I was reading The Alfred Smurthwaite family, a family history self-written and self-published, and came across this gem of youthful enthusiasm:
Rooty toot toot, Rooty toot toot
We are the boys from the Institute!
We don’t smoke and we don’t chew
And we don’t go with the girls that do
(Whispered in a quasi-pious voice)[i]
That last line appears to be a characterization of the style of the singer, rather than a fifth line of the song. I’m not sure what a “quasi-pious voice” is, whether it means a jocular self-mocking voice, or a voice halfway between the pious and the profane. But my interest in this song is the rhythm of the first line, and its contrast with another poem. The rhythm is militant, not suppliant (and there was no indication of what kind of institute was meant, whether military or religious). It matches the rhythm of the third and fourth lines of the following ditty:
Rented a tent, a tent, a tent;
Rented a tent, a tent, a tent.
Rented a tent!
Rented a tent!
Rented a, rented a tent.
*****— Snare Drum on Mars[ii]
The attribution is part of the savage jocularity of the source, Kurt Vonnegut’s The sirens of Titan. This is an anti-military satire first published or copyrighted in 1959. And “Rooty toot toot” and “Rented a tent!” share that same snare-drum rhythm. Now contrast that with a song my mother, Bessie, used to sing, as a memory from her youth:
A-rooty toot, a-rooty toot***************Rooty toot toot, Rooty toot toot
We are the girls of the Institute******.***We are the boys from the Institute!
We don’t drink or smoke or swear*******We don’t smoke and we don’t chew
And we don’t wear peroxide hair.********And we don’t go with the girls that do
Our class won the Bible!************.***(Whispered in a quasi-pious voice)
The rhythm of “A-rooty toot, a-rooty toot” is our old friend the iamb, in this case iambic tetrameter. You can’t help but recall that this is a common rhythm of speech in English, rather than an unusual one, which is one reason iambic meters sound more like speech — particularly iambic pentameter, Shakespeare’s line of verse. But this song features a four-stress line, and only the first line is iambic[iii]. The rest seem more Welsh than English. Notice the tone of the two songs: That of the boys is militant, self-righteous, condemnatory of “the girls that do,” and without a hint of irony. That of the girls is a little more conversational, is self-reflexive, does not condemn others, and has some irony, especially in “Our class won the Bible!”, which Bessie never explained, nor could when I finally asked — but which again is aimed at the singers, not at the non-existent “boys who do”.
I would suggest that the same gender dynamic shows up in Ezra Pound’s relationship with Marianne Moore. Notice the dedication of this poem:
Dear Ezra, who knows what cadence is.
I’ve been thinking—mean, cogitating:
Make a fuss
and be tedious.
Yes; am. I avoid
for some horror.
myself, I’d say that
am still trapped
This is not verse
I’m sure of this;
Nothing mundane is divine;
Nothing divine is mundane.[iv]
I have no idea when this was written. It was published, with others, as “Hitherto Uncollected” in the Complete Poems. Moore does not explain anything about it in her notes. But, as we saw last time, she was perfectly capable of writing in cadence, in regular rhythms, in stanzaic forms, and could keep time with her rhyme.
In his biography Ezra Pound : the solitary volcano, John Tytell gives several instances of Moore and Pound and collaboration between them, but not so as to tell what their relationship was. The evidence of “Avec Ardeur” is that it may have been strained, but without knowing the circumstance of its composition that is only my supposition. In 1919 he wrote to Moore “One buys leisure time to work by selling one’s stuff for what one can”— the “stuff” being his journalism and critical writings, the “work” his verse. He was replying to a letter from her, enclosing poems, and stating that she
was attracted to the “saucy parts” of Pound’s poems. Pound replied in a verse letter, expansive and revealing, in which he points to “the debacle of his temper,” his failure to have received credit for what he had done. He added that he liked her poems but imagined how difficult it would have been for him to respond to them had she not described herself as red-headed, but had instead been a “dark, wooled Ethiopian.” Pound recommended to Harriet Shaw Weaver that she print Moore’s poems instead of collecting his own pieces on the early translators of Homer and Aeschylus. So yet another American poet got in print because of Ezra Pound, still determined to effect his American Risorgimento.[v]
A little further on in his book, Tytell comments that Moore “had been helped by Pound with her first book of poems,” but does not specify whether it was with editing, publication, or both. In 1927, Moore, then an editor for The Dial in New York, “had been working behind the scenes at The Dial, trying to convince her coeditors that Pound was the logical choice for the Dial award.”[vi] In this she was returning his favor, but had she known about his preferences in setting up his new periodical, Exile, she might have hesitated. Pound had asked his American backer, John Price,
to find manuscripts in America but discouraged him from finding work by women, saying, “the whole of American publicationdom is submerged with females.” Until a “female invents something,” he added, “let us conduct this magazine by male effort.” In his antifeminist mood, he received and inquiry from Marianne Moore, then working as an editor at The Dial, asking whether he had something to contribute. Still smarting from Scofield Thayer’s hiring Paul Morand to replace him with the “Paris Letter,” Pound archly replied that he did not “propose to do odd bits of journalism for the convenience of a review that throws out my best work.”[vii]
I don’t know if Moore could sense more in that arch reply than the egotism I sense, or whether that ever got back to her, but it might explain both her admiration for Pound and her apparent exasperation with him. When she finally met him, in 1939, it was on his visit to America to meet with FDR and convince him “that war was not in America’s best interests.”[viii] He didn’t manage to meet with FDR, but he met with a number of Washington bigwigs and with two longtime correspondents, H. L. Mencken and Marianne Moore,[ix] who were more his type — but not by much.
But hold on, I hear you say: that sounds more like a tap than a pounding.
[i] From page 190, said to be one of Henry Cornelius Smurthwaite (Harry)’s favorite songs.
[ii] from The sirens of Titan : an original novel / by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. — New York : Dell, 1970, from Chapter 4, “Tent Rentals”, p. 97 et seq.
[iii] You could argue that “And we don’t wear peroxide hair” is iambic, but Bess, my mother, always sang it with two syllables in “wear”, to keep with the rhythm of the tune. Right, Harlow?
[iv] From Complete poems / Marianne Moore (New York : Macmillan ; Penguin, 1994) (Penguin twentieth-century classics), from the section “Hitherto Uncollected”, pp. 327-329.
[v] Ezra Pound : the solitary volcano / John Tytell. — New York : Anchor ; Doubleday, 1987, p. 144.
[vi] Ibid., p. 213.
[vii] Ibid., p. 207.
[viii] Ibid., p. 251.
[ix] Ibid., p. 252.