by: Chris Warren
The justice system of the literary world is somewhat random, richly rewarding pablum not worthy of a greeting card while genuinely talented writers are condemned to being the obscure subjects of graduate school term papers that will be read once for grading, then time-capsuled on a shelf in a remote corner of the university library where they become mere stuffing to help make the library’s volume collection numbers look good. This concept can also be applied to lives and situations outside of the literary world.
Madison Cawein (CAW-wine) was born in 1865 in Louisville, Kentucky and died in 1914, after publishing thirty six books of over 1500 poems. In his time he was well known and for at least a while earned a respectable living as a poet before losing most of his fortune to bad investments. He was also a critical success, having his work featured in Chicago-based Poetry magazine (to this day still the top-tier international poetry showcase) and gaining the respect of Ezra Pound and other contemporary heavyweights.
So why does almost no one know who this guy is? A confluence of bad timing, the poet’s own stubbornness, and not being taken seriously by scholars in the years since his death relegated Madison to minor poet status. His backstory is one we of the twenty first century should pay attention to.
Cawein’s life began just as the Civil War was ending. In the years that followed, the United States was too culturally fractured for any meaningful domestic writing movement to take hold. The Romantic Period had fizzled out, and its replacement, the Victorian Era, was borrowed from Europe to fill the literary vacuum in the USA. Madison Cawein loosely adapted the Victorian style, and this would later contribute to his being largely ignored after his death.
Cawein’s father was a herbal practitioner who made medication from wild plants he picked himself. The young Madison often went along on these outings, and that was the beginning of a lifelong love of nature which became a central theme in most of his compositions. Nature themes written with a rhythmic pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables (known as iambic meter) were popular in Victorian literature. This style of composition became Cawein’s trademark:
The cricket’s cry and the locust’s whirr,
And the note of a bird’s distress,
With the rasping sound of the grasshopper,
Clung to the loneliness
Like burrs to a trailing dress.
Especially when read aloud, the deliberate sing-song pattern of this passage from Cawein’s Waste Land dances off the page. Had the Victorian Era lasted longer, Madison Cawein could have kept on doing what he was doing and likely become a legend for it. By time his writing career started in earnest, Victorian literature was falling out of favor to make way for the ascending Modernist movement which began in the late 1800’s.
Remaining true to oneself is fine when creating art for art’s sake, but to make a living at it and stay on the literary radar, one must be a little more practical. In Cawein’s time, anyone who was not on the Modernist bus was probably going to be run over by it. Resistance to change frequently comes with harsh consequences even in the otherwise gentle realm of poetry. Hindsight being always clear, we nonetheless will never know if Cawein by design or by accident sacrificed a professional writing career to maintain the purity of his style.
Literature is not a stand-alone entity that exists solely to look and sound nice. It has a deeper purpose of offering insight, to give the reader something to think about and ultimately teach a lesson that can be applied to ourselves. The lesson does not necessarily have to come out of the literature itself; it can and often does come from the author’s life experiences. This is the place of enlightenment Madison Cawein brings us to.
There is no set system to decide which writers become successful and which do not. Certainly, much lesser poets than Cawein received acclaim they did not earn. But isn’t that how it works for pretty much all of life’s pursuits? I want to believe we’re in a meritocracy, where everyone truly gets what they deserve and work for. Yet, let’s not kid ourselves: Success can often be attributed to personal connections, good old fashioned luck, and sometimes outright dishonesty. The literary world that initially loved Madison Cawein ultimately kicked him to the curb. The adage “life is not fair” has no poet’s exemption.
An unfortunate setback was that Cawein’s year of birth went against the Victorian style he adopted. He must have had some sense that his chosen genre of poetry was on the wane, yet he continued with it. That might have made him a devoted artist, but it was a poor career choice. Fast forward to today: It no longer applies, especially for young people, to “do what you love and the money will follow.” Not too long ago, a kid could pursue a passion for medieval history or bee keeping or dance and have a decent shot at finding work in their field. But like Cawein, anyone who now aspires to place their dreams first and thinks the bills will magically take care of themselves has the reality of the times beating them back. Imagine a modern day parent’s reaction if their son or daughter disclosed that they wanted to be a poet, much less a poet in a literary style that was near the end of its run.
We short ourselves by blowing off the words and writers of the past as having no contemporary relevance beyond grudgingly satisfying a high school or college language arts elective requirement. Those who break through the stasis and open themselves to the insights of these writers and the lives they lived will find a surprising connection to their own twenty-first century existence. In Cawein we have a guy whose professional career and legacy was stunted by a string of bad luck and bad decisions. Who cannot relate to that on some level?
The beauty and power of the written word is that it preserves the wisdom of others, becoming a keeper of thought reaching across the ages. Writers make me feel like they are always at my side: It’s a comfort to read words from hundreds of years ago and see myself in them and know that even back then someone understood me, someone “gets it.” Madison Cawine has been gone for a century but like all writers great and small, his words and deeds are worth listening to; the lessons of literature are ageless.