Monday, April 30, 2012

National Poetry Month—An Unknown Proletarian We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years

The Cover for Utah Phllips's album of IWW songs.

Well, it’s the last day of National Poetry Month and our annual festival of verse is winding down.  Since tomorrow is May Day, I thought I would share one of my favorite IWW poems.

We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years first appeared as a poem in the pages of The Industrial Union Bulletin in 1908, only three years after the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World.  It was credited simply to “An Unknown Proletarian” and I know of no research that has identified the author.  It was popular from the start and was frequently reprinted and was included in early editions of Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent better known as the IWW pocket sized Little Red Songbook.

Around 1912 it was set to music by Rudolph von Liebich identified only as a “member of the General Recruiting Union, Chicago, and Composer of Music for the Working Class.  Not much to go on there, either.  

In addition to being printed in new editions of the Songbook, the song was issued as piano sheet music by the union.  Along with Joe Hill’s Rebel Girl and the IWW version of The International it remained in print in that form for more than 50 years.

In the early 1970’s Utah Phillips recorded a version that has become a classic.

I love this poem because it lays out the long cost of the class war better than anything I know.

We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years

We have fed you all, for a thousand years
And you hail us still unfed,
Though there's never a dollar of all your wealth
But marks the worker's dead.
We have yielded our best to give you rest
And you lie on crimson wool.
Then if blood be the price of all your wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in full.

There is never a mine blown skyward now
But we're buried alive for you.
There's never a wreck drifts shoreward now
But we are its ghastly crew.
Go reckon our dead by the forges red
And the factories where we spin.
If blood be the price of your cursed wealth
Good God! We have paid it in.

We have fed you all for a thousand years--
For that was our doom, you know,
From the days when you chained us in your fields
To the strike of a week ago.
You have taken our lives, and our babies and wives,
And we're told it's your legal share;
But if blood be the price of your lawful wealth
Good God! We have bought it fair.

—An Unknown Proletarian

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Rev. Sean Dennison Unanimously Tapped for McHenry UU Pulpit

In the end, it wasn’t even close.  It was more even than a blow out.  The Unitarian Universalist Congregation now in McHenry, Illinois, unanimously voted to call the Rev. Sean Dennison as its new settled minister.  123 of the 165 members cast ballots, all in the affirmative.

Rev. Dennison was born and raised in Iowa and became active as a Unitarian Universalist lay person the UU Fellowship of  Ames  before deciding to enter seminary at Star-King School for Ministry in California.  At the same time the single mother had to come to grips with gender identity and in a sometimes wrenching process he described in a sermon The Integrity of the In-Between, transitioned to a male over the course of his educational training.

As a transgender man he was called to serve the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Salt Lake City, Utah.  He successfully led the congregation for seven years in a very conservative state not only helping the congregation to grow and thrive, but to become a social justice beacon.

For the last year Rev. Dennison has served as interim minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Louis Obispo in California.

He has been an important leader in Unitarian Universalist denominational affair serving as President of the Mountain Desert District UU Minter’s Association, a member of the Star King Board of Trustees, and a co-founder a Board member for Transgender Religious Professional  UUs Together (TRUUsT).  He has also been a facilitator for UU diversity programs, is a sought out speaker at a District and UUA General Assembly meetings.  He will be a member of the Accountability Team at the upcoming Justice General Assembly in Phoenix this June.

Rev. Dennison is a well known presence on the web with his highly regarded personal blog Ministare

In the small world of Unitarian Universalism Rev. Parker was rightly described as a “rock star.”

The move capped a two and a half year search process which began with the retirement of the long time minister of the congregation in Woodstock, the Rev. Daniel Larson.  The congregation used the time for in-depth self assessment and to tighten governance, administrative, and committee function with the guidance of three interim ministers, the Rev. James Hobart, the Rev. Karen McFarland, and currently serving Rev. Jennifer Slade.

In the middle of the self-assessment process the Congregation also voted to accept a generous offer for the donation of the former Haystacks Manor restaurant building in the city of McHenry as its new home.

The Search Committee began a serious search this year.  In the end they unanimously decided to recommend Rev. Dennison for consideration.

Rev. Dennison and his partner Toni expect to be moved to McHenry County in July and begin preaching with the new Church Year in September.

National Poetry Month—Carl Sandburg "I Am the People, the Mob"

Note:  National Poetry Month is almost over and I haven’t posted some of my favorite poets.  Can’t let it slip away from Carl Sandburg.  The biography has been recycled on this blog a couple of time, adapted from my program Four Hundred Years of Unitarian and Universalist Poets from John Milton to Sylvia Path.

Carl Sandburg, the son of working class Swedish immigrants, was born in Galesburg, Illinois on January 6, 1878 and was, from the beginning, thoroughly American.  His father labored as a blacksmith’s helper for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad and struggled to support his wife and seven children. 

The second oldest, Charley, as he was called, was compelled to find odd jobs from earliest childhood.  He left school after eighth grade in 1891 and struck out on his own to remove one hungry mouth from the family table.  He joined tens of thousands of similar young men in the life of an itinerant laborer, a hobo.  He shined shoes, delivered milk, harvested ice, laid bricks and followed the army of harvest stiffs through the wheat fields of Kansas.  While traveling he absorbed the lore of the hobo, including the tales of Coxy’s Army.  He experienced capitalist exploitation and like so many of his fellow workers was radicalized. 

When the Spanish American War broke out, Sandburg opted for adventure and a steady paycheck by enlisting in the volunteers.  Posted to Puerto Rico, he saw no action but watched yellow fever and the Armour Company’s tainted pork and beans ravage the Army. 

He returned to Galesburg upon discharge and wrangled his way into the local Lombard College, a liberal arts school founded by Universalists.  He supported himself with odd jobs and as a fireman.  Sandburg was delighted with the open and embracing Universalism he encountered at the college, a welcome relief from the strict Lutheranism of his youth and street corner evangelists he encountered in his travels.  He also discovered writing at the college under the tutelage of liberal professor Phillip Green Wright and his Poor Writers’ Club.  He adopted not only Universalism while on campus, but Debsian Socialism as well. 

After graduation Wright published Sandburg's first volume of poetry Reckless Ecstasy on his basement press in 1904.  Two more volumes followed in 1907 and 1908.  Coming from an obscure working class kid from the Midwest, the books completely missed attention of the nation’s literary elite. 

Sandburg determined to devote himself more actively to the socialist and labor cause.  In 1907 and 1908 he worked as an organizer for the Wisconsin Social Democratic Party in Milwaukee.  He met Lillian Steichen at party headquarters there in 1908 and married her. 

Now with family responsibilities, Sandburg moved to Chicago and took up reporting for the Chicago Daily News.  At first he worked the police and crime beat and later covered labor for the liberal newspaper.  He added criticism to his portfolio becoming one of the city’s first serious film critic before earning his own regular column. 

Sandburg was also writing revolutionary poetry, drawing on the city of Chicago for inspiration.  In 1914 he exploded into the literary mainstream when Harriet Monroe published a group of his poems in her seminal Poetry magazine.  In 1916 Chicago Poems was published to international acclaim followed by Cornhuskers in 1918.  He did not abandon his social conscience.  He wrote a powerful analysis of the 1919 Chicago Race Riots that attracted wide spread admiration. 

His days as a reporter were now behind him.  He turned to literature as a full time career.  A charming collection of children’s tales, Rootabaga Stories, caught the attention of his publisher Alfred Harcourt, who suggested that he undertake a children’s biography of Abraham Lincoln.  Instead Sandburg labored for two years to produce the two volume Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years.  Breaking the academic mold of biography, the books looked at youthful Lincoln’s life with a novelist eye and a poet’s sensibility. 

The enormous success of the books finally gave Sandburg economic independence.  He moved to a new home among the lovely Lake Michigan sand dunes and dedicated himself to completing four additional volumes in his Lincoln saga.  Abraham Lincoln: The War Years won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1940. 

During those same years, Sandburg worked on his epic collection of American folk songs.  Carl Sandburg's American Song Bag introduced generations to a great musical tradition and helped provide material for the folk music revivals of the late 1940’s and again in the 1960’s.  In public performances Sandburg enjoyed pulling out his battered guitar and singing as much as he did reading.

His literary output was prodigious.  Not only did he continue to turn out poetry, but he wrote a well-received novel Remembrance Rock and an autobiography, Always the Young Strangers. 

In 1945 the Sandburgs relocated to Flat Rock, North Carolina, where he continued to work and raise prize dairy goats.  He also found a welcome among the hardy North Carolina Universalists, who up held liberal religion in a conservative area. 

In 1951 Sandburg won his second Pulitzer Prize for his Complete Poems.

Sandburg died in 1967, perhaps the most beloved of American 20th Century Poets.  After a Universalist funeral, he had his ashes returned to Galesburg to be buried under a stone behind the small cottage where he was born.  He lays there today next to his wife under a red granite Remembrance Rock.

I Am the People, the Mob

I Am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is
done through me?

I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the
world’s food and clothes.

I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons
come from me and the Lincolns. They die. And
then I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns.
I am the seed ground. I am a prairie that will stand
for much plowing. Terrible storms pass over me.
I forget. The best of me is sucked out and wasted.
I forget. Everything but Death comes to me and
makes me work and give up what I have. And I

Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red
drops for history to remember. Then—I forget.
When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the
People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer
forget who robbed me last year, who played me for
a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world
say the name: “The People,” with any fleck of a
sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.
The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then.

—Carl Sandburg

Saturday, April 28, 2012

National Poetry Month—Adrienne Rich "Tonight No Poetry Will Serve"

Adrienne Rich died right before the beginning of National Poetry Month. I posted a lengthy profile then.  No need to repeat it so soon.  If you did not see it, click here.  But certainly Rich was such an influential modern poet that she deserves another look in this series.

When Rich died, she was almost universally lauded in glowing obituaries and reflections by those whose lives she had touched and encouraged.  Almost, but not quite.  A lot of transgender folks were mad and some of them not ready to forgive.

One blogger wrote that she could not mourn her “oppressor.”  Rich, it seems, was vocally against transgender people, most especially those whose birth identity was male.  Her biggest offense was offering advice and encouragement—and a lengthy interview—to Janice Raymond’s 1979 book The Transsexual Empire.  The book attacked men who attempted to become women by “self-castration” as virtual masculine moles posing as women.  The language of the book, as a whole, although not necessarily the quotes from Rich, was harsh and the conclusion was that transgender women should not be allowed to exist.

The book attracted a small audience, but it would be cited by those who campaigned to deny insurance coverage and medical care to people in transition.  And, although Rich did not dwell on the subject, she never publicly renounced or distanced herself from the book or its conclusions.

Now I literally do not have a dog in this fight and tread here carefully and with considerable trepidation.  It looks to me like Rich, who was born in 1928, despite a lifetime of political and sexual radicalism and becoming a leading theoretical voice for lesbian feminism, was in the end never able to overcome one last great cultural taboo.  Too bad for her.  Too bad for those she hurt.

She was also not the only lesbian feminist that held this view, particularly in the early ‘70’s when some in the movement were going through a radical separatist phase. They were not willing to give men, in any form, any slack.  All were oppressors. All were rapists either in deed or by benefiting from the fear planted in women by those who did the deed. Folks who lived through those times remember some of the rhetoric.  Vengeance fantasy calls for castration.  Urging that male children should be rejected and abandoned.  Transgender women, being in their minds still men, were as guilty as any other. 
This was a minority, but a noisy one, within the movement.  Perhaps it was necessary and cathartic.  But within a very few years, most of the women who held these positions moved on.  They did not soften, but accepted greater nuance.  But as another blogger observed, strains of “trans hatred in radical feminism linger.  

Rich, like all of us, had a complicated life full of contradictions.  She was not a feminist saint.  And she was not the devil.  She needs to be judged on what she did, wrote, and said.  All of it, good and bad.  But it would be a tragedy not to treasure the good because we disapprove of the bad.
Today’s poem touches on none of this.  Rather it is intensely more personal. 

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve

Saw you walking barefoot
taking a long look
at the new moon's eyelid

later spread
sleep-fallen, naked in your dark hair
asleep but not oblivious
of the unslept unsleeping

Tonight I think
no poetry
will serve

Syntax of rendition:

verb pilots the plane
adverb modifies action

verb force-feeds noun
submerges the subject
noun is choking
verb    disgraced    goes on doing

now diagram the sentence

—Adrienne Rich

Friday, April 27, 2012

National Poetry Month—James Whitcomb Riley "Our Hired Girl"

Who can resist a poet so famous he could sell cigars?

At least once during National Poetry Month I like to give the poetry snobs the vapors.  Those are the high minded, serious folk— the worst high school English teachers, academics whose careers depend on culling ever diminish heard of obscure poets for publish-or-perish theses the no one reads, and critics convinced that only the obscure and arcane are worthy of notice and that popularity is vulgar.  Together these folks have just about beat to death any chance that the general public might consider reading and enjoying poetry.

Today we offer up a poet sure to set fire to these folks hair.

The Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley may not have been the greatest American poet.  But for a good many years he was the most popular—and the most beloved.  Many of his verses were written for, and loved, by children and there was a time when most could recite at least one of his poems by heart.

Riley was born on October 7, 1849 in the extremely rustic village of Greenfield, Indiana.  Although his father was a lawyer with political ambitions—the boy was named for a governor of the state—the family was still crowded into a two room log cabin.  

What passed for a super highway, the planked National Road, ran by the cabin’s dooryard.  In those days with inns and taverns scarce, travelers on the road often pulled up at the cabin, the largest in the village, for supper or a place to sleep by the hearth or in the soft hay of the barn.  From the time he was a small boy, James listened to and absorbed the accents and the stories of the visitors and entertained his family and friends with imitations.

As the village and fortunes of the family grew, they replaced the cabin with a handsome two story white frame house.

James was an indifferent, make that horrible, student in the local one room academy.  His mind was always wandering to the meadows, woods, and creeks and the play of his friends.  He learned well enough to read and write, but seemed totally indifferent to anything else. One teacher told his exasperated father, “He doesn’t know which is more—twice ten or twice eternity.”  He dropped out of school to work odd jobs in town and on nearby farms.

His father convinced him to try reading law with him.  But that was a failure, too.

Despite his love of his town and his friends among the lively local youths, Riley had itchy feet and a hankering to see a bit more of the world.  He took up the tramp profession of traveling sign painter, roaming the Mid West.  Later, he became a barker in a traveling medicine show where he honed stage skills that would later help make him famous and where he cultivated a lifelong taste for product, heavily laced with alcohol.

Riley didn’t write his first known poem until the age of 21 in 1870.  He sent it to a newspaper, which published it.  It became a habit.  The poems, usually in dialect, reflected his memories of the rural childhood.  Newspapers began, in the custom of the time, to reprint the poems “on exchange.”  He even started to get paid a dollar or two for a submission.

Despite this modest success, Riley suspected that as a rural bumpkin he would never be taken seriously as a poet by the Eastern literary establishment.  To prove his point, he perpetuated a hoax.  He submitted Leonanie an “undiscovered poem” by Edgar Allan Poe which was universally proclaimed as a masterpiece.  The Eastern critics failed to note that Poe himself was a famous hoaxer, having published at least six in his life, the most famous about a supposed 1844 crossing of the Atlantic by balloon.  When Riley revealed himself there were a lot of embarrassed—and angry—critics.  It is seems likely that tribe holds the grudge to this day. 

He established himself enough as a writer to get a full time job on the Indianapolis Journal where he did reporting and regularly contributed verse, still a popular part of any American newspaper. 

In 1883 he self published an edition of 1000 copies of a collection, The Old Swimmin’ Hole and ‘Leven More Poems under the pen name of Benjamin F. Johnson, of Boone.  Most poets trying this gambit ended up with crates full of unsold books and ruinous debts to the printer.  Riley’s book sold out its first printing in only a few months.

That got the attention of local Indianapolis publisher Merrill, Meigs and Company which published a beautifully bound second edition under his real name.  It sold like hot cakes.  Riley would be associated with the company, which eventually became Bobbs-Merrill, for the rest of his lifeIn fact that well known publishing house was largely built on the success of its Riley books.  The first of the original ones was The Boss Girl.

Riley was able to give up his day job, cater to his wanderlust, and promote his books when he took to the lecture platform.  With his charming wit, and theatrical style of reading he became one of the most sought after public speakers in the country, a genuine star of the Lyceum Circuit.  And everywhere he spoke, he sold even more books.  

One of the few critics who appreciated him, fellow Mid Westerner Hamlin Garland, noted that of American writer only Mark Twain  “who had the same amazing flow of quaint conceits.  He spoke ‘copy’ all the time.”  In an interview in 1892 in Greenfield, Riley told him, “My work did itself.  I'm only the willer bark through which the whistle comes.”

Twain, by the way, was not fond of Riley.  In their only appearance together on the same program, he felt that he was upstaged by someone plowing similar ground.  There after he avoided those literary dinners where Riley might make an appearance and occasionally derided his adversary. 

Riley’s lectures and book sales made him the best paid writer America for a while, surely another bitter pill for struggling “serious” scribes.  It was said copies of his books were found in homes that contained no other save the Bible.

Riley never married.  He said a failed teenage romance back in Greenfield had made him decide not to commit his heart.  But serious alcoholism, that all too common malady of writers, was more likely the cause.  At least one lecture tour was aborted do to drunkenness.  Several attempts of stop drinking all ultimately failed.

In 1893 Riley began boarding at the home of his friends, Charles and Magdalena Holstein in the Indianapolis neighborhood of Lockerbie.  It was his home for the rest of his life and his friends took care of him through bouts of drinking and later severe health problems.

By 1895 he had largely stopped touring and his attempts to publish more “serious” poems were savaged even by critics who had warmed to his rustic style.  At home in Lockerbie he appointed himself an uncle to neighborhood children who flocked to hear his stories and tales. 

That inspired his last, and ultimately most successful, original book, Rhymes of Childhood with illustrations by Howard Chandler Christy.  It was so popular through so many editions—it remains in print today—that Riley was proclaimed the Children’s Poet, much as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had been years before.  Twain was so moved by this collection—and probably the memory of his dead children—that he finally had good things to say about Riley.

In 1902 Boobs-Merrill began issuing elegantly appointed volumes of his complete works, an honor few poets lived to see.  Riley spent his last years editing the texts.  Eventually 16 volumes were issued.

Riley purchased the family homestead in Greenfield and his brother John lived in the house.  Riley would make occasional visits. 

Riley’s health had been in steady decline since 1901.  He suffered a debilitating stroke in 1910 which confined him to a wheel chair.  The loss of the use of his writing hand bothered him and he later relied on dictation to George Ade for his last poems and biographical sketches.  By 1912 he had recovered enough to begin recording readings for Edison cylinders.  The same year the Governor of Indiana declared his birthday James Whitcomb Riley Day, a state holiday observed until 1968.

He made his last visit to Greenfield in 1916 for the funeral of a boyhood friend.  A week later back in Lockerbie, he suffered a second stroke and died on July 22nd.

Riley was widely mourned.  His books continued to be popular through the next two decades, finally falling out of favor.

His boyhood home in Greenfield is now a preserved historical site and his home in Lockerbie is the James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home and a designated National Historic Site.

Our Hired Girl

Our hired girl, she’s ‘Lizabuth Ann;
An’ she can cook best things to eat!
She ist puts dough in our pie-pan,
An’ pours in somepin’ ‘at's good an’ sweet;
An’ nen she salts it all on top
With cinnamon; an’ nen she’ll stop
An’ stoop an' slide it, ist as slow,
In th’ old cook-stove, so's 'twon't slop
An’ git all spilled; nen bakes it, so
It's custard-pie, first thing you know!
An’ nen she’ll say,
“Clear out o’ my way!
They’s time fer work, an’ time fer play!
Take yer dough, an’ run, child, run!
Er I cain’t git no cookin’ done!”
When our hired girl ‘tends like she’s mad,
An’ says folks got to walk the chalk
When she's around, er wisht they had!
I play out on our porch an' talk
To Th’ Raggedy Man ‘at mows our lawn;
An’ he says, “Whew!” an’ nen leans on
His old crook-scythe, and blinks his eyes,
An’ sniffs all ‘round an’ says, “I swawn!
Ef my old nose don’t tell me lies,
It ‘pears like I smell custard-pies!”
An’ nen he’ll say,
“Clear out o’ my way!
They’s time fer work, an’ time fer play!
Take yer dough, an’ run, child, run!
Er she cain’t git no cookin’ done!
Wunst our hired girl, when she
Got the supper, an we all et,
An’ it wuz night, an’ Ma an’ me
An’ Pa went wher’ the “Social’ met,--
An’  nen when we come home, an’ see
A light in the kitchen door, an’ we
Heerd a maccordeun, Pa says, “Lan’--
O’-Gracious! who can her beau be?’
An’ I marched in, an’ ‘Lizabuth Ann
Wuz parchin’ corn fer The Raggedy Man!
Better say,
“Clear out o’ the way!
They’s time fer work, an’ time fer play!
Take the hint, an’ run, child, run!
Er we cain’t git no courtin’ done!”

—James Whitcomb Riley