Archival Summer, Week 7–8: Bailey the Poet, plus a Bailiwick orchard remnant
I would like to get past the mistaken idea that Liberty Hyde Bailey’s poetry is not worth reading.
I found myself immersed in Bailey poetry and poetics in the archive last week, and it has me itching to say something about it. In her recent study of Progressive-Era naturism, narratives of degeneracy, and modernist poetry, The Degenerate Muse, Robin G. Schulze devotes a substantial amount of space to Bailey — both his poetic theory, as expressed most clearly in The Outlook to Nature, and to some of his own poems in which he sought to embody his own ideal of “short, sharp, quick, direct word pictures” that he thought should embody the “new literature of nature and the open country.” This, Schulze notes, not only sounds uncannily familiar to anyone versed in early twentieth-century modernism, but was also published a full eight years before Pound’s first full-blown statement of the principles of literary Imagism (66). While some of Schulze’s conclusions seem to place Bailey a little too hastily for my liking into certain cultural assumptions of his time that seem at odds with his other writings, her situation of Bailey within the context of modernist poetry is deft and complex, even tracing Bailey’s writings as they appear in the journals of Marianne Moore, who considered Bailey one of her favorite popular science writers. Bailey had already at that time been publishing poems for years — in fact, he had been since his first publication, as a teenager still living in South Haven, Michigan, when his essay “Birds” and its concluding poem appeared in the minutes of the Michigan Pomological Society — and he read poetry voraciously, as any perusal of his personal library will point out. He had published a chapbook, titled simply Poems, that incorporated photography alongside poems and snatches of prose, printed by the famous Roycrofters at their cooperative printing press. When Wind and Weather came out in 1916, it found a favorable audience — “From the study of an encyclopædic man comes fluttering a sheaf of delicate poems characterized by cosmic vision, and a form gracefully free,” wrote the compiler of A List of Eighty-Seven Poets Representing American Verse from 1900 to 1919, published by the Poetry Society of America. Just a few years after the book’s publication, in a Portland, Oregon concert on March 31, 1919, pianist/composer Mrs. Maurice William Seitz premiered with singer Jane Burns Albert a duet for piano and voice that set Bailey’s poem “The Thrush” to music. And the poems were appearing, as they had been for decades, in agricultural journals and similar publications all over the country.
My favorite review that I’ve come across, however, was published in Reedy’s Mirror in 1917, written by William Marion Reedy himself. Like the List of Eighty-Seven Poets and the program for the Portland concert, I came across this clipping in Cornell’s archives, this time in a folder of materials gathered by Bailey’s almost-biographer George H. M. Lawrence (see citation at end). Reedy’s Mirror published work by Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Ezra Pound, Sara Teasdale, Theodore Dreiser, and many other significant poets of the period, and in 1914 Edgar Lee Masters first published in the journal a series of the poems that would become his famous Spoon River Anthology. Reedy writes, in his column “What I’ve been Reading” in the November 1917 issue:
“Never was there more poetical utterance in the world than now. It seems as if the ghastly realities of war have driven men’s and women’s minds to the visioning of a world fairer than this. If the poets sing of the war it is to discover to us the life in the body of that death. I would touch upon a few recent volumes of verse. […]
“In contrast with the delicate and refined artistry of a classicist like [George E.] Woodberry is the volume ‘Wind and Weather’ by L. H. Bailey (Scribner’s, New York). Bailey is a celebrated agronomist. President Roosevelt appointed him on the commission for the betterment of farm life. He’s a grand old person that is almost an institution at Cornell. And he is a poet. You would not call him rugged, but he is not one too fine-drawn. I’d liken him to Thoreau. Others might find in him resemblance to Burroughs. And yet he’s different. He writes as a gifted, observant farmer, without much cultural background, would write of the unfolding pageant of the year. Not that he is crude, but that he writes as one rhyming rather carelessly about what he sees. There is no scrupulous care for form in his writing; it reads as if it might all have been done extemporaneously to please the family on the front porch in summer, or at the parlor window in winter. It doesn’t preach at all. It just displays the glory of the earth and its stroke upon the heart or soul. Such admirably sketched landscapes in sun or rain or under snow, swept by winds from zephyr to hurricane. And all simply bursting with goodness. Here’s a nature-book that is authentic and chiefly I like it because there is in it such a very little of ‘the pathetic fallacy’ that nature cares for us. It is the oldest poetry of the world, undyingly young.”
It is refreshing to read such a fearlessly positive review of Bailey’s verse, unencumbered by a century of anthologizing and cannon formation. And it is refreshing too to see a review that so closely conforms to all the positive feelings I have for much of Bailey’s poetry.
None of this means that contemporary readers need enjoy Bailey’s poetry just because readers of a century ago did, but more importantly the fact remains that Bailey’s poetry is central to his philosophy. I have written before that Wind and Weather significantly follows The Holy Earth as the second in his seven-book series of philosophical texts, The Background Books: The Philosophy of the Holy Earth. And Bailey himself deeply believed in the importance of poetic expression. In my Week 5 post, I discussed a particularly intriguing set of note cards that Bailey arranged, presumably for a lecture that he may or may not have given. As I described there, the lecture seems to progress through a long litany of scientific achievements and major scientists since the Enlightenment, and considering Bailey as a scientist we might suspect that the lecture would end there, with an affirmation that the sciences would bring humanity to an ultimate place of meaning, ethics, and understanding. But then, about three quarters of the way through, he pivots, and begins describing “the artistic expression of life,” affirming that “The earth is holy,” and finally asks the question “Is sc[ience] to be the final state of man’s conquest?” Then he writes the single word “Nay” in the middle of that card, and includes in his note cards the two folded pages from Wind and Weather that contain his poem “Nay,” itself a negative response to the question. Poetry, not science, would have the final word, at least in Bailey’s cosmology. His own writing practice became a guide in his quest for meaning.
Bailey’s poetry, as Schulze’s study points out, was anything but romantically backward-looking — in it, he actively sought to model a new kind of “short, sharp, quick, direct word pictures,” a sort of naturist’s modernism, while also embracing the vernacular of the “gifted, observant farmer,” in Reedy’s words, “without much cultural background, [who] would write of the unfolding pageant of the year.” It also undercuts any of the old, simplistic critiques of Bailey’s work that characterized it as technocratic in the Progressive-Era sense — and we know from his other publications, like The Holy Earth, that he was staunchly opposed to the “Efficiency Movement” that had emerged from the Fordism of the time. Bailey’s poetry is anything but “efficient.” It constitutes a “fluttering […] sheaf,” from “one rhyming rather carelessly about what he sees” which nevertheless “displays the glory of the earth and its stroke upon the heart or soul.” We need his poetry to understand that such a position is possible.
And Bailey’s closest friends and associates knew how important poetry was to him. I have come across a number of letters from Anna Botsford Comstock, as well as one from Alice McCloskey, both of whom were huge forces behind the nature-study program that Bailey founded at Cornell, responding to poems of Bailey’s and recommending poems that they thought he might like. Moreover, these close associates seemed to see how poetry had been part and parcel of the way in which Bailey moved through the world and organized his life. For McCloskey, Bailey’s poetry brought her to a very specific place. After Bailey had sent her a poem (whether it was one of his own or another that they had discussed is not entirely clear), she responded in her letter with thanks, and then continued,
“I never go to Bailiwick but I wish I were a poet. I would like to write of the greatness that would come to me ‘snowed in’ in the dear home place. I know how it would be outside in the storm — I can feel the fall of snow in the gorges, on the shore, over the orchard. The hush and gentle [illegible] are mine. It makes my heart stand still to think of it but I can’t write it all nor any part. It is enough, however, to feel what others write.”
I have written about Bailiwick, the later name for Bailey’s farm “Arbutus” and the summer home he developed there for his family, in a previous blog post, but I think McCloskey’s letter helps fill in the importance of that property to my interests. The place is magical, and I’ve been there. It’s part of a Girl Scout camp now, named after Comstock, to whom Bailey donated the land for that purpose. In fact, I just had the chance to tour more of the property than I ever had before, along with Anna Botsford Comstock scholar Karen St Clair and Camp Comstock ranger John Pratt. John showed us not only around the inside of the iconic Bailiwick stone cottage, but also took us around the rest of the land that Bailey donated to the Girl Scouts — just a fraction of the original farm. (You can see some rough footage I took on the property yesterday, in the form of an informal tour, here.) Despite the passage of time and the changes the property has gone through, John was able to show us around an old field ringed by six or seven aged apple and pear trees, planted by Bailey over a century ago. I imagined the field in its prime as an orchard full of trees, perhaps on a snowy day like McCloskey described, and looked at the short path through the woods that led to the stone cottage, imagining a line of footprints through the snow from home to nearest orchard. The domesticity of the scene that began to unfold spoke of something powerful, settled, personal, artistic. I reached out and touched each of these miraculous trees, over half of them bearing fruit, and possibly the only remaining trees planted by the Father of Modern Horticulture. But more than a horticulturist — a poet too, who grew fruit trees because he loved them. The artistic expression of life — this phrase of Bailey’s has followed many such experiences this summer and across this blog. In the bunches of fruit still growing from many of the trees, I could almost catch the sharp scent of Bailey’s poetry, the wind and weather of it, wafting through the leaves.
To take a walk with me around the Bailiwick portion of Camp Comstock, check out these raw videos I took onsite.
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See the full list of entries in my Archival Summer blog series, in reverse chronological order, on my Medium profile.
Insights and all archival quotations gleaned from Liberty Hyde Bailey Papers, #21–2–3342, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. Robin G. Schulze’s book is The Degenerate Muse: American Nature, Modernist Poetry, and the Problem of Cultural Hygiene, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013, print. Special thanks this week to John Pratt, ranger at Camp Comstock, and Mandi Miller, Outdoor Program Manager and Resident Camp Director, who put me in touch with John.