Posts tagged Chicago Series
No one reads the poems of Carolyn Rodgers (Dec. 14, 1940-April 2, 2010). She was a key member of the Black Arts Movement and a student of Gwendolyn Brooks. As so often happens with women in the arts, she was chastised for what men were celebrated for. Here she addresses the use of profanity in a poem:
—from “The Last M.F.”
that i should not use the word
in my poetry or in any speech i give.
that i must and can only say it to myself
as the new Black Womanhood suggests
a softer self
a more reserved speaking self. they say,
that respect is hard won by a woman
who throws a word like muthafucka around
and so they say because we love you
throw that word away, Black Woman …
that i only call muthafuckas, muthafuckas
so no one should be insulted.
How I Got Ovah: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award (1976). Over time she shifted away from revolutionary and militant themes to more personal concerns but she never neglected the plight of being poor and black in America:
“East of New Haven”
you see so many
these little towns
out in the open
spaces & places.
i guess big cities
have not enough space for the
let alone the dead.
there is so much
and back home in
chicago we would call
them rocks, lying all on the ground(s)
lots of rocks around / but
you would call them
see how much smoother
the world is.
the farther east we
the more frequent
are the stops at rich small
quaint towns and the more frequent
are the admonitions to “watch one’s
ticket on the rack above the seat
or to be very sure to take it with
you if you leave your seat!”
the very wealthy,
as i ride the train
watching the many white students
eating out of brown paper
sacks, saving their now
money so that they can
be the very wealthy later
Carolyn Rodgers will be inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in 2012.
Perhaps a few more people will read her poems now.
No one reads Margaret Anderson’s and Jane Heap’s Little Review but it was one of the preeminent literary publications of the ’10s and ’20s. Along with Poetry, Blue Sky Press, and countless other forgotten magazines and presses started in Chicago early in the 20th century, The Little Review introduced adventurous readers to some of best writers of the day. Anderson started it in 1914, reportedly declaring at a party with other Chicago literary types, that it was time for a magazine which “would make no compromise with public taste.” In time that sentiment became part of its masthead. She had many admirers, among them a very young Ben Hecht, who was apparently heartbroken when she moved away to New York. Jane Heap joined as an editor in 1916. She was a far less public figure than Anderson, often referred to in the pages of their journal as just “jh.” The two women maintained a professional and romantic relationship that lasted until about 1925.
In 1917 they took on Ezra Pound as an editor and moved to New York. A year later they began to serialize James Joyce’s Ulysses, which would bring them their highest acclaim as well as their greatest infamy. Anderson, as publisher, was tried for obscenity but remained defiant. The magazine continued to publish feminist, anarchist, and surrealist articles and art that was often at great odds with the tastes of established American society.
In 1923 Anderson and Heap moved their base of operations to Paris to join Pound, but by 1925 the two women parted ways—Anderson remained in Europe and Heap assumed head editorship of their magazine and went back to New York. She continued The Little Review until 1929 when she grew disillusioned and was forced to conclude bitterly that “Modern art has finally come into its own…advertising.”
Margaret Anderson eventually wrote a three-volume autobiography chronicling her time as a publisher as well as her many illustrious years in the company of literary and artistic high society thereafter. Of her role in the creative world, she said, “I had vicarious experience of the artist’s ecstasy without having had to undergo the daily lonely labor of the functioning virtuoso. I have been a cheat, and no one has ever been more rewarded for cheating.”
No one reads Vachel Lindsay (1879–1931) these days, though were he around he’d probably prefer to read his poems to you himself. Lindsay believed in dramatizing his writings, referring to it sometimes as “singing poetry” and other times as “Higher Vaudeville”. He can be considered one of the progenitors of our slam-poetry and performance art.
He was born in Springfield, Illinois into a family devoted to the Cambellite sect of Christianity. He tried his hand at visual art but was told by painter Robert Henri that he was more of a poet. Soon after Lindsay was trying to peddle his poems to dubious passersby in the street. He saw his purpose on earth to preach his “Gospel of Beauty” to the people.
His fame rose in the 1910s due in large part to his ecstatic public recitals. He gained notice from the likes of William Butler Yeats and the then-nascent Poetry Magazine. Robert Frost said of him: “Some of these poets seem to get in a corner and gnaw their fingernails and try to get a dark corner, you know, and try to go crazy so they will qualify. There’s none of that in Vachel. He was just crazy in his own right; he did some of the strangest things.”
He paid tribute to many prominent people of his day, including Lincoln:
Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (In Springfield, Illinois)
It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down,
Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.
A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.
He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:—as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long,
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.
His head is bowed. He thinks of men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why;
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.
The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.
He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come;—the shining hope of Europe free:
A league of sober folk, the Workers’ Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.
It breaks his heart that things must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?
—from Congo and other poems (1915)
Lindsay caused a lot of controversy with his most famous poem, “The Congo” for its racism and for romanticizing “the noble savage.” He never understood the criticisms and spent considerable time defending himself against detractors like W.E.B. Debois. Listen to him reading “The Congo” and other poems here.
As with many poets he had a hard time making a steady living. He crisscrossed the country performing his poems to pay down his considerable debts in his last years until he lapsed into despondency and committed suicide by drinking a bottle of Lysol.
His last words were, “They tried to get me — I got them first!”
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No one reads Robert Herrick (1868–1938) any more. Even fewer read his novels than read the lyric poems of his 17th Century namesake. Despite his cherubic countenance Herrick wasn’t a particularly happy man and saw his lot in life in stark terms—
“In Search of One’s Soul”
The image of man toiling up desolate windswept heights, with some unknown destination, unrealized aim. As the journey progresses the scene has grown wilder, sterner, more desolate, less distracting, less peopled, and less cumbered…[H]e is more and more definitely conscious that his pursuit is necessary, inevitable, and that its sole consolation is that at each stage he finds himself strong enough to rise and resume the toilsome way, without enthusiasm or emotional delight, perceiving more clearly that the road will be increasingly lonely, severe, and the end defeat… The reward? Somewhere, somehow, around some dark, forbidding cliff he will come face to face with himself, entire, complete.
Herrick was a prolific and well-respected novelist in his day, turning out some thirteen titles in a realist, social-commentary vein. Praised by the likes of William James, he was described as a less-vitriolic Upton Sinclair. He arrived in Chicago in 1893 amid World’s Fair fever and was professor of English at the University of Chicago from its inception until he quit abruptly in 1923, feeling like he didn’t get his due from the university. He settled scores with William Harper (who helped found the University and recruited Herrick away from Harvard) and other perceived and real enemies in his prose. His relationship with Chicago was also somewhat ambivalent:
“Chicago is an instance of a successful, contemptuous disregard of nature by man. Other great cities have been called gradually into existence about some fine opportunity suggested by nature, at the junction of fertile valleys, or on a loving bend of a broad river, or in the inner recesses of a sea-harbour, where nature has pointed out, as it were, a spot favourable for life and growth. In the case of Chicago, man has decided to make for himself a city for his artificial necessities in defiance of every indifference displayed by nature.”—from The Gospel of Freedom (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1898)
After leaving Chicago he turned away from academia and literature. In 1935, he was appointed as a Secretary to the United States Virgin Islands, finding respect and a measure of peace in those sunnier climes.
Herrick was suggested to me by local treasure, Paul Durica, proprietor of the Pocket Guide to Hell.
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No one reads Paul Carroll (1926–96). Carroll was a poet now best remembered for the writers he championed. He was an editor at Chicago Review and a founder of the Poetry Center of Chicago. When Chicago Review refused to continue publishing excerpts of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in 1958, Carroll resigned along with fellow editor Irving Rosenthal and founded Big Table in order to promote Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and others. Kerouac came up with the name: Big Table occurred to him, Carroll recalled, when Kerouac found a note he had written himself: “Get a bigger table.” The first issue of the magazine was seized by the Post Office for containing obscenity in the locked-down ’50s.
Poet Paul Hoover told K. C. Clarke (as part of an appreciation of Carroll by those who knew him) that even as a tenured professor at UIC, where he founded the writers’ program, he was also driving a cab. “He was driving these people around, and they didn’t care about his subject, Pablo Neruda, so he stops the car and said, ‘Get the fuck out.’ That seemed to be the kind of guy he was.”
His wife, Maryrose, described their life in a 2004 interview [PDF}:
He had an ABSOLUTE passion for poetry.
When we lived in our loft, a factory building not too far from Lincoln Park, when he wasn’t teaching, he would go out on his bike and ride through the park, and make stops, to jot down notes about the weather, the trees, or a dead fish. When he came home the pieces would go into a first stew, and usually he would get up late at night, at 2:00, 3:00 o’clock in the morning, and he would be working again, on poetry. And whether these poems were published or not he kept on writing, rocking and rolling with the words.
“Song After Making Love” (published posthumously in 2008)
Sometimes I want to be a cloud
drifting like a barnacle goose or a galleon
into the winter home of God
The green of these trees
the grass green as oxygen
the green of my excited heart
Shadows of bird between the bones
blood feels sweet
as if moving in maple trees
a part of me is grass
I close my eyes
at the same time full
like a galaxy in daylight
Carroll was suggested to me as a subject by Thomas Sloan, Professor Emeritus in Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His knowledge of lost and forgotten bits of history are rivaled by few people I know.
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I asked Dmitry Samarov — author of Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab — to post about Chicago writers. This is his first post. He even made a portrait of the author!
No one reads Willard Motley (1909–1965) but they certainly used to. He grew up in a middle-class African-American household in the then primarily-white neighborhood of Englewood in Chicago. The prominent painter Archibald Motley was his uncle, cousin, or brother (according to various sources).
He first gained notice when he submitted a short story to the Chicago Defender at the age of 13. This led to his being hired to write a children’s column under the pen-name “Bud Billiken” from 1922 to 1924. (“Bud Billiken” was later used for a South Side Chicago parade which continues to this day.)
Motley was a co-founder of Hull-House Magazine, which published some of his first adult writings.
I. THE STREET
This is the corner. Here is where the women stand at night. This is where the evangelists preach God on Sundays. Here is where knife-play has written a moment’s strange drama; where sweethearts have met; where drunks have tilted bottles; where shoppers have bargained; where men have come looking — for something… This is the humpty-dumpty neighborhood. Maxwell and Newberry…
Here is where the daytime pavement never gets a rest from the shuffle of feet. Where the night-time street lamps lean drunkenly and are an easy target for the youngsters’ rocks. Where garbage cans are pressed full and running over. Where the weary buildings kneel to the street and the cats fight their fights under the tall, knock-kneed legs of the pushcarts. This is the down-to-earth world, the bread and beans world, the tenement-bleak world of poverty and hunger. The world of skipped meals; of skimp pocketbooks; of nonexistent security — shadowed by the miserable little houses that Jane Addams knew. Maxwell and Newberry…
This is the street of noises, of odors, of colors. This is a small hub around which a little world revolves. The spokes shoot off into all countries. This is Jerusalem. The journey to Africa is only one block; from Africa to Mexico one block; from Mexico to Italy two blocks; from Italy to Greece three blocks…
This is the pavement. These are the streets. Here are the people…
Motley’s most popular novel, Knock on any Door, sold 47,000 copies in its first three weeks of release. Its hero Nick Romano famously said, “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.” The book was adapted into a 1949 film directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart.
Responding to criticism that he did not directly address race in his work, he said, “My race is the human race.”
Motley died of intestinal gangrene in Mexico City in 1965, poor and forgotten. His papers are held at the Chicago Public Library and Northern Illinois University.
Motley was suggested to me as a subject by Bill Savage, who owns a copy of Nelson Algren’s Neon Wilderness inscribed by the author as “the poor man’s Willard Motley.”
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