Thursday, April 30, 2015

National Poetry Month—Getting Ready for May Day on the Way Out

On the eve of May Day we wrap up this blog’s annual National Poetry Month series.  Before that train leaves the station, I want to thank the folks who have shown a steadily building interest in this project over the years.  When I started this six years ago my already tiny readership shrank each year—folks seemed to be just bored, scared, or scarred by poetry.  Perhaps I have won some of you over.  This year, for the first time, readership is significantly up from the rest of the year and some posts have spiked with considerable interest. I’ll flatter myself that I have.  More likely, folks who are interested in verse have found the joint.  If that is you, I hope you will continue to stop by the rest of the year.  Other interesting crap transpires here.
This year we were more diverse than ever in the poets included by race, gender, ethnicity, and age.  Hell, we even kicked things off with a transgender eco-anarchist class war prisoner.  Thanks to suggestions from readers, we were able to introduce new poets and voices—keep that up!  And we found some past poets who might have flown under your radar.  By doing more theme posts we were able to link famous and classic poets to Jacks and Jills whose work is fresh and immediate.
We will close out with some May Day poetry.  Tomorrow there will be my annual comprehensive history of May Day post—which will give me a chance to celebrate and rest up from an almost exhaustive posting schedule in April.
A Maypole dance for Beltane.

Briefly, there are multiple events celebrated on the First of May.  First are the so-called pagan observances of Europe which divide the year between the seasons of light and dark.  Celebrated roughly half way between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice, these ancient festivals celebrated, above all else, fertility and abundant life. Known as Walpurgisnacht in Germanic and Norse traditions, it was celebrated as Beltane by the Celts beginning this evening.  The Catholic Church, where it could not squelch the associated folk traditions, transformed May Day into the Crowning of the May Queen—a celebration of Mary.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
In 1854 Ralph Waldo Emerson published a new poetry collection.  He hoped it would revive his reputation as a poet.  He had always self-identified mostly as poet, but had risen to fame as a minister, essayist, lecturer, philosopher and the hub of the wheel of Transcendentalism.  Although a few of his poems, particularly his patriotic ode The Concorde Hymn had attracted public admiration, his serious poetry had not.  For a bid to re-assert himself as a poet the topic of  May-Day and Other Pieces was still controversial in Evangelical Christian circles and a bit subversive, even revolutionary.
Emerson’s own Puritan ancestors had made remorseless war on May Day rituals, which persisted in secret.  Some of the victims of the infamous Salem Witch Trials were accused of holding May Pole dances in the woods and personally consorting with Satan.  Observances were officially banned throughout New England, and although unenforced remained on the books.  But as late as the 1840s there had been riots over Catholic May Queen crownings—if there was anything linger Puritans hated more that Pagans, it was Catholics.
Emerson was not one to embrace idolatry, but he recognized the great symbolism of May Day and its place in the eternal rhythms of the seasons.  Reconnecting with the seasons was reconnecting with nature and the divine itself, a core belief of Transcendentalism. 
Today we have Emerson and the Transcendentalists for planting the philosophical seeds of the modern environmental movement.  
The title poem of Emerson’s collection, May-Day, was very long indeed.  Emerson sometimes got carried away with himself and could use a good editor.  The following are key excerpts of the poem, but contain most of its intent and meaning.


The robins know the melting snow;
The sparrow meek, prophetic-eyed,
Her nest beside the snow-drift weaves,
Secure the osier yet will hide
Her callow brood in mantling leaves,—
And thou, by science all undone,
Why only must thy reason fail
To see the southing of the sun?

  The world rolls round,—mistrust it not,—
Befalls again what once befell;
All things return, both sphere and mote,
And I shall hear my bluebird’s note,
And dream the dream of Auburn dell.

  April cold with dropping rain
Willows and lilacs brings again,
The whistle of returning birds,
And trumpet-lowing of the herds.
The scarlet maple-keys betray
What potent blood hath modest May,
What fiery force the earth renews,
The wealth of forms, the flush of hues;
What joy in rosy waves outpoured
Flows from the heart of Love, the Lord…

  Where shall we keep the holiday,
And duly greet the entering May?
Too strait and low our cottage doors,
And all unmeet our carpet floors;
Nor spacious court, nor monarch's hall,
Suffice to hold the festival.
Up and away! where haughty woods
Front the liberated floods:
We will climb the broad-backed hills,
Hear the uproar of their joy;
We will mark the leaps and gleams
Of the new-delivered streams,
And the murmuring rivers of sap
Mount in the pipes of the trees,
Giddy with day, to the topmost spire,
Which for a spike of tender green
Bartered its powdery cap;
And the colors of joy in the bird,
And the love in its carol heard,
Frog and lizard in holiday coats,
And turtle brave in his golden spots;
While cheerful cries of crag and plain
Reply to the thunder of river and main…

  Wreaths for the May! for happy Spring
To-day shall all her dowry bring,
The love of kind, the joy, the grace,
Hymen of element and race,
Knowing well to celebrate
With song and hue and star and state,
With tender light and youthful cheer,
The spousals of the new-born year…

  Ah! well I mind the calendar,
Faithful through a thousand years,
Of the painted race of flowers,
Exact to days, exact to hours,
Counted on the spacious dial
Yon broidered zodiac girds.
I know the trusty almanac
Of the punctual coming-back,
On their due days, of the birds.
I marked them yestermorn,
A flock of finches darting
Beneath the crystal arch,
Piping, as they flew, a march,—
Belike the one they used in parting
Last year from yon oak or larch;
Dusky sparrows in a crowd,
Diving, darting northward free,
Suddenly betook them all,
Every one to his hole in the wall,
Or to his niche in the apple-tree.
I greet with joy the choral trains
Fresh from palms and Cuba’s canes.
Best gems of Nature’s cabinet,
With dews of tropic morning wet,
Beloved of children, bards and Spring,
O birds, your perfect virtues bring,
Your song, your forms, your rhythmic flight,
Your manners for the heart's delight,
Nestle in hedge, or barn, or roof,
Here weave your chamber weather-proof,
Forgive our harms, and condescend
To man, as to a lubber friend,
And, generous, teach his awkward race
Courage and probity and grace!

—Ralph Waldo Emerson
From May-Day and Other Pieces, 1854

One of Walter Crane's famed May Day Posters.
Walter Crane, born in Liverpool, England in 1845 is best remembered as an artist and book illustrator.  His lush work, including famed illustrations of classic children’s books connected a Pre-Raphaelite sensibility to the Arts and Crafts movement.  He was also a dedicate member of the international socialist movement and often contributed images to their publications and created classic poster art.  He also contributed verse, short stories, and essays to the Socialist press.
When Crane penned this for the journal Justice in 1894 May Day as the Workers’ Holiday was in its infancy.  It had first been declared as a one day event in memory of Chicago’s Haymarket Martyrs at a Congress of the Socialist International in Paris in 1890 and proclaimed an annual celebration of world labor at another Congress the following year.
Crane naturally tied the new worker’s celebration to the traditional folk customs of the spring celebrations and its central image, the Maypole.
The Workers’ Maypole
World Workers, whatever may bind ye,
    This day let your work be undone:
Cast the clouds of the winter behind ye,
     And come forth and be glad in the sun.
Now again while the green earth rejoices
     In the bud and the blossom of May
Lift your hearts up again, and your voices,
     And keep merry the World’s Labour Day.
Let the winds lift your banners from far lands
    With a message of strife and of hope:
Raise the Maypole aloft with its garlands
     That gathers your cause in its scope.
It is writ on each ribbon that flies
     That flutters from fair Freedom’s heart:
If still far be the crown and the prize
     In its winning may each take a part.
Your cause is the hope of the world,
     In your strife is the life of the race,
The workers' flag Freedom unfurled
     Is the veil of the bright future's face.
Be ye many or few drawn together,
     Let your message be clear on this day;
Be ye birds of the spring, of one feather
     In this--that ye sing on May-Day.
Of the new life that still lieth hidden,
     Though its shadow is cast before;
The new birth of hope that unbidden
     Surely comes, as the sea to the shore.
Stand fast, then, Oh Workers, your ground,
     Together pull, strong and united:
Link your hands like a chain the world round,
     If you will that your hopes be requited.
When the World’s Workers, sisters and brothers,
     Shall build, in the new coming years,
A lair house of life--not for others,
     For the earth and its fullness is theirs.

—Walter Crane
From Justice, 1894

Alfred Hayes.

Alfred Hayes, born in Britain in 1911 and who worked mostly in Italy and the United States was still a very young man at the beginning of his career as a writer when he contributed this heart-felt and stirring call to the streets for a May Day during the Great Depression in 1932.  He was writing in The New Masses, one of the most influential radical magazines of the.  By then May Day had been adopted not only by the world labor movement, anarchists, and socialist, but by the Communists.  Hayes would be associated with the Communists throughout his career as a screenwriter, television writer, novelist, and poet.  He is best remembered for the for poem Joe Hill which was later set to music by Earl Robinson and made famous in performances by Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez.  

Into the Streets May First!

Into the streets May First!
Into the roaring Square!
Shake the midtown towers!
Shatter the downtown air!
Come with a storm of banners,
Come with an earthquake tread,
Bells, hurl out of your belfries,
Red flag, leap out your red!
Out of the shops and factories,
Up with the sickle and hammer,
Comrades, these are our tools,
A song and a banner!
Roll song, from the sea of our hearts,
Banner, leap and be free;
Song and banner together,
Down with the bourgeoisie!
Sweep the big city, march forward,
The day is a barricade;
We hurl the bright bomb of the sun,
The moon like a hand grenade.
Pour forth like a second flood!
Thunder the alps of the air!
Subways are roaring our millions—a
Comrades, into the square!

—Alfred Hayes
From The New Masses 1934

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