Dead Poets on a Modern-day Road Trip

Last June, we were both newly mastered. Me, an MFA in writing. Her, as an RN, MSN, CPNP-PC, PHNL. And we were taking a Pacific Northwest road trip to celebrate.

But first we had to leave Portland. And before that, we had to find the right books. Which is why we were in Powell’s, why I was cradling Emily Dickinson and Anne Sexton and scanning a shelf for a poet I’d never heard of, but she, my best friend, had.

We ended up discovering three of Bliss Carman’s books on those shelves. And they were beautiful: the softest worn leather, gilded typefaces, each inscribed and dated July, 1912 by S.P.S.R.

Carman, a Canadian, collaborated on three books with American poet Richard Hovey, a man he met while at Harvard in the late 1880s. The first—Songs of Vagabondia—was published in 1894 and helped launch Carman’s career. Two more books followed, More Songs from Vagabondia (1896) and Last Songs from Vagabondia (1901). The last—Echoes of Vagabondia—was published with Carman’s name alone in 1912.

We carried the books everywhere, their one-hundred-year-old symbolism not lost on us at this in-between moment of our lives. We were a little burned out on our studies, on people, on being grown-ups. We imagined ourselves like Carman, hopeful vagabonds, fellow travelers through a world that often felt gorgeous and terrifying.

New, the books cost $1 and experienced almost immediate market success, their open road energy contagious. The themes are quite reminiscent of the Romantics—the Shelleys, Keats, Blakes and Wordsworths. There is much praise of the natural world, of love, of the unknown (which is perfect for a road trip—in any year).

Back in the day, Songs of Vagabondia even garnered a positive plug from the New York Times:

These are sound, healthy poems, with a bit of honest pathos here and there, to be sure, but made in the sunlight and nurtured with wholesome manly humors. There is not a bit of intellectual hypochondria in the little book, and there is not a line that was made in the sweat of the brow. They are free, untrammeled songs of men who sing because their hearts are full of music, and who have their own way of singing, too. These are not mere echoes of the old organ voices. They are the merry pipings of song-birds, and they bear the gift of nature.

Someday I hope to better understand “wholesome manly humors,” but for now, I’ll content myself with “vagabond,” a word that dates back to the 15th century referring to, simply, wanderers. From More Songs from Vagabondia (“A Vagabond Song”):

There is something in October that sets the gypsy
blood astir;
We must rise and follow her,
When from every hill and flame
She calls and calls each vagabond by name.

Richard Hovey died in 1900, so that last book, Echoes of Vagabondia was written by Carman alone. In many ways, it is the end of a journey. At its publishing, Carman was 52 (he was 33 when the very first book came out). He would publish six or so more books before his death in 1929.

These days, Bliss Carman (and Richard Hovey) are largely forgotten poets, though rumor has it Ezra Pound was rather fond of Carman’s work. How do we decide who survives the years and who does not?

More than six months have now passed since we plucked wild flowers and pressed them between the pages of the Vagabondia books in Washington. We’re both back at jobs we love, living with people we love. We may have a dreamy conversation or two over a glass of wine, but for the most part, we are back in our lives, living. The books are a reminder of those much-needed breaks we’ve vowed to keep taking. They have a few water stains now but lean together (at least three of them) permanently on a bookshelf in Virginia.

In fact, those books are now the inspiration for a new series on the Ploughshares blog: We’ll be discovering and examining books published in 1913. For the beauty of old books, yes, but also for something more, for something tangible to carry into our wildernesses and remember: Someone has been here before.


Similar Posts