Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Fire of Driftwood

My brother Chuck will recall my attempt to put Longfellow’s “Fire of Driftwood” to music. I was experimenting with an open tuning on a beat up acoustic guitar and I wrote and performed the long … it was a long poem … performance. I love memorizing poetry. I think that putting a word-song to memory enhances the enjoyment … internalizes it.

My old Navy buddies will remember me walking around the ship reciting “Kubla Kahn,” Coleridge’s epic poem that he thought up in a dream. I have the same affinity for Shakespeare. He really did invent the modern English language in his writing and so many of the trite sayings we use today came original and sparkling from his quill pen.

Language is communication, and poetry is music in language. Set poetry to music and you have the modern pop hit. Analyze Bob Dylan’s work, it’s not about the performance, even the melody isn’t the thing that makes him so great. It’s the words; same with Paul Simon; a little bit with Neil Young. An interesting question: who do you think writes the best words?

But back to Longfellow. He was a member of a group of New England poets in the nineteenth century often called the “Fireside poets.” These men included William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and — of course — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The name “fireside poets” comes from their popularity and the fact that they wrote before the electric light was invented. It turns out that, due to the standards of rhyme and meter that they followed, their poems are excellent for memorization and recitation.

People my age had their fill of these writers in public school rooms. Decidedly New England and a little Ivy League, these poets represented to me, not just the language and habits of a by-gone era, but a place of civilization well advanced from the rough western life my great-grandparents lived in rural Montana. For a kid from the boonies, these men of letters represented a liberal arts education and a sophisticated upbringing.

However, times, even in New England, in the eighteen hundreds, were not modern and full of convenience. The homes were more like cabins, little insulation and drafty windows. Outdoor plumbing. No central heating, so the fireplace provided a cheery respite from the cold. But, like a campfire, you can be hot on the front and still cold in back. It requires some careful locating to get the optimum warmth from a blazing fire. Winter in the North East is cold and snowy, and this was before hoodies were invented. I often day dreamed about this era, whether it was when reading one of these poets or trying to unravel the mystery of a Sherlock Holmes story.

So let’s talk a little about the “Fire of Driftwood.” Possibly Chuck will even recall the finger picked chords that formed my simple "I — V — IV — I" accompanied melody. I never came up with a bridge, so it was about sixteen verses of the same basic melody, only punctuated by a short lead on the higher frets.

We sat within the farm-house old,
  Whose windows, looking o'er the bay,
Gave to the sea-breeze, damp and cold,
  An easy entrance, night and day.

Not far away we saw the port,
  The strange, old-fashioned, silent town,
The lighthouse, the dismantled fort,
  The wooden houses, quaint and brown.

We sat and talked until the night,
  Descending, filled the little room;
Our faces faded from the sight,
  Our voices only broke the gloom.

We actually know exactly when these verses were written. It was the twenty-ninth of September, 1846, according to Longfellow’s journal. He was at Devereux Farm, near Marblehead, at a point where the ocean meets the land. He was recalling a time past that he had spent remembering the past.

In Longfellow's poem, old friends are assembled round the fireplace in a drafty farmhouse near the harbor of Marblehead, Massachusetts, on a stormy, cold, and damp night, swapping stories about vanished friends and events that took place long ago.

From the beginning, the distinctions between the inside and the outside, between the sea and the land are vacuous. Through rattling windows, the sea wind enters the house, where wood taken from "the wreck of stranded ships" is burning in the fireplace.

What is implied here is the old and familiar idea of life as a seafaring journey and of shipwreck as the fate that may befall everyone. In a room so dark that we seem to be listening to disembodied voices rather than actual people, Longfellow's speakers (as so often in his poetry, he employs the collective "we" rather than the first person singular) sadly reminisce about lost opportunities and long-lost friends.

We spake of many a vanished scene,
  Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
  And who was changed, and who was dead

I don’t know if Ron Fleming remembers, but years ago I put that stanza in an email I sent to him. It had been years, since our time in Denver in the late sixties, that we had seen each other. In 1985 we met in Lewistown and exchanged information about how our lives had gone in the preceding twenty years. I was moved to send him an email later, or maybe it was even an honest-to-God letter … might have been. I included those lines because the poet had stated what we so often felt, but had never expressed so well.

In the light of the flickering fire, the difference between tenor and vehicle, between actual shipwrecks and the metaphorical ones we suffer in life, becomes irrelevant. And when the friends finally fall silent, the glimmering wood turns into an image also for their aimlessly drifting thoughts. Through the agency of the fire, the outside (the ocean, the wind, and the beach) and the inside (both the inside of the old house and the thoughts of the guests assembled there) become indistinguishable:

The windows, rattling in their frames,
  The ocean, roaring up the beach,
The gusty blast, the bickering flames,
  All mingled vaguely in our speech;

Until they made themselves a part
  Of fancies floating through the brain,
The long-lost ventures of the heart,
  That send no answers back again.

O flames that glowed! O hearts that yearned!
  They were indeed too much akin,
The drift-wood fire without that burned,
  The thoughts that burned and glowed within.

In a sense, Longfellow's poem describes its own genesis—not as the miraculous product of a "strong poet's" active individual imagination but as the joint recollection, the collective merging of voices and identities, in which it ultimately does not matter anymore who creates and who responds, who writes and who reads.

One emotion that this communications vehicle of the Internet and Facebook often raises in me is nostalgia for long ago friends in far away places. When we were together, we were young and unattached. Now we’ve made lives apart, all over the country; and we have families and children and jobs and even retirement. It has been a voyage. I long for some old shipmates. It is good to be in touch.

A fireside poem induces in the reader the same state of heightened awareness and receptivity in which it was first conceived and which it seeks to represent. The "too much akin" in Longfellow's final stanza can be read both as a joke (as if Longfellow were mocking his own transparent image-making here) as well as a less than funny reminder that all fires will eventually burn out, leaving us with little more than charred wood and what Longfellow elsewhere calls, in Palingenesis, "the ashes in our hearts."

That poem of rebirth also haunts my soul … I’ve just never turned it into a song.

  And the sea answered, with a lamentation,
Like some old prophet wailing, and it said,
  “Alas! thy youth is dead!

Perhaps this is why I so enjoy my visits to Oregon and staying on the cliffs overlooking the sea. I’m listening for the sea’s answer.

1 comment:

  1. And all that fills the hearts of friends,
    When first they feel, with secret pain,
    Their lives thenceforth have separate ends,
    And never can be one again;

    The first slight swerving of the heart,
    That words are powerless to express,
    And leave it still unsaid in part,
    Or say it in too great excess.

    The very tones in which we spake
    Had something strange, I could but mark;
    The leaves of memory seemed to make
    A mournful rustling in the dark.

    Oft died the words upon our lips,
    As suddenly, from out the fire
    Built of the wreck of stranded ships,
    The flames would leap and then expire.

    And, as their splendor flashed and failed,
    We thought of wrecks upon the main,
    Of ships dismasted, that were hailed
    And sent no answer back again.