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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Number 198: Winfield Townley Scott "If All The Unplayed Pianos"

If All The Unplayed Pianos

If all the unplayed pianos in America—

The antimacassared uprights in old ladies’ parlors

In the storehourses the ones that were rented for vaudeville

The ones where ill fame worsened and finally died

The ones too old for Sunday School helplessly dusty

The ones too damp at the beach and too dry in the mountains

The ones mothers used to play on winter evenings

The ones silenced because of the children growing away—

Resounded suddenly all together from coast to coast:

Untuned joy like a fountain jetted everywhere for a moment:

The whole nation burst to untapped, untrammeled song:

It would make—in short—a most satisfactory occasion,

A phenomenon which the scientists could never explain.

-- Winfield Townley Scott

Hap Notes: If I had the power to revive the career of an under appreciated poet, Winfield Townley Scott (1910-1968) would be at the top of my list (second would be Kenneth Fearing.) It's true that his poetry is often merely good (which sounds like enough to me.) He is not often taught in schools or universities. A contemporary with extraordinary talents like Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Scott's work is often a momentary revelation rather than a magnum opus.

Scott grew up on the East Coast, graduated from Brown (not particularly a "poet's college" especially in his era) and went on to write for the Providence Journal. He wrote book reviews and became editor of its weekly book page. The book page was a revelation. Highly lauded, it had no equal outside of New York City. Scott was a great admirer of Edwin Arlington Robinson whom he met in his college years. Scott wrote thoughtful reviews and essays for the paper.

His poetry was often published in Poetry Magazine and he won a Shelley Award in 1939. His published journal, A Dirty Hand, has also been highly lauded. He moved to New Mexico to concentrate on writing and he loved the geography and beauty of the state. He committed suicide after a domestic dispute in 1968. There's a biography of Scott, Poet in America: Winfield Townley Scott by Scott Donaldson, which is supposed to be extremely good.

Scott never thought himself to be good enough as a poet. I disagree. I daresay you will, too.

In today's poem, it's a delightful idea to think of all those tinny and untuned pianos breaking into spontaneous song isn't it? But there's a bit more to it than that. I think America is full of the under-used unappreciated and talented (or potentially talented or those who are potentially yearning to express something regardless of "talent"). The odd music that would result from all those pianos is also a song of those who sang once and are then forgotten.

We've talked about the antimacassar before, do you remember (hint: Lewis Carroll) and it really just means "doily" in this poem.

I became familiar with Scott's work through an anthology I bought in my college years, The Voice That Is Great Within Us. Edited by Hayden Carruth, this book is full of remarkable gems of poetry and my copy is beat-up and yellowed and much beloved.

Instead of a quote, let me give you another Scott poem which, again, I think shows his gentle genius:

The Child's Morning

Gangway for violets,
Old snow in the corner.
Sun after a rise of rain
Over cuttlebone cloud.
Sun in the brook running
Green with watercress
Sun on the spade—
We shovel out crocuses.
Up the concrete walk
Under surf of rollerskates
The hail of jacks,
Kiss-click of aggies.
We summon with jumpropes
Sap in the trees,
With bat-knock of ball
And the thudding glove.
That clang of schoolbells
We answer with answers:
Tall immaculate silence
Of colored kites.

--Winfield Townley Scott


  1. His "Mr Whittier" is the poem of his that I most admire. You're right. He is sadly undervalued. I too discovered him in Carruth's wonderful anthology. Since then I've been able to pick up a signed 1st edition of "Mr Whittier" and a vinyl LP of him reading his works. The former for $15 and the latter for 25 cents. They're worth much more to me.

  2. There is something especially valuable about this man. I owned and read his "a dirty hand" about 30 years ago, a book that gives the "inside dope" (I can't think of a better term at 5 am) on the workings of the poetry world. I recorded many of his poems on audio cassette. I have never heard his name mentioned in all these years. Then again, no one notices James K Baxter either - a more-than-considerable poet of New Zealand. The notebooks of poets, a unique form of literature, e.g. Theodore Roethke's "Straw for the Fire". One Roethke quote: "Civilization is over-rated, but there isn't much else."