleeping through the centuries,
Awaken now at last
And tell us how to save us from ourselves
and how to survive our own rulers
who would make a plutocracy of our democracy
in the Great Divide
between the rich and the poor
in whom Walt Whitman heard America singing

O long-silent Sybil,
you of the winged dreams,
Speak out from your temple of light
as the serious constellations
with Greek names
still stare down on us
as a lighthouse moves its megaphone
over the sea
Speak out and shine upon us
the sea-light of Greece
the diamond light of Greece

Far-seeing Sybil, forever hidden,
Come out of your cave at last
And speak to us in the poet’s voice
the voice of the fourth person singular
the voice of the inscrutable future
the voice of the people mixed
with a wild soft laughter–
And give us new dreams to dream,
Give us new myths to live by!

The homeless refugees of the Republic of the Congo.

The homeless refugees of the Republic of the Congo.

‘. . . no powder blue Christmas trees hung with electric candles . . .’

creativegardens056Egad! Stop with the Christmas stuff already! Bah, humbug, and all of that.

The most important reality of Christmas is whether you and I spend more money this year than we did last. Not me! I’m about to retire, and any lavishness I have to offer is going directly into my Roth IRA.

The first time I heard Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Christ climbed down from His bare Tree this year” it was as a dramatic reading by Professor Rolf Knierim in the Christmas service at [what was then called] the School of Theology at Claremont [California]. Hardly the sort of thing one would expect an Old Testament scholar of the school of Gerhard von Rad to read in church. [See full text below that of the carol.]

Here I am, caught up in something like “the Christmas spirit.” Where in blazes is that coming from? No powder blue Christmas trees. My family can relate to that. One year [probably about 1957] either because we were in worse financial straits than we kids knew or because Mom read about it in some magazine, our Christmas tree was a branch of a cottonwood tree that had been chopped down in our front yard. Mom painted the branch pink—pink!—and that was our tree. Powder blue, powder pink, what’s the difference?

That tree was actually great fun as I recall. We decorated it with the same box of ornaments we always used and were quite proud of our unique tree. But that tree became, for me, emblematic of my [almost] disgust [at least usually intense dislike] of Christmas. Christmas is an orgy of unfulfilled expectations. That pink tree was no more or less able to satisfy my desires for Christmas splendor than the 12-foot miraculous wonders with their 3,000 ornaments that my late partner put up every year I lived with him, 1994-2003.

I’m not saying anything everyone hasn’t heard a million times. We know it. Why don’t we do something about it?

My junior year in college, the men’s music fraternity and the women’s music sorority gave a Christmas concert together. I was about the only “real” music major in the bunch. That is, the only Bachelor of Music candidate rather that Bachelor of Arts in Music or Music Education or some such. I was in the group because I was in love with the president [and he knew it, but was straight—I later played the organ for his wedding]. Since I had actually taken the one choral music conducting course at the college, I was elected to direct a chorus of the members.

Somehow I knew about the Oxford Book of Carols. I chose three or four of those wonderful [mostly unknown] carols, and we learned them. Our performance was more than outstanding [if you don’t mind my saying so]. Of course, the chorus was a bunch of music majors of one sort or another. But I conducted with skill and subtlety. One knows when one does such a performance—and I’m not bragging, simply stating a fact.tree_with_gifts_019155_

My opinion of my conducting was affirmed by my favorite professor who told me I should give up my dream of organ performance, change my major to choral conducting (the university would have made arrangements for me to study elsewhere for credit at our school), and get on with my real calling. We know how far that went. So bull-headed I couldn’t even take the advice of musicians who saw my real forte.

Does that sound egotistical in the extreme? Perhaps, but that idea was presented to me several times after that. The most credible was when two violinists, members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and ringers in the orchestra for a performance of the Bach Cantata “Deck thyself, My Soul, with Gladness” I was conducting at that same School of Theology in Claremont where Professor Knierim taught, asked me why I was wasting my time working on an MA in composition instead of in conducting.

I know, I know, this is self-congratulation on the highest level.

However, everyone I know has a secret unfulfilled ambition. Well, perhaps not everyone. I know many brilliantly successful musicians who can’t imagine doing anything other than what they are doing. But most of us lead lives of quiet desperation. Didn’t Henry David Thoreau say that? The end of his statement is usually ignored. “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Go to the grave with the song still in us.

Will I go to the grave with the [real] song still in me, still unsung? Is that what the desperate frenzy of oh-so-generous capitalism means at Christmas? Everyone is afraid of going to the grave with the song still in us, and if we spend enough money, if we put up more “rootless Christmas trees hung with candy canes and breakable stars,” if only we buy more “sacks of Humble Gifts from Saks Fifth Avenue for everybody’s imagined Christ child,” our songless deaths will be if not eradicated, at least postponed.

I have no answers. I know spending more money is not an answer to me for anything. I know powder blue or powder pink or12-foot spectacularly gorgeous creations of [rootless] trees can do nothing to calm the quiet desperation I feel. Even brilliant success as organist choral director will not, would not, could not, for sure be the vehicle for at the last singing the song that is in me.

So the best thing to do is to revert, to acquiesce to something I once knew that brought me both pleasure and fulfillment, and stop spending money trying to put Christ back atop his bare tree. Something like one of those carols I directed in 1965.

“The Lord at First Did Adam Make”, No.1, Oxford Book of Carols, 1928.

The Lord at first did Adam make
    Out of the dust and clay,
And in his nostrils breathed life,
    E’en as the Scriptures say.
And then in Eden’s Paradise
    He placed him to dwell,
That he within it should remain
    To dress and keep it well.
Chorus.
Now let good Christians all begin
An holy life to live,
And to rejoice and merry be,
For this is Christmas Eve.

And then within the garden he
    Commanded was to stay,
And unto him in commandment
    These words the Lord did say:
The fruit which in the garden grows
    To thee shall be for meet,
Except the tree in the midst thereof,
    Of which thou shalt not east.
Chorus.

And now the tide is nigh at hand,
    Int’ which our Saviour came
Let us rejoice, and merry be,
    In keeping of the same.
Let’s feed the poor and hungry souls,
    And such as do it crave;
Then when we die, in Heaven sure
    Our reward we shall have. Chorus.
Chorus.

[The full text of the carol is here.]
________________
“Christ Climbed Down”
By Lawrence Ferlinghetti

CHRIST climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars
Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees
and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives
Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck creches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special delivery
and where no televised Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit
and a fake white beard
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
Pennsylvania
in a Volkswagen sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
with German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
from Saks Fifth Avenue
for everybody’s imagined Christ child
Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carolers
groaned of a tight Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
ice skated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jinglebell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass matinees
Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary’s womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody’s anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings
—(From the sixth printing of the author’s volume of verse, A Coney Island of the Mind. New York: New Directions, 1958.)