LIVING VICARIOUSLY THROUGH POEMS:

MARGARET BONDS, EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY, AND LANGSTON HUGHES*

  • (WITH A CAMEO BY DEBUSSY AND PIERRE LOUŸS)

The long, close, and miraculously productive collaborative friendship between Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes is well known. Late in life Bonds recalled how Hughes’s seminal poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers had “helped save [her]” during her difficult years as a student at Northwestern University. The two met in 1936 at the home of noted ceramicist Tony Hill (1908–75), and not long thereafter later Hughes persuaded Bonds to relocate to New York. There they lived only a few blocks apart, but because they were both busy and traveled frequently, they corresponded prolifically. The many hundreds of letters that document their friendship and creative partnership over the three decades from 1937 to Hughes’s death in 1967 remain largely untapped — a living a breathing memory of the growth of those two extraordinary creative minds, of their lives, their reflections on the world around them, and their respective and shared senses of artistic experience.

One such letter turned up in my recent work on my forthcoming book on Bonds and her Montgomery Variations and Credo. It’s a letter to Hughes, dated 19 April 1965. Its easy, comfortable style, typically for Bonds, is matched by the richness of its content. Here’s a screenshot of the relevant passage:

ranscription: ( . . . “Have you ever lived vicariously through poems? I frequently do — particularly Millay’s naughty poems — however put so beautifully. Sometime audiences listen to my settings of them and ooh and ah and I chuckle to myself, ‘I wonder if they really know what they’re about?’ such has “Le Chevelure” of Debussy!)

That’s Debussy’s cameo, of course — a reference to the second song of his 3 Chansons de Bilitis (1897). That song’s poem was initially published in 1894, attributed to the ancient poet Bilitis — who, it turns out, was a fictional creation of the Belgian poet Pierre Louÿs. Louÿs’ volume of poetry was one of the greatest hoaxes of Western literary history: in his volume, he created the character of Bilitis and said that her poems had been discovered by a German archaeologist and translated into French by him. They were a compendium of poetic contemplations of subjects that were taboo in polite society: the awakening of adolescent sexuality, rape, marital separation and abandonment of children by the mother; lesbian love; prostitution; the injustice and superficiality of society’s views of youthful beauty yielding to age. It didn’t take long for the hoax to be discovered, but that didn’t matter — because by then Bilitis herself, with the frank sexuality and (as in “La Chevelure”) double entendres so clear that they’re really single-entendres, the world has create vast amounts of new and surpassingly beautiful art out of Louÿs’ fiction. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about take a look at the text of “La Chevelure,” listen to it, and ask yourself what it’s really about . . . )

How much Margaret Bonds knew about Louÿs’ hoax we cannot say — but she clearly understood poetry’s ability to speak the unspeakable, to say things that mere prose cannot approach. The same beauty, she tells us, also applies to her six Millay songs, all six of which are newly published in source-critical editions (one in the original high keys, the other transposed for medium voice) by Hildegard Publishing Company. These songs, even more (I would argue) that “La chevelure,” are not only surpassingly innovative and adventurous, at turns serene, melancholy, furious, luxurious, and hauntingly gorgeous, but case-studies in song’s capacity to express the inexpressible, to translate meaning and feeling into pure and gloriously ineffable sound. (To learn more about these milestones in twentieth-century art song and hear them in recent performances by Katerina Burton, Max Potter, and Dana Zenobi, see my recent blog posts for the Women’s Song Forum, here and here.)

Give them a listen. And when you do, take a measure of delight in the knowledge that you’re in the company of Margaret Bonds herself in “living vicariously through poems.”

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John Michael Cooper

John Michael Cooper

A musicologist with a passion for social justice, bringing unheard music to life for performers and listeners, and teaching.