Saturday, April 19, 2014

National Poetry Month—Revolutionary Poetry

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

So began the most famous poem about the American Revolution, which commemorated Paul Revere’s Ride and the beginning of that long conflict.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published it on the eve of the Civil War in 1861, he finally accomplished what had eluded earlier, less gifted poets had yearned but failed to do—create an American epic.
But other poets, other voices, far and wide and over generations took their cracks at making sense out of what years later at the end was represented by a Redcoat band playing The World Turned Upside Down at the surrender of an army of the most powerful nation in the world. 
Here are some.
Some of the first poetry to gain wide recognition was composed by a slip of a Black girl hardly out of her teens.  Phillis Wheatley was a Boston house slave born in Africa.  She was treated more kindly than many in her situation and was not only taught to read and write, but encouraged by her master when she began turning her hand to verse.  She adopted the conventions she found in the books of her master’s library.  Her work, including several poems dealing with the Revolution, became the first book of poetry ever published by an American black, and one of only a handful of non-religious books of verse by anyone.  The book achieved acclaim and Phillis was freed, although she continued to live in her old home supported by her masters.  This poem from even before the first shots were fired, was addressed to William Legge, 1st Earl of Dartmouth, then the Secretary of State for the Colonies and First Lord of Trade.  It was written in 1772 by request and was a plea for freedom for her people.

To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth

Hail, happy day, when, smiling like the morn,
Fair Freedom rose New-England to adorn:
The northern clime beneath her genial ray,
Dartmouth, congratulates thy blissful sway:
Elate with hope her race no longer mourns,
Each soul expands, each grateful bosom burns,
While in thine hand with pleasure we behold
The silken reins, and Freedom's charms unfold.

Long lost to realms beneath the northern skies
She shines supreme, while hated faction dies:
Soon as appear’d the Goddess long desir’d,
Sick at the view, she lanquish’d and expir’d;
Thus from the splendors of the morning light
The owl in sadness seeks the caves of night.

No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land.

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatcli'd from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent's breast?
Steel’d was that son] and by no misery mov'd
That from a father seiz'd his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

For favours past, great Sir, our thanks are due,
And thee we ask thy favors to renew,
Since in thy pow’r, as in thy will before,
To sooth the griefs, which thou did'st once deplore.
May heav'nly race the sacred sanction give
To all thy worts, and thou for ever live
Not onlv on the wings of fleeting Fame,
Though praise immortal crowns the patriot's name,
But to conduct to heav'ns refulgent fane,
May fiery coursers sweep th' ethereal plain,
And bear thee upwards to that blest abode,
Where, like the prophet, thou shalt find thy God.

—Phillis Wheatley

Philip Freneau was considered The Poet of the Revolution.  Born in New York and the son of a Huguenot wine merchant, he was educated at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) with James Madison.  He was an early Patriot and polemicist for the cause.  After being captures while serving on a privateer, he was held for month in a British prison hulk where he nearly died before being paroled.  He detailed that experience in The British Prison Ship and followed up with a string of patriotic and anti-British verse.  Later Thomas Jefferson would tap him to become the editor of The National Gazette, the partisan voice of the emerging anti-Federalist party during George Washington’s administration.  American Liberty was one of the most popular of his Revolutionary anti-British screeds.  It is long, formal, and difficult for modern readers.  But it got the blood of 18th Century patriots boiling. Here are the opening and closing stanzas.
American Liberty
Once more Bellona, forc’d upon the stage,
Inspires new fury, and awakes her rage,
From North to South her thun’dring trumpet spreads
Tumults, and war and death, and daring deeds.
What breast but kindles at the martial sound?
What heart but bleeds to feel its country's wound?
For thee, blest freedom, to protect thy sway,
We rush undaunted to the bloody fray;
For thee, each province arms its vig’rous host,
Content to die, e’er freedom shall be lost.
Happy some land, which all for freedom gave,
Happier the men whom their own virtues save;
Thrice happy we who long attacks have stood,
And swam to Liberty thro’ seas of blood;
The time shall come when strangers rule no more,
Nor cruel mandates vex from Britain's shore:
When Commerce shall extend her short’ned wing.
And her free freights from every climate bring;
When mighty towns shall flourish free and great.
Vast their dominion, opulent their state:
When one vast cultivated region teems,
From ocean’s edge to Mississippi’s streams;
While each enjoys his vineyard’s peaceful shade,
And even the meanest has no cause to dread;
Such is the life our foes with envy see,
Such is the godlike glory to be free

Philip Freneau

Hope you have recovered from that.  It was the castor oil of this poetic tour.  Let a far better poet, the English Whig and mystic William Blake cast a sympathetic eye on the American endeavor.  He was writing in 1792 and thus looking back at recent history.  Each of these poems was published with a plate hand engraved by Blake.

America, a Prophecy, Plates 3 and 4


The Guardian Prince of Albion burns in his nightly tent,
Sullen fires across the Atlantic glow to America's shore:
Piercing the souls of warlike men, who rise in silent night,
Washington, Franklin, Paine & Warren, Gates, Hancock & Green;
Meet on the coast glowing with blood from Albion’s fiery Prince.

Washington spoke; Friends of America look over the Atlantic sea;
A bended bow is lifted in heaven, & a heavy iron chain
Descends link by link from Albion's cliffs across the sea to bind
Brothers & sons of America, till our faces pale and yellow;
Heads deprest, voices weak, eyes downcast, hands work-bruis’d,
Feet bleeding on the sultry sands, and the furrows of the whip
Descend to generations that in future times forget.—

The strong voice ceas’d; for a terrible blast swept over the heaving sea;
The eastern cloud rent; on his cliffs stood Albion’s wrathful Prince
A dragon form clashing his scales at midnight he arose,
And flam’d red meteors round the land of Albion beneath.
His voice, his locks, his awful shoulders, and his glowing eyes,


Appear to the Americans upon the cloudy night.

Solemn heave the Atlantic waves between the gloomy nations,
Swelling, belching from its deeps red clouds & raging Fires!
Albion is sick. America faints! enrag'd the Zenith grew.
As human blood shooting its veins all round the orbed heaven
Red rose the clouds from the Atlantic in vast wheels of blood
And in the red clouds rose a Wonder o’er the Atlantic sea;
Intense! naked! a Human fire fierce glowing, as the wedge
Of iron heated in the furnace; his terrible limbs were fire
With myriads of cloudy terrors banners dark & towers
Surrounded; heat but not light went thro' the murky atmosphere
The king of England looking westward trembles at the vision.

—William Blake

And we will leave you with the second most famous poem of the Revolution.  Composed by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1836 for the dedication of the Concord Monument in his home town, the poem helped establish the literary reputation of the Unitarian Minister who had left the pulpit to pursue a “Life of the Mind and Letters.”

The Concord Hymn
Sung at the Completion of the Battle Monument, April 19, 1836

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
        Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
        And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
        Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
        Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
        We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
        When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare

        To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
        The shaft we raise to them and thee.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, April 18, 2014

National Poetry Month—A Better Murfin Heard From

It may frighten you to know that I am not the only Murfin to commit poetry.  It seems it runs in the family.  Last year I shared work from British distant cousin Geraldine Murfin-Shaw who has written under the pen name Val Kirkham.  Ross C. Murfin is a distinguished professor of English literature who has been widely published and although I have never seen it, I am willing to bet that somewhere there is a drawer full  of his own poetry.  Comes with the territory.
But probably the best of us all is my nephew Ira S. Murfin, who I always identify as the Last Bohemian.  And poetry is just a side-line in an amazing adventuresome diverse dive into art on the edge.
Ira is the son of my late twin brother Peter (Timothy) Murfin.  After his parents separated when he was quite young, he lived with his mother Arlene on Chicago’s North Side.  Arlene, a Montessori trained educator, encouraged his creative and inquisitive mind.  Even in his early teens he attracted notice and was featured on a panel of young film critics for a PBS television program. He completed high school at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, an independent school for the performing arts.  Then it was off to the University of New York where he got a degree in writing and tasted the theater/artistic life of avant-garde New York.
But it was not Ira’s notable academic achievements that set him apart, it was the restless questing spirit that sent him off around the continent and the in search of art, collaboration, and friendship.  To Canada and collaboration on the script of a play based on Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers and the Mohawk Saint Catherine Tekakwitha  with the Laboratory for Enthusiastic Collaboration in.  Down to the Carolinas to a communal farm and retreat.  To the grungy side of Las Vegas to absorb the place for a project.  A modern day Sal Paradise collecting deep friendships and creating art.
For several years he was based most of the year at Arcosanti, the architectural and ecological intentional community founded by Italian visionary Paolo Soleri in the Arizona desert.  He became Soleri’s assistant and editor.  During his tenure there Ira also founded the Arizona Spoken Word Festival and Arcosanti Slab City Poetry Slam, to which he returns annually to host. 
During all of these years, Ira was working in collaborative, cutting edge theater.  He is Co-Artistic Director, Playwright in Residence of Laboratory for Enthusiastic Collaboration with whom he did Beautiful Losers  and The Values Americans Live By.  He has produced work with Walkabout Theatre, the Laboratory for the Development of Substitute Materials, Five7Five, and Structures Without Integrity. His work has been published in Mobius, Text Off the Page, The Moustachioed Dissident, and Collected, as well as the book The Mind Garden.
He has worked as a writer, actor, director and every other role in productions in New York, Los Angeles, and, of course in Chicago, to which he returned to semi-settle while working on his Master of Fine Arts in Writing at the School of the Art Institute.  He is now pursuing his PhD in Interdisciplinary Theater and Drama at Northwestern.
He remains active in the Chicago experimental theater scene.  He has been joined by the estimable Emmy Bean—actress, singer, puppeteer, dancer, jill-of-all-performance to whom he wed—twice—in unique ceremonies in Chicago and her native New York last fall which were themselves works of collaborative art.  They appeared together recently in The Lucky Ones by Jenny Mangus in a production that was part of the 25th Annual Rhino Theater Fest.
Ira and I had long talked about doing a joint poetry reading to be called Two Murfins, No Waiting, but his busy schedule and my inability to often get away from McHenry County because of work, kept getting in the way.  A couple of summers ago, we decided to give it a trial run in a free public performance.  We chose a small park at the end of Logan Boulevard, by a subway entrance and near the old Norwegian Church there.  It was a very hot afternoon.  No one showed up except family members and a drunk sleeping it off on a bench.  Gamely, we went ahead in the blistering heat anyway, to hams having a good time.  I hope we can do it sometime and someplace where people actually show up.
When I asked Ira to send some work for this posting, he said he doesn’t write much straight poetry anymore, but sent these along.  These days he is most interested in spoken word performance at the intersection of storytelling, monologue, and theater.  Some is written, some is extemporized on a theme, like a show where he promised to answer any questions about bacon.  He spoke of “Spalding Gray, Garrison Keillor, Wallace Shawn (especially in My Dinner with Andre, but also as a playwright), the folksinger Utah Phillips, the radio performer Joe Frank,” as influences in one interview.  Yet his work is entirely fresh and original, bursting with ideas.
I suspect you will be hearing more from Ira.

(after Jasper Johns)

An object, edged
against walls opens

Objects to entrance
deep through thickness

Slit inside

A blockage, balled

Pried apart
two halves unjoined here

Then tries to start
to push together

Panels, latched
unhinged and opened

Through this blockage
an enclosure

and tensed against each other

Past the point of reuniting
suspended in some unseen recess

Language waits
in weighty pieces

Cobbled out
from racing thoughts

Against a canvas,
human skull

It points the way,

Though you move in all directions,
you always come against this wall.

—Ira S. Murfin


Tip into it
You say moistened

This tin pot ocean
Open to it

This pit, is it?

Not a toy
I play in it

Pinned on top
I pined a ton

A pint, an inch
Not in no more

Nipped and pitted
Opened pity

Tiny jointly
We toil in it.

—Ira S. Murfin


Snow returns

The old wood bar.

Winter in this city
tells about past.
It is not even trying.

You want something from it.

Stopping into this colored warmth
for amber beer and bourbon

You would be a man
standing in your topcoat
at the bar before the train ride

That kind of snow.
The downtown kind.
After-work kind.

Old wood in here,

Filaments in the light bulbs
coiled and transparent

Pay extra for that,
these days.

Over on Michigan the small, white lights
Italian lights
your grandmother called them

she assured you

This city.
Those lights.
This bar.

And in the snow you can believe it
soft against the outside
it is yours
Then still
still possible

In the snow
in here
still past

—Ira S. Murfin