Hiawatha’s Camera

Unidentified field camera, c.1890s
(Click image for more information)

As one of the children who loved to hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, I relished my early immersion into the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 

One of the so-called Fireside poets — a group which included William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell —  Longfellow entranced my classmates and me with his rhythmic and rhyming version of our nation’s history. If he trimmed, re-stitched, and embroidered that history from time to time, the broad outlines were there, together with vivid scenes we never experienced but heard echoing in stories told by parents and grandparents; we enjoyed it all.

Longfellow often wrote especially for children, but he also included them in works written more directly for adults. We envied the school children who populated his poems, wishing we could have experienced such marvelous sights as those recounted in The Village Blacksmith:

And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge
And hear the bellows roar,
And watch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.

In time, “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls” gave voice to my fascination with the sea, and, somewhat obliquely, “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” became responsible for the beginning of my blog.  But in my youth, Longfellow’s most popular and long-enduring poem, “The Song of Hiawatha” seemed to be everywhere.

Shortly after his marriage to Mary Potter in 1831, Longfellow journeyed to Europe and Scandinavia, where he encountered the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala.  Compiled by Elias Lönnrot from an extensive Finnish oral tradition that included ballads, lyrical songs, and incantations, the material was published in two editions; the original 32 cantos (1835) later were enlarged into 50 cantos (1849), and this later edition usually is meant when Finns refer to the Kalevala.

Kalevala, the dwelling place of the epic’s chief characters, is a poetic name for Finland which means ‘land of heroes.’ On the website of the Kalevala Society, a useful note about the nature of the epic is offered as introduction:

The world of the Kalevala is mythical – not historical. Therefore, its stories cannot be connected to actual places or events. Essentially, it lives in the realm of the mind’s eye. Lauri Honko, a Finnish scholar of the Kalevala, writes: ‘Many of the stories and their details become easier to understand if we do not try to force them onto the level of historical time and everyday experiences but try to listen to the voice of myth as it speaks to the man who conceives time as mythical.’

Written in unrhymed octosyllabic trochees and dactyls (known as the Kalevala metre), the epic is characterized by alliteration, parallelism, and repetition. Longfellow found the style congenial, and its use in”The Song of Hiawatha” directly reflects the influence of the Kalevala.

This section, perhaps one of the best known portions of Longfellow’s poem, may have been memorized by thousands of grade-school aged children:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

Of course, anyone who grew up in the 1950s — especially in midwestern states — remembers the Hamm’s Beer Company parody of “The Song of Hiawatha.” One of the most famous commercials ever produced, it borrowed its melody from Victor Herbert’s 1911 opera Natoma and paired the music with rhymed couplets similar to those in Longfellow’s poem. 

Once heard, the jingle wasn’t easily forgotten. Even today, the percussive beat of its drumming brings it back in an instant, although many viewers would have been surprised to know the memorable beat of the tom-tom in the commercial wasn’t Native American. Minneapolis advertising legend Ray Mithun, who helped found the Campbell-Mithun agency with $1,500 and three clients, based it on recordings of Haitian voodoo drumming, and beat out the rhythm on an empty carton of Star-Kist tuna cans.

By the time the Hamm’s commercial arrived on the scene, a multitude of Hiawatha parodies had been published, including one written by the Reverend George A. Strong (1832-1912) under the pseudonym of ‘Marc Antony Henderson’ in 1856: one year after the publication of Longfellow’s poem.

Titled “The Song of Milkanwatha: Translated from the Original Feejee” and said to have been published by a company puckishly named ‘Tickell and Grinne,’ the parody imitated Hiawatha chapter by chapter. Over time, variations began to appear.  A much-anthologised, self-contained verse sometimes attributed to Strong and sometimes to ‘Anonymous’ appeared in Mrs. Scott Saxton’sThe Newest Elocution Textbook, published in Denver, Colorado, in 1893. Found in a section titled “Gymnastics in Articulation,” it had been given the title, “Skin Side Inside, or The Modern Hiawatha.”  The version endured at least until I reached second grade; our teacher read us the verse as we dried our snow-caked mittens on the radiators:

He killed the noble Mudjokivis.
Of the skin he made him mittens,
Made them with the fur side inside,
Made them with the skin side outside.
He, to get the warm side inside,
Put the inside skin side outside;
He to get the cold side outside
Put the warm side fur side inside.
That’s why he put the fur side inside,
Why he put the skin side outside,
Why he turned them inside outside.

Never one to allow an opportunity for parody to pass by, Lewis Carroll created his own version of Longfellow’s poem, calling it “Hiawatha’s Photographing.” In his introduction, Carroll begins the fun early; his use of Longfellow’s meter becomes obvious only when the paragraph is restructured:

In an age of imitation,
I can claim no special merit
for this slight attempt at doing
what is known to be so easy.
Any fairly practised writer,
with the slightest ear for rhythm,
could compose, for hours together,
in the easy running metre of “The Song of Hiawatha.”
Having then distinctly stated that I challenge no attention
in the following little poem to its merely verbal jingle,
I must beg the candid reader to confine his criticism
to its treatment of the subject.

In fact, Carroll was quite a camera buff himself, and he filled his parody with amusing details related to cameras, unwilling subjects, the pains of portraiture, and film development — all in a perfect and wonderful imitation of Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.”

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.
This he perched upon a tripod –
Crouched beneath its dusky cover –
Stretched his hand, enforcing silence –
Said “Be motionless, I beg you!”
Mystic, awful was the process.

The entire, hilarious, improbable version of “Hiawatha’s Photographing” can be found here.  Whether you enjoy 19th century poetry, photography, or the humor of parody, it’s well worth a read — preferably aloud, and preferably with an audience, just as Longfellow and Carroll would have wanted.

The Hamm’s is optional.

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Flight

White-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi) ~ Brazoria County, Texas
(Click image for more detail)

Despite his prolific output and the award of a Nobel Prize in 1971, I’ve only recently come to appreciate the work of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Despite decades of acclaim for his poetry, publications in English represent only a small portion of his oeuvre, apparently due in part to the difficulties of translation;  I simply hadn’t come across them until I found them on the internet.

The details of Neruda’s life are fascinating. A committed Communist and political activist, he returned to Chile in 1953, following some years in exile. Eventually, he began producing less ideologically influenced love poetry, as well as nature poetry celebrating every aspect of the world in which we live.

 In their book Earth Tones: The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, Manuel Duran and Margery Safir note that Neruda began trying to speak to everyday people simply and clearly, on a level that anyone could understand.  In his examination of quite common, everyday things, they say, “Neruda gives us time to examine a particular plant, a stone, a flower, a bird, an aspect of modern life, at leisure. We look at the object, handle it, turn it around, all the sides are examined with love, care, attention. This is, in many ways, Neruda at his best.”

In his poem “Bird,” he offers his attention to their flight in a remarkable and wholly memorable way.

It was passed from one bird to another,
the whole gift of the day.
The day went from flute to flute,
went dressed in vegetation,
in flights which opened a tunnel
through which the wind would pass
to where birds were breaking open
the dense blue air –
and there, night came in.
When I returned from so many journeys,
I stayed suspended and green
between sun and geography –
I saw how wings worked,
how perfumes are transmitted
by feathery telegraph,
and from above I saw the path,
the springs and the roof tiles,
the fishermen at their trades,
the trousers of the foam;
I saw it all from my green sky.
I had no more alphabet
than the swallows in their courses,
the tiny, shining water
of the small bird on fire
which dances out of the pollen.

“Caía de un pájaro a otro
todo lo que el día trae,
iba de flauta en flauta el día,
iba vestido de verdura
con vuelos que abrían un túnel,
y por allí pasaba el viento
por donde las aves abrían
el aire compacto y azul:
por allí entraba la noche.
Cuando volví de tantos viajes
me quedé suspendido y verde
entre el sol y la geografía:
vi còmo trabajan las alas,
còmo se transmite el perfume
por un telégrafo emplumado
y desde arriba vi el camino,
los manantiales, las tejas,
los pescadores a pescar,
los pantalones de la espuma,
todo desde mi cielo verde.
No tenía más alfabeto
que el viaje de las golondrinas,
el agua pura y pequeñita
del pequeño pájero ardiendo
que baila saliendo del polen.”

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more biographical details of Neruda’s life and politics, the Wikipedia page is useful.
For a history of his development as a poet and critique of his work, see the entry at The Poetry Foundation website.

 

The Poets’ Birds: Dabblers

Whether Kenneth Grahame meant The Wind in the Willows to be for children or adults has been debated, but the timeless tale of animal friends and their adventures along the Thames, in the Wild Wood, or on the Open Road has enchanted readers since the book’s publication in 1908.

I missed meeting the main characters — Ratty, Mole, Badger, and Mr. Toad of Toad Hall — as a child, but once I began sailing, I discovered one quotation from the book appearing on nearly every boat: embroidered on salon pillows, hanging on bulkheads, incised over companionways, or silk-screened onto tee-shirts. Taken from the first chapter of the book, the saying’s appeal to sailors seemed universal:

There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

Eventually I read on, and found equally memorable passages to enjoy. After being introduced to the entertaining dabbling ducks at various refuge ponds — the mallards, northern shovelers, teals, and pintails that tip tail as they forage for food — the sight of their antics evoked one of the book’s most charming exchanges, between Ratty and Mole.

“Ratty,” said the Mole suddenly, one bright summer morning, “if you please, I want to ask you a favour.”
The Rat was sitting on the river bank, singing a little song. He had just composed it himself, so he was very taken up with it, and would not pay proper attention to Mole or anything else.
Since early morning he had been swimming in the river, in company with his friends the ducks. And when the ducks stood on their heads suddenly, as ducks will, he would dive down and tickle their necks, just under where their chins would be if ducks had chins, till they were forced to come to the surface again in a hurry, spluttering and angry and shaking their feathers at him, for it is impossible to say quite all you feel when your head is under water.
At last they implored him to go away and attend to his own affairs and leave them to mind theirs. So the Rat went away, and sat on the river bank in the sun, and made up a song about them, which he called “The Ducks’ Ditty”:
All along the backwater,
Through the rushes tall,
Ducks are a-dabbling,
Up tails all!
Ducks’ tails, drakes’ tails,
Yellow feet a-quiver,
Yellow bills all out of sight
Busy in the river!
Slushy green undergrowth
Where the roaches swim–
Here we keep our larder,
Cool and full and dim.
Everyone for what he likes!
We like to be
Heads down, tails up,
Dabbling free!
High in the blue above
Swifts whirl and call–
We are down a-dabbling
Up tails all!
“I don’t know that I think so very much of that little song, Rat,'” observed the Mole cautiously. He was no poet himself and didn’t care who knew it, and he had a candid nature.
“Nor don’t the ducks neither,'” replied the Rat cheerfully. “They say, ‘Why can’t fellows be allowed to do what they like when they like and as they like, instead of other fellows sitting on banks and watching them all the time and making remarks and poetry and things about them? What nonsense it all is!’ That’s what the ducks say.”

However ambivalent the ducks may be about Ratty’s little song, for those of us who enjoy dabbling in poetry — or anything else — the ducks’ ditty is both amusing and instructive: a worthy combination. I’m glad Grahame recorded it.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

 

Between Peaches and Peppermint

From the tenor of their conversation, it seemed the woman placing her order had been a customer of the meat market for some time: at least long enough for the clerk to ask, “Do you want seven chicken breasts, or have the kids gone back to school?” After a moment’s thought, the woman said, “One’s still at home, but she doesn’t like chicken. Two will be enough.”

“What about a roast?” the clerk asked. “Are you ready for a nice pork loin, or some chuck?” The woman sighed. “No. Not yet. I can’t bring myself to turn on the oven in this heat. Besides, roasts are for winter.”

At that point, I smiled in recognition. I don’t crave pot roast in summer any more than I long for a nice bowl of gazpacho when I’m trying to thaw out in January. Some dishes appeal throughout the year, but certain foods, whether from habit or preference, remain confined to one season.

As I pondered my own list of seasonal foods, it occurred to me that ice cream manufacturers are in a tricky spot. It would be easy to associate ice cream only with warm weather: a refreshing treat for days when the temperatures soar. For decades, family afternoons spent churning homemade ice cream took place in the summer, as did traditional ice cream socials. To break the connection between ice cream and summer — and to make a profit even in the depths of winter — companies had to find new ways to attract customers.

One of the most effective methods has been the establishment of seasonal flavors, and Texas’s beloved Bluebell Creamery has mastered the technique. Aficionados of the brand have learned the ice cream calendar by heart: peppermint in December and January, Mardi Gras in March, homemade vanilla with peaches or strawberries in early summer, and Southern blackberry cobbler as August turns to September.

Fall deserves it’s own flavor, of course, and spiced pumpkin pecan is sheer perfection. When it appears on store shelves, in the weeks between summer’s peaches and holiday peppermint, everyone knows that falling leaves, crisp air, and pot roast can’t be far away. While we wait, we enjoy: waxing poetic over the virtues of a traditional and quite tasty treat.

 

  So
  little
  is needed.
A dish. A spoon.
  Even the carton
  will do in a pinch if
  no one is watching, no one
  complaining, no one advising
sweet moderation when offered the
chance to keep scooping and scooping away.

 

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here .

 

 

Life, Imitating Art

The Red Bench, Rockport City Cemetery

Gary Myers, an artist whose work I admire and whose blog I’ve followed for years, lives north of Elmira, New York in the memorably-named town of Horseheads. His paintings have hung in an assortment of galleries, including the West End in Corning, New York; the Kada in Erie, Pennsylvania; and the The Haen in Asheville, North Carolina.

A new solo exhibition of his work, opening June 7, will be his twentieth at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria, Virginia. The title Gary chose for the show, Red Tree: New Growth, neatly acknowledges both past interests and emerging directions in his art.

As he’s moved from one theme to another throughout the years, I’ve found his rich, mola-like landscapes and his unique portrayal of the archaeological foundationsof our lives particularly appealing. Still, his iconic Red Tree — together with red-roofed houses, red chairs, and red boats — continue to serve as his most immediately recognizable and evocative symbols.

Mantra ~ G.C. Myers

Reflecting on a painting destined for the June opening in Alexandria, an homage to the Red Tree titled Mantra, Gary linked it to the broader theme of the exhibition:

Over the past twenty years of these shows, the work has always changed in small increments: changes in colors and tones, changes in strokes and textures, additions and subtractions in elements and forms.
Slight differences mean that each repetition is new, and has its own meaning. Each is its own moment, with its own place on the grid of time and space.

Still, art occasionally escapes that grid, as I learned on my recent visit to the Rockport City Cemetery. Wandering among the gravestones, reading their inscriptions and admiring the wildflowers that surrounded them, I hardly expected to find a bright red wicker bench settled in among the bluebonnets and coreopsis. And yet, there it was — seemingly unattached to a particular grave site, but compelling as any monument. Even as I laughed, I couldn’t help thinking: If this Red Bench were a painting, it would have to be one of Gary’s.

Years of exposure to his use of various shades of red made it impossible not to see the bench as a delightful, if unexpected, extension of his artistic vision. It was as though an unseen hand had picked up a brush and added a dash of vibrant color to the landscape: not precisely imitating art, perhaps, but evoking the work of a favorite artist with considerable brio.

Of course, if color alone were at issue, the spicy jatrophas blooming throughout the cemetery might have outdone the Red Bench in terms of visual impact.

Spicy Jatropha, or Peregrina (Jatropha integerrima)

But the bench’s functional similarity to the multitude of Red Chairs in Gary’s paintings evoked memories of other chairs, other cemeteries, and other times: memories as bright and vivid as the Red Chairs themselves.

Prior to his 2012 exhibition at Erie’s Kada Gallery, Gary invited his blog readers to submit titles for a still-unnamed painting destined for the show. Each suggestion would be listed on the back of the painting, becoming a part of its history; the winning title would be featured at the show and earn a prize for its creator.

Shedding Daylight ~ G.C. Myers

After sending off my own entry, I thought no more about it until, to my astonishment, Gary selected my suggestion — Shedding Daylight — as the title for his painting.

I’d come to the title through a chain of circumstances that included a visit to another favorite resting spot: League City’s Fairview Cemetery. Small but filled with historical interest, the first burial there was a nine-year-old girl named Charlotte Natho, who died of diphtheria following the Great Storm of 1900.

Wandering the cemetery late one afternoon, I discovered a sturdy tree with a  less than sturdy chair propped up against it. The chair wasn’t as stable as the concrete benches scattered around the cemetery, and it didn’t come close to having the panache of Rockport’s Red Bench, but it intrigued me. Had it been a favorite of someone buried nearby? Was it meant to allow family members to take their ease while they chatted with the dearly-departed? Or was it simply a gracious reminder of simpler days, when the invitation to ‘set a spell’ rarely was refused?

Whatever the chair’s purpose, it reminded me of a decades-earlier conversation with my mother during our visit to a midwestern cemetery. Reminiscing among the gravestones of long-time friends, she said, “Dylan Thomas was wrong.” I’d been only half listening. “What?” “That poem he wrote. The one they made you memorize in school. The one about being mad about dying. He was wrong about that.”

The poem in question was Thomas’s famous villanelle,Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night.” A beautiful example of the poetic form, and certainly his best-known work, it begins:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Intent on memorizing the words, I learned little of Thomas, his father, or the struggles and frustrations which influenced the poem’s development. Still young and hardly able to conceive the sort of losses that time inevitably brings, I only remember being on the side of the poet. If old age were to bring the loss of the world and its delicious possibilities, rage seemed a perfectly reasonable response.

As I matured, my understanding of life’s seasons changed. However wondrous spring’s delicate beauty, no matter how verdant and rich the bounty of summer, even winter’s exquisite bleakness revealed unexpected treasure. Through days of slowly encroaching darkness and nights of gentle loss, when every bare-branched, autumn tree stood as a memento mori, I found it extraordinary that nature herself refused to rage against the thin and dying light.

In her latter years, my mother became as fragile as those autumn leaves. Her translucent hands trembled as though stirred by some mysterious breeze, and her once-vibrant color began to fade as her connection to the world grew thin.

Tired after seasons of growth, spent from a lifetime of production, ready at last for rest and release, she often would laze in the fading afternoon light, peaceful as a silent wood. “What are you doing?” I’d ask. “Waiting,” she said. “Come here and sit for a while.” Older, able to understand her meaning at last, I sat.

Looking back now at the Red Bench, vibrant and shining among the wildflowers; remembering the rickety and cobwebbed Fairview chair, empty beneath its tree; thinking once more of the Red Chair I named hanging in a gallery or home, I remember as well that simple chair where my own mother sat, gazing toward the horizon.

However well or poorly spent her life, she felt no need for rage as the end approached, no compulsion to “rave and burn at close of day”. Her way of leave-taking, quiet as a falling leaf and gentle as the day’s last light, required nothing more than a chair — red, or otherwise — and companionship.

Recently, realizing I hadn’t seen the Red Chair in the paintings destined for the upcoming Principle show, I asked Gary about it. He said he’d originally intended a hiatus for that group of works, but reconsidered, deciding to include one of his own favorite Red Chair paintings in the show as a nod to its importance in his oeuvre.

When I saw the painting and learned its title, I couldn’t help being amused. Whatever the virtues of Rockport’s Red Bench, this pair could prompt some interesting speculation. Its title? Familial Bond.

Familial Bond ~ G.C. Myers

 

Comments always are welcome. You can follow Gary at his blog, Redtree Times.