“And marked his grave with nameless stones”: William Cullen Bryant’s “The Murdered Traveller”

William Cullen Bryant

William Cullen Bryant

While waiting in a Baltimore hotel lobby, I thumbed through one of its meant-to-be-seen-and-not-read bookshelves. There among old, leather-bound editions of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Roosevelt’s Naval War of 1812, I found the collected works of William Cullen Bryant. A romantic, Bryant is known primarily for his poetic naturalism (see, e.g., “Thanatopsis“) but he was also a prodigious translator, deciding at the age of 77 to translate Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. But as this was my first introduction to the poet, I knew none of this. Skimming the volume, I was not very impressed, but then I came across a poem that I stopped to read three times in a row. Its title: “The Murdered Traveller” (copied below).

First published in January 1825 in the United States Literary Gazette (Boston), “The Murdered Traveller” tells of a skeleton discovered in the woods. Emotionless, its discoverers mark the grave with stones and continue on with their own travels, a scene then juxtaposed with the dead’s homeland. As nature reclaimed the body, back home “long they looked, and feared, and wept, / . . . And dreamed, and started as they slept,/ For joy that he was come.” It closes, “Long, long they looked — but never spied/ His welcome step again,/ Nor knew the fearful death he died/ Far down the narrow glen.”

This poem struck me because it reminded me of a story we hear too often: of missing men, women, and children whose families never lose hope that one day their loved one will return. Of course there is the famous case of Jacob Wetterling, but I also thought of when the IMGUR online community came together to identify the 15-year-old cold case of “The Grateful Doe” (a truly amazing story worth reading about). In the appendix, Bryant recounts his own inspiration for the poem: Continue reading

Two translations of Danish writer Ernesto Dalgas

I’ve blogged before about the writing advice Robert Bly once gave me, and since then, I’ve translated pieces by Norwegian poet Julius B. Baumann (1869-1923; here) and Danish writer Ernesto Dalgas (1871-1899). Like Baumann, even though Dalgas is well-recognized in the canon of his country’s literature, none of his work exists in English. So, this is my attempt to fix that. (Let me know what you think!)

Both of these first appeared on my Instagram page, where I tend to accompany writing with my own drawings/illustrations. The story “Milkwort” is from Chronicles and Fairytales (1896), and the “Life and Death” excerpt is from Poems and Drama (1904).

Continue reading

Translating Sinclair Lewis into English (Two Poems)

lewis-sinclair-loc

Sinclair Lewis

As my regular readers know, I write a lot about Sinclair Lewis. For example, there’s the anecdote about him drinking with Gov. Floyd B. Olson, his advice on writing, and how those overseas understood his work. I also write about poetry, and recently I published here translations of Norwegian-American poet Julius B. Baumann. Well, here’s where the two worlds meet.

In 2013 I started the Sinclair Lewis Poetry Project to collect together, in one volume, the unpublished poetry of the United States’ first literary Nobel Laureate. To do this I went through several archives culling together more than 50 pieces of published and unpublished works, dating from Lewis’ undergraduate years to the last year of his life. Some poems, as one can imagine, are better than others.

While doing this research, two poems in particular caught my eye. Both were published while Lewis was a student at Yale, writing for the student magazine the Courant. Though he published a handful of poems at this time, these two stood out because they are the only examples of Lewis writing in a language that isn’t English — in this case, German.

So, with a little help I started “Translating Lewis into English” and published them in the Sinclair Lewis Society Newsletter (Fall 2014). You can read the accompanying article (and the translations) here.

From the introduction:

Growing up on the prairies of western Minnesota, Lewis devoured the books of his father’s library. Reveling in the works of Dickens, Scott, and Irving, he dreamed of Ivanhoe and imagined himself a knight in medieval lands. These were a far cry from the physician’s work expected by his father, and it was this imagination that alienated the young Lewis from his peers. With literature pointing like a telescope to foreign lands, Lewis traded the barns for English towers and, in his own childish verse, soon mastered what Richard Lingeman has termed “Minnesota-Tennyson” (20).

Attending Yale, Lewis wrote for The Courant and Yale Literary Magazine where his verse sang of saints and viziers, Prince Hal and, most well-known, “Launcelot.” As a student he published three poems in the Lit, fourteen in The Courant, and thirty-six in several national publications such as The Outer’s Book and Woman’s Home Companion. In addition, he published seven French and German translations for Transatlantic Tales, including one by Sully Prudhomme, the first Nobel Laureate in Literature. All of these Lewis later disavowed as “banal and imitative verse, all about troubadours and castles as sagely viewed from the eminence of a Minnesota prairie” (Lewis 2005 11). This retrospective, though, forgets at least two trips he made to that other fantastic and mystical place: the German pub. […]

Read the rest here.

My poetic sequence “The Sun is Leaving the Hill Now” in Literary Orphans

Many months ago I tried my hand at the pantoum form, using lines pulled from “last letters,” to produce a series of poems that are simultaneously haunting, anxious, and desperate. I’m proud to say that on April 20 all four were published in Chicago’s Literary Orphans magazine (Issue 24: Audrey). Here’s the title poem:

“The sun is leaving the hill now”

The sun is leaving the hill now, I hope nothing else happens.
I have tried to think of some way to go on but can’t.
Cathy, don’t go in the bedroom. I know what I’m doing:
all will and determination to fight on has left me. …

I have tried to think of some way to go on (but can’t).
This is not an easy thing to do (it’s hard to do anything) for
all will and determination to fight on has left me.
Cathy, don’t come in. Call your mother. (She’ll know).

This is not an easy thing to do. It’s hard to do anything for
the sun is leaving the hill now. I hope nothing else happens
—Cathy, don’t come in. Call your mother. She’ll know.
Cathy, don’t go in the bedroom. I know what I am doing.

You can read the rest of the sequence here.

John Carter of Minnesota: The “Convict Poet” Who Won His Freedom

Stillwater State Prison c1912

Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater (c. 1912)

“Only the first ten years matter,” a Minnesota State Prison inmate told John Carter, and “[w]hether or not the first ten years are all that matter, there is no doubt that the first six months are by no means six little drops of time.” It was 1905 and as the 19-year-old Carter listened, he settled into his ten year sentence–arrested for burglarizing the station in Karlstad, MN, while hopping trains westward. He’d taken $24 to buy food and shelter.

Not much is known about John Carter—in fact, that’s a penname and the public record’s silent about his personal life. All we know is that he was an Englishman from a well-to-do family, and when he’d failed the family business he was sent to Canada. After he was arrested, like so many who pass through the prison system, Carter was on his way to spending his sentence hidden from the public eye. But this changed as, trying to pass the time, Carter wrote essays and verse, publishing them in the nation’s major magazines. Through his art he won public support and, eventually, even his freedom, leaving the state prison hailed as a brilliant, creative mind.

Continue reading

The Poems of Julius B. Baumann: Five Translations

Julius Baumann grave marker

Julius Baumann’s grave marker in Cloquet, MN, donated by the “Sons of Norway” in 1926.

Some of the best advice for a young poet is to learn translation. It’s the advice Pound gave to Merwin, and it’s the advice Bly gave to me. So, always one to try new things, in the winter of 2014-15 I began translating the work of Norwegian-American poet Julius B. Baumann (1869-1923). Reading up on the Nordic languages (and relying extensively on digital copies of turn-of-the-century Norwegian-English dictionaries) I translated ten pieces from Baumann’s Fra Vidderne: New Poems (Augsburg Publishing House, 1915; Google Books). As far as I know, this is the first time these poems have appeared in English.

To provide a little background on Julius B. Baumann, in 1869 he was born to a family of fishermen in Vadsø, Norway. At the age of twenty he befriended two emigrants who offered to pay his way to the United States, and it was with the young writer’s yearning for life and experience that he left his native land. As a logger in Wisconsin he saw his first pine forest, and it was later as a farmhand in North Dakota where he first gazed upon plains of prairie and wheat. Working in the timber industry for much of his life, in his later years he moved to Cloquet, MN, where he managed a lumber store and served multiple terms as Carlton County’s register of deeds. Continue reading

Reading “Self Published Kindling: Memoirs of a Homeless Bookstore Owner” by Mik Everett

Self Published Kindling: Memoirs of a

Self Published Kindling: Memoirs of a Homeless Bookstore Owner (Unknown Press, 2013)

As part of a project I’m doing on the state of contemporary writing, author Mik Everett mailed me a copy of her book Self Published Kindling: Memoirs of a Homeless Bookstore Owner (2013). After reading it, I’m excited for what our generation has to offer the literary world. As Everett so clearly illustrates: we’re one of dreamers and as we set out, so much of what we have to say will be about how we maintained this spirit while navigating the world given to us by our parents. (And if you’ve paid any attention to the news at all, it’s not a great one).

Written while living out of a broken-down RV in a Wal-Mart parking lot, Self Published Kindling is about Everett’s experience running a Longmont, Colorado, bookstore that stocked exclusively self-published and regional books. Though the first store of its kind in the nation, Everett quickly discovers that few writers read and even fewer readers want books you can’t find in a Barnes and Noble. She tries to mitigate this through author readings and art crawls, but everyone who comes in leaves empty-handed. Soon she and her partner, John, conclude, “Everybody’s just here to pretend they support art” (48). If you’re an artist who’s ever tried to sell their work, you know exactly what that means.

Besides providing a small glimpse into the world of self-published writers, the fact that all this happens within the context of homelessness lends this book a kind of Steinbeck-esque quality. Raising two children with her partner, the pair struggle to keep up with the apartment rent and once evicted suffer through the hoops of getting public assistance. Applying to every homeless shelter in the region, they discover most are at full capacity and won’t have openings for years. Still, she applies anyway, finding little encouragement and grinding her teeth through the process. Eventually, the pair settle on living in a Wal-Mart parking lot, relying on soup kitchens and whatever they can steal from the megastore.

As the story flutters between these two worlds–literary and homeless–Everett describes the different people she meets, doing so with a humanity and compassion others may instinctively spare. In these pages we meet young, touring writers who she calls the modern Beats and others who, sleeping out of the backseat of their car, struggle simply to survive. It’s an interesting juxtaposition and one that kept me second-guessing the author and asking, “Who’s actually Beat?” (A part of me suspects that the real Beats are the ones who’ll never pick up a pen).

As someone who’s read and reviewed his share of self-published/small press booksSelf Published Kindling is one of the few that I can, in good faith, recommend to others. In fact, for anyone interested in this new generation of writers still finding their voice, it’s a hint of what’s to come. Though Everett’s prose is at times weak, it’s the story and what this story means for the rest of us that redeems it. It’s a story of how we twenty-something creatives managed to survive in this changing world, one disdainful of both art and poverty, and the perseverance we retained even when the worst happened.

You can purchase Mik Everett’s Self Published Kindling here.