December 2013

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

I Felt Just So Spunky and Affluent: On Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

One day Margaret Anderson was at the offices of her literary magazine, The Little Review -- doubtlessly toiling away at the thousand petty details that shape a publication, details that receive notice only when absent -- when who should stroll in but a sharp-beaked lady with a German accent. And her accent was hardly the most salient thing about her. Anderson's description:

On her head was a black velvet tam o'shanter with a feather and several spoons -- long ice-cream-soda spoons. She had enormous earrings of tarnished silver and on her hands were many rings, on the little finger high peasant buttons filled with shot. Her hair was the color of a bay horse.

Finally she bestowed her attention upon Jane [Heap, an editor at the Review].

I have sent you a poem, she trumpeted.

That's a bit out of joint from the wilting follow-ups of today's literary strivers, most of whom would be remorselessly tasered if they tried something similar. The Little Review was a small shop, but off of its sawdust floors strode the Pantheon of Modernism. Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Djuna Barnes, James Bloomin' Joyce -- all spent their hour or two in Anderson's pages, which lasted only fifteen years, no longer than a terrier. Even that infernal busybody Ezra Pound served as its "international editor," the pointy end of his goatee gesturing toward a brave new Future all the while. And yet, for all the transience of her magazine, Anderson's heresies would become orthodoxy in mere decades, as if in her tiny office she had been watering the seed of a new Christendom. Today, literature departments around the earth dutifully administer the doctrines hatched in The Little Review; but back then Anderson must have seemed (at times even to herself) like a lone prophet, whose duties included humoring visitors tricked out with ice-cream-soda spoons. Talk about thankless work.

Yet it turned out that visitor was just another modernist deity in disguise. She was none other than the Baronness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, come a-calling. She had indeed submitted a poem, and dozens of her works would appear in The Little Review, alongside those of Eliot and other future prize magnets. Yet her career never got a foothold, and her poems appeared in book form only when MIT Press brought them out as Body Sweats in 2011, eighty-four years after her death. What sort of poems were they? Here is the first stanza of one called "Oh Fudge":

Befrilled in Weddingnighties. Still --
Brainchilled in circumstances ill
Delight --
His swollen ars upon sorry --
King Gunther sits -- of Burgundy --
Quiet.

This is Dada, but unlike so much of the leftovers of that movement it carries at least two more traits besides adherence to doctrine. Those two traits are (1) sound and (2) feeling. Her use of a naive rhyme (proving that Frederick Seidel was hardly the first writer to apply that indulgent trick) doesn't prevent her from applying Larkin's rule that a line in a poem ought to rhyme all the way across and not just at the end. As for feeling, under the nursery rhyme or frat chant surface is a strange tale of a quiet King Gunther, the legendary figure laid low by Attila the Hun, and now "Brainchilled in circumstances ill." There's much more emotion here than can be found in a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Her ancestors in verse, whether by intention or not, are Shakespeare's "mad" rhymes that double as prophecy ("For, you trow, nuncle, / The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long, / That it's had it head bit off by it young...") and Dickinson's dash-rich stuff, where each hesitation comprises a microcosm of life or death. This is from her poem "AH Me!"

Trust me
I do agree
Madam -- I firmly stand that ground
Coitus is paramount
Ab-so-lu-te-ly!

Coitus is spelled "Koitus" in the original manuscript, a touch I tend to prefer, as if it were some sex act peculiar to Mitteleuropa and forbidden in prim British America. Speaking of Mitteleuropa, Margaret Anderson might have had cause to wonder whether this visitor in spoons might not be fibbing a bit about her noble origins abroad. Impersonating titled foreigners is as American as road trips and barbeque, after all.

But it turned out that she was in fact both a baronness and a European. She was born Else Hildegard Plötz in 1874, in what is now Poland. The misery she endured growing up seems now like a mixture calculated to produce a Bohemian: a resented father, a family history of depression, a high sex drive yoked under a repressive upbringing (she had her first orgasm at age thirty), treatment for syphilis. (Strange that we so rarely see syphilis in internet listicles about how to boost your "creativity" at work.) She followed a lover to the United States and spent time in Kentucky and Cincinnati before arriving in the spot posterity now considers her true habitat: Greenwich Village. Wasting no time, she acquired a title by marrying the Baron von Freytag-Loringhoven. The baron, a German national, was arrested upon the outbreak of the First World War and committed suicide in 1919, leaving his wife little but the title, "The Baronness," which would become her moniker around town.

Her thirteen years in Greenwich Village were her heyday. She spent them playing the part of The Baroness, a sort of Statute of Liberty come to life who also submitted poems to The Little Review. Early on she made The New York Times after a policeman arrested her for smoking and wearing men's clothes, under the immortal headline "She Wore Men's Clothes." Other stunts included wearing car blinkers on her hips and tin cans on her breasts, and bothering William Carlos Williams by following him around. Nevertheless both Williams and Pound were sufficiently charmed by her to namecheck the Baroness in their poems. Like many of the most aesthetically satisfying aristocrats, she was made, and not born, noble, and took to her role with the zeal of a method actor. Her face in photographs is inevitably one of affected disdain, like a Borgia smelling a peasant, all to conceal her enthusiasm for the part she was playing.

Her first attempt at English verse was in 1912, that is to say in her late thirties. Coming to English late often has the effect of raised sensitivity to its variety and registers. In a memoir, the Baronness wrote: "My first poem I made at the age of twelve -- when I began to retire for this purpose into the convenient crotch of a big walnuttree [sic] -- for the sake of loftiness and seclusion." In that phrase "convenient crotch" it's hard not to hear a fore-echo of Nabokov's prose, so alien from the normal sounds of Yankee jibber-jabber. Her foreign English combined with her social persona to give her verse a vatic tinge.

The MIT edition of her verse contains 150 poems, of which only 31 were printed during her lifetime. It was partly her inability to get a book published that caused her to leave America at age forty-eight. Another cause was money, or the chronic lack of it. The legendary Djuna Barnes served as her agent and editor; increasingly often Barnes also paid her rent. The Baronness developed kleptomania and frequently borrowed money. An inheritance was spent on travel. The Baroness was one of those people who have no talent for money, a talent whose existence no one believes in except for those who don't have it.

Back in Germany, she realized that the "scene" had shifted to Paris, toward the intellectual B&B Gertrude Stein was running out of her apartment there. The Baroness went to the French consulate to try to get a visa. She described her strategy of ingratiation with the officials there in a letter to Djuna Barnes:

I went to the consulate with a large-wide sugarcoated birthday cake upon my head with fifty flaming candles lit -- I felt just so spunky and afluent [sic]! In my ear I wore sugar plums or matchboxes -- I forget wich [sic].

Eventually she made her way to Paris. Barnes continued to help with the rent. The Baroness made a wild leap toward solvency by posing as a model. One of the Parisian advertisements read:

ARE YOU ASLEEP WITH SOMNOLENT MODELS?
WAKE UP
IN CREATIVE CROQUIS
"THE BARONESS"
FAMOUS MODEL FROM NEW YORK
PUTS
ART INTO POSING
CRAFTSMANSHIP

The Baroness died in 1927 when the gas in her Paris apartment was left on overnight, whether deliberately or not is unknown. Djuna Barnes claimed her corpse. I prefer not to think of her that way, though. I picture her instead as a Valkyrie loosed on the New York sidewalk, a tin can imprisoning each boob, and Shelley's sneer of cold command in her pale features, as she marches a new poem to the offices of The Little Review...

The Baroness's poem "Firstling" reads in its entirety:

Love
Came --
Tore
Past
Blowing
Rose
'way
Cast.

Lo!
Icy
Wart
Froze
Woeful
Heart