A festival of poets
May 8, 2011 by Bill
Truth is to be found in all of the arts: in music, from Bob Dylan to Duke Ellington to John Lennon; in theatre and film, from Death of a Salesman to Clockwork Orange to Judgment at Nuremberg to Edward Scissorhands; in literature and poetry, from the great classics of Plato and Hemingway to Toni Morrison and George Orwell; in art, from Rembrandt to Picasso to Andy Warhol; in dance, from Isadora Duncan to Martha Graham to Michael Jackson.
For this week’s column, I am going to be celebrating the “language of life”…the music of language that is poetry, through the works of some of the poets that have moved me, and inspired me, and been my heroes. There is more truth to be found in poetry than in all the philosophy ever written, said Octavio Paz, Nobel prize winner in literature and poetry, who was called “the soul of Mexico.”
Anne Kingsford, writing about “the poet,” used these words: “The great continual cadence of universal life moves and becomes articulate in human language. The daughters of earth love thee, the water-nymphs tell thee their secrets, thou knowest the spirit of all silent things. Thou art multiplied in the conscience of all living creatures and the pulses of the infinite deep…vibrate in thine own.” This short paragraph is only a beautiful sample of the entire lengthy essay.
One of my giant heroes of literature and poetry, from Nebraska, is JOHN NEIHARDT. He was Poet Laureate of Nebraska, Poet Laureate of Missouri, Chancellor of the American Academy of Poets; his bust is in the Rotunda of the State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska.
He is the author of Black Elk Speaks, a book called, by Carl Jung, “one of the spiritual classics of our life time.”
He could write, in poetry, The Cycle of the West, of the profound history of the plains Indians, the Lakota and Cheyenne. He would write some of the most erotic and beautiful love poetry in existence in A Bundle of Myrrh in 1907.
Here is an excerpt from “The Twilight of the Sioux,” The Village of Crazy Horse.
“Meanwhile among the Powder River breaks…
Where cottonwoods and plums and stunted oaks
Made smug his village of a hundred smokes.
Crazy Horse was waiting for the spring…
When the moon was icy and the blue snow whined…
or when for days the world went blizzard blind.
Something holy moved about the town…
A Bundle of Myrrh, Neihardt’s beautiful love poetry, was read by a young woman in Paris, who was studying sculpture with Rodin at the time. Her name was Mona, and they began a correspondence. She prayed, “Dear God…don’t let him be married.” She sailed the ocean, crossed the country by train, and arrived at the Omaha depot, where young Neihardt was waiting for her with a marriage license. They had never met until that moment. They were joyfully married until her death, fifty years later. Their ashes were scattered together over the Missouri river, following his death.
From A Bundle of Myrrh: “The Witless Musician”
“She is my violin!
As the violinist lays his ear to his instrument
That he may catch the low vibrations of the deeper strings,
So I lay my ear to her breast.
I hear her blood singing and I am shaken with ecstasy;
For am I not the musician?
She is my harp – I play upon her.
I touch her, and she trembles as a harp with the first chord of a revery.
I lay my hands upon her with that divine thrill in my finger-tips,
That reverent nervousness of the fingers,
Which a harpist feels when he reaches for a ravishing chord,
Elusive chord from among the labyrinthine strings.
I am a musician for the first time!
I have found an instrument to play upon!
She is my violin – she is my harp!
In 1956, the National Poetry Center awarded Neihardt the Medal of Honor as foremost poet in the nation.
His range of writing has been monumental, from a pre-eminent authority on the plains Indians, the Lakota and Cheyenne, from Black Elk Speaks to the glorious erotic love poetry of A Bundle of Myrrh.
When he was interviewed on Dick Cavett’s show, Neihardt, at age 93, recited The Village of Crazy Horse from memory. It lasted about 10 minutes. Cavett said he had never received so much mail applauding a show in his entire career.
Neihardt came to hold the belief that a dynamic spiritual pattern is at work in the cosmos, and that our destiny is spelled out in such a pattern.
I think you can now understand why he is one of my heroes…a brilliant poet who turned language into music; he gave us the language of life.