This guy was once famous. Not just writer-famous, but Beyoncé or Beatles famous. In England, and to a large degree in America, he was the face of, and center of, Victorian poetry. And poetry in Victorian times, the written-down and printed in books kind, was still a force in mass culture.
The town I grew up in was platted and settled around 1880, its success achieved by the industrious Swedish-American farmers around it and the railroad that went through it. The town was named Stratford, after Shakespeare’s birthplace, and the town’s main street with it’s block of stores was met crosswise just north of the shops by it’s central east-west cross street, Tennyson Avenue.
That’s a remarkable piece of trivia isn’t it? Think of how many suburbs and housing developments were similarly planned and platted in the centuries since in the United States. How many of them had the main streets named for contemporary poets? Milton and Byron had their streets along with Shakespeare in Strafford, but even Byron was 50 years dead; but here was Tennyson, a man still in his career across half a continent and one ocean, and here this proud avenue in a farming town was written down to bear his name.
The problem with being a big-thing Victorian, as Tennyson was, is that our Modernists came after them. Even though you can see the influences of the Victorians on the early work of the Modernists, you can also see the things they came to reject in search of an art for their own time. In those scattered small settlements where page poetry is still read or studied, we are many times more likely to be reading Hopkins or Hardy for the English, or Dickinson or Whitman for Americans or hinge figures like Yeats who spanned the eras than Tennyson.
Besides the street in my tiny town, Tennyson lives on in a handful of phrases from his poems that have become commonplace mottos such as “It’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all,” which is famous enough that many people think it must be Shakespeare’s.
Today’s words come from another section in the same long poem or collection that the “loved and lost” phrase was in, Tennyson’s broad meditation on loss and perseverance “In Memoriam A.H.H.” If we’ve forgotten Tennyson, this makes it possible for him to be new again, and this is a piece, that as I recast it, seems very appropriate for our age and even this year, which we know is ending. The New Year’s bells ring in a new year, but they also chase away the devils of the old one.
So Enjoy the music as you listen to "Ring Out, Wild Bells", but see if you can sing along with the words as 2017 ends.
Earlier this month I announced that my performance of Tristan Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire” was the most popular piece here last fall. Seeing this, it’s past time to present a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire himself.
If one was to draw a graphical map of the French Modernists of the early 20th Century, corresponding to the English-speaking ones we’ve been talking about a lot here, Apollinaire would be at a central place like Ezra Pound. Apollinaire knew everybody, he influenced everybody; as a critic, he wrote about everybody. Although, like Pound, he held strong opinions about what a more modern art needed, what little I know about how he was experienced as a living artist says that he was also loved by most everybody that he met as well.
Like Tristan Tzara he was an example of a European, though his work was centered in Paris and he wrote largely in French. His mother’s family was Polish or Belarussian, depending on where the borders were drawn at any one time. His father’s background was never definitively known. Born likely in Italy, he had traveled and spent time in several countries, and spoke several languages, before settling in Paris before he was 20.
In the visual arts, he invented the word Cubism, and he also was the first to call his work Surrealist. He knew modernists in music, like Satie. He knew the young artists, like Picasso, Chagall, Henri Roussseau. Dadaists considered him an influence and a co-conspirator.
In 1913 he published his best-known collection of poetry “Alcools” (Alcool is the French word for alcohol). In it, Apollinaire set out his direction in modern poetry, using various forms, often imbued with contemporary colloquial speech and connections to modern technology and urban life. One tic he adopted in “Alcools:” he dropped the punctuation from his poetry, emphasizing the flow of his words, an effect that could be seen as presaging a modern rapper’s unstoppable flow.
Am I guessing at that? It just so happens, I’m not. On Christmas Eve in 1913, Apollinaire was recorded reading one of the poems from “Alcools:” “Le Pont Mirabeau” (Mirabeau Bridge), and that recording, encrusted though it is with the scratch and noise of time, survives.
So, today’s piece, with my music and my English translation of his words, leads off with Apollinaire’s own reading of his poem in French.
Translating "Mirabeau Bridge" was a challenge. Having heard and been transfixed by Apollinaire’s intensely rhymed and recited version, I had to bend my usual translation approach, which skips any attempt to keep the original “music” (the rhyme and meter) of the poem. And as I look at the many attempts to translate this poem to English, I see most tried to at least rhyme it.
As I approached “Mirabeau Bridge,” I whined to my wife: “Richard F’ing Wilbur tried to translate this, and his version is awkward—and Wilbur’s a master of poetics!”
Why do I usually skip trying to rhyme-up translations? It adds a great deal of difficulty to conveying the poem adequately. It almost always leads to awkward English, particularly when you try to follow a rhyme scheme from the French, with many more words that rhyme, using English, whose poetic tradition did not grow out of rhyming. Having been influenced by French poetry at an early age, when trying for similar effects I often use a variety of imperfect and near-rhymes, something an audience may accept or find grating, depending on their tastes, and that’s what I did here, along with a free and not regular rhyming scheme.
Give a listen. Consider it a trip-hop battle between Apollinaire and myself. Respect to Apollinaire. Can’t bust his moves.
Tomorrow is Christmas, a holiday that in the English-speaking world owes a lot to the English Victorians in conception, which gives me an excuse to present once again the words of the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, this time in the guise of her popular and explicitly Christian-religious Christmas song “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
The song used for Rossetti’s words seems to be attributed to Gustav Holst, a composer who is best known to me for his orchestral suite “The Planets,” which has been admired or borrowed from by both Frank Zappa and King Crimson. In my rush to complete this today I can’t say that I’ve done as much justice to his tune, though I used a rough approximation of it.
The tune is quite pretty, and it makes it a fine solo for any good singer, which therefore makes it a challenge for me, so I’ve resorted to my usual parlando. On the other hand, a great many versions of this song in hymn books and elsewhere seem to have modified Christina Rossetti’s words, changing terms and phrases, even dropping some stanzas, where I’ve been faithful to them. I don’t have my usual time today to research why this would be. The meter of her original text is slightly irregular, and so it may have been modified for better singability or for audience reasons.
Rossetti’s approach makes use of her characteristic modesty in approaching religious subjects, with some lovely lines in the first verse picturing our northern Midwinter, and then going on to describe the stable setting and the supernatural surrounding sentimental maternity and spiritual imminence.
Musically, I tried to compensate for my speaking the words by unleashing my bass playing. Like some gifts you may get this Christmas, it may not be the right size or color—but it was given in a good spirit at least.
Today’s piece uses words from a more modern poem from Minnesota poet: Renée Robbins. I met Renée after this piece was written, but I recall going with her to a very nice soirée celebrating the publication of a collection of poems, including this one, by Minnesota poets 40 years ago.
This was the 1970s, and from our age or our ages, an optimistic time to be a poet in Minnesota. Running down a list of names, I’ll slight anyone I leave off out of concerns of length and focus, but locally it was still the age of Robert Bly, John Berryman, and James Wright. Minnesota literature, at that time, seemed to have placed poetry at least equal to the novel or memoir.
I had come recently from New York and had reconnected with Dave Moore who had finished college. I was writing furiously, filled with a Twenty-Something desire to set on the page all the patterns I could see in our still forming lives. Renée had taken a shorter trip, going to college first in Duluth and then in Marshall Minnesota where she studied with Phil Dacey.
There is a longer story here, full like most life stories, with twists that seem meaningful to us, even if not invested with the same importance by fate, but let’s return to poets, and the 1970s, and Minnesota.
Note that truncated list I gave of the exciting characters, the names of poets that would be in someway connected to Minnesota in that time. No women. I find that odd. No similar list of the most notable contemporary poets in the United States made the ‘70s would be so gender singular. Is this an accident, a side-effect of the stubborn impact of Robert Bly locally, a reflection of a lingering patriarchy, or just a reflection of my own framing as I look backwards? It could be all of them I suppose.
Renée and I fell in love. Eventually we married. Eventually she got sick and died shortly after the turn of the century. As I said, these twists in the stories we hold as ours seem meaningful to us. Perhaps it’s a meaning like a deep poem, one with a deep image, one that doesn’t stand for anything other than itself, one that can bend light around it, leaving the densest shadow as life still glitters around it with a strange margin where they meet.
Renée’s “My Feet” may not be that kind of deep poem, but as I tried to argue here recently, poetry is richer and less constrained when we feel we can use it for more than the deepest things. And Renée’s choices in “My Feet” implicitly make that argument I think. Ozymandias may have two great and trunkless legs of stone and that meaningful sandstorm mocking them, but the rest of us have only our tired dogs, like to those she can apprehend with her characteristic artistic focus on close looking. Her time on the farming plains of Southwest Minnesota may have given her a new landscape to appreciate those feet.
Today we offer a respite from my voice and the return of alternate Parlando Project presenter Dave Moore. And since it’s been a few days since the last new audio piece, today’s piece combines a lyric written by William Blake with one by Christina Rossetti. Two great poets in one piece! Ladies and gentlemen, there is no greater value you can find today in any poetic words mixed with music marketplace!
Both pieces are stated by their authors to be songs, either in the name of Blake’s collection where “The Garden of Love” first appeared, “Songs of Experience” or in the title itself for Rossetti’s piece, which she called just “Song.”
So of course, both pieces have been set to music and sung before this, but it was Dave Moore’s idea to combine the two pieces; and one can immediately see once he did this, how tightly they fit, with Blake sorrowfully reporting the graves in the garden, and Rossetti musing on the grave and its landscape.
Rossetti wrote her “Song” while still a teenager. Unlike Blake who was born in a religious dissenter family and grew increasingly distrustful of the corruptions of organized religion, Rossetti would become one of the most graceful and modest of the poets of the Victorian Christian revival. Strange, isn’t it, that the two poems mesh together.
Speaking from my poet/musician duality, the version of “The Garden of Love” that I most recall is the one recorded by Allen Ginsberg in December of 1969. Ginsberg’s recording is played, followed by a 20-minute discussion of the poem and performance here. The four speakers in this discussion mull on the country music waltz feel Ginsberg performed the Blake too. If I were in that room, I could have replied from the musician side of that duality, that in 1969 there was a bloomlet of counter-cultural figures essaying country-music tropes to the puzzlement from the hippie audience as to what level of irony was intended. Two musical figures close to Allen Ginsberg had taken part in that move earlier that same year: Bob Dylan with “Nashville Skyline” and Ed Sanders with “Sanders’ Truckstop.”
Our performance of this mixes Dave’s somewhat church-hymn organ (Ginsberg often used a hand-pumped harmonium organ in his live performances) with my country-ish Telecaster electric guitar, so perhaps Ginsberg’s country move was stuck in my memory as we performed this. Here’s what Dave Moore said about his performance:
“Wayback Machine time.
This song goes back to the early days of the Reagan years, which he ended up forgetting but we can't.
Probably this is my first attempt to put music to classic poetry, I just thought they fit together so well & expressed both despair and hope so well. This one is my favorite vocal of all attempts at this piece. My introductory verses for each poet are new & I wish I'd separated them from the two little poems better, but that's what you get with one-takes. Ah, sweet death, we can still sing.”
Dave points out a contrasting benefit of the pieces here performed as the LYL Band, which are not only “one-takes,” but are often pieces that only the composer-vocalist has any sense of the structure of, leaving the rest of us to follow and create parts on the fly. This leads to a certain roughness, and yes, at times, tentativeness too—but I believe there is a corresponding sense of the undiscovered and its discovery that may come across to the listener.
For some time, I’ve disliked the way the idea of “generations” has been treated by the culture at large. Not the nugget of thought that’s in it, that cohorts of people in a particular time and place will share certain experiences, some of which will shape their outlook—but the nutty, pseudo-scientific way it’s been used. The balderdash that’s been added to “generations” includes the nonsense that there are some sharp and agreed on borders to them and that everyone inside of these sharp lines in time not only shares the same experience but reacts to these things in the same way.
The crap labels we use like “Generation X” (Billy Idol and Richard Hell may have a lot to answer for, but let’s not hang this on them) or “Millennials,” (who could just as well be perennial grinders of grain for all the meaning I assign to that word) have become like unto the Sixties’ penchant for astrological signs. “Oh, you’re so Millennial” or “Members of Gen X think this way” have become the Moonchildren and Fire Signs of our age.
And of course, the borders of these deterministic generation containers are natural and inviolate—no, don’t look at them, as they will seem arbitrary and varied if you look too close. Are generations 12, 20, 30 years long? Don’t ask, as we don’t agree. And is someone born in 1946 exposed to the same set of experiences as someone born in 1963? Don’t look too close.
I bring this up, because this week I wrote a parody. And as humorists have been known to do, I went and used some generational stereotypes. I was pressed for time, those sorts of things are ready-mades, one or two people found it funny, if I use it humorously I’m making fun of it—Oh, I’m giving up. I’m ashamed.
Look, one of the good things about considering the experiences conveyed by writers whose words I use here, is that most have been dead for generations, no matter how long we define that term. Seems like they are each their own people, not clichés like “Victorians” or “the Lost Generation.”
New start. I had a serious thought as I started this. Earlier this month I revisited the well-known yet too-little-reconsidered Robert Frost poem “Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening.” As I thought about the experience Robert Frost was describing (if an actual country winter buggy ride, some think it occurred in 1909), I considered how different the night and the rural roadscape would have been then, compared to how we have informally remembered Frost’s poem. I thought the opening stanza of that poem, starting with Frost’s line that’s fallen into too-famous-to-think-about status: “Whose woods these are, I think I know,” could be describing a person who was lost in a darkening, rural pre-electric light, night—instead of a poet some of us remember as un-responsibly stopping to look at the Christmas-card pretty, well-lit, sight of a woods in snowfall.
I was thinking then: “Now I’d have not just the possibility of bright headlights, but a cellphone in my pocket that should tell me just where I am, no matter what poetic truth I’d be trying to express.”
And then I thought again about that phone. There are still areas, even in North America, without cellphone service. GPS satellite signals don’t penetrate everywhere. Those maps in our apps are not without errors.
So, today’s piece, which I call “Stopping by a Woods With Bad Cellphone Service” is actually a serious piece of winter travel safety advice, not a scurrilous piece of generational stereotyping, which I would never stoop to doing here.
Here’s another winter poem by Robert Frost to put to our uses. Writing about my last piece here, Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” I wondered about the actualities of the scene the poet was describing: a New England winter road in a dark snowy evening before the coming of rural electrification. Frost would know, of course, that it would be quite dark in those conditions. But did he use that knowledge when he wrote the poem? There I can’t say for sure. Did he, the author—like I did as a reader once (despite knowing too the darkness of rural night)—visualize a well-lit snowfall on trees, an alluring and beautiful sight that might tempt him to stay and watch for a while?
I can’t say for sure.
Frost’s “A Dust of Snow” is even shorter, and the accepted meaning of its images has been a settled thing for some time. Last time I wondered if “Stopping by Woods” was more a poem about a man who was lost in the dark in both levels of meaning rather than a man who was tempted by bright beauty. I could have been wrong, but I think it’s worth considering. With “A Dust of Snow” certain images have been determined by most academic readers to be, well, symbolic. What if we consider them as real, natural objects and not as handy metaphors?
We start right off with a crow. “A symbol of death” it is said. Perhaps it doesn’t hurt the poem to think that. I think it’s a crow. A dark bird, darker yet against the snow, and no crow would let the poet that near without a racket of loud caws. The poet doesn’t let us hear the caws though. Instead, like the uncanny sound of sifting snow in “Stopping by Woods,” Frost wants us to feel just a dusting of snow falling from the branch as the bird flaps off. He wants the main action in the poem to be almost microscopic. He could have written that the bird’s takeoff “dumped a pound of cold slush down my collar”—but that wouldn’t be the poem he wrote. Is the dust a symbol of death too? Or is it an image of a tiny action of little weight? I hold to the later.
Oh, and symbol alert! The tree the bird left is a hemlock tree. Or as the movie “Real Genius” reminds us, “As Socrates once said: ‘I drank WHAT!” How aware was Frost that the American Hemlock is a pine tree and the European poison is a completely different, smaller plant? If this were written by the avid amateur botanist Emily Dickinson, we’d know the poet would know this. Even William Carlos Williams M. D. might have need to know about the derivations of poison. Like the crow being “death” or a bird, “hemlock” could be a reference to death or suicide—but the evergreen is also a symbol of life in winter too, if it must be a symbol. Frankly I think either taken in a one-to-one direct simile way may overdetermine the poem. In the book of nature, having a black bird against white snow causing the small, light amount of snow to fall from an evergreen tree is sufficient.
And this snow falls on the narrator of the poem, and the small sprinkling of snow lifts the rueful mood. I think that’s the essence of the poem: the smallest action of nature, a flighting crystalline snow sprinkle that may not have weighed an ounce, can lift a human out of their dense internal fixations. I think that’s a more graceful poem than the leaden march of death-crows, grave-dust snow and poison trees. I could be wrong, but I like that poem better.
Musically, a much simpler arrangement than last time, just a bass and 12-string guitar. I’m trying to carve out time to prepare for some more recording with the LYL Band tomorrow.
Today I’m presenting a piece that is extraordinarily well-known, by an American poet whose work is still read and remembered outside of academic settings, Robert Frost.
In such cases it’s easy to think we know the poem, perhaps we’ve even memorized it in whole or in part, and we then say we know it in that special way. If we studied it in school, perhaps we learned or apprehended some deeper meanings for it. If this is so with you, I’ve had those experiences with “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” too.
Yet, sometimes, when we look at something with intended freshness, things step out from our remembered poem and introduce us to things we didn’t realize were always there. Let’s start with just how I (and perhaps you) have visualized the setting for this poem.
Is Frost in a woods, a bright high-contrast Currier and Ives scene of crisp white snow and colored accents? Not as he wrote it. The title and a line in the second stanza tells us he’s on (presumably) a road, and that he is between the woods and a frozen lake. Is there a full moon and clear sky? No clear sky, it’s snowing, so overcast. He says “the darkest evening of the year,” so the moon isn’t adding significant light. In the rural New England of Frost’s time, it’s probably dark and getting darker, in a way that few of us know darkness today. There are no street lights, no farm yard lights, likely no headlights. One might see villages spotted with oil-lamp-lit windows from the crest of a hill, but he’s told us no village is in sight.
When he says he only thinks he knows “Whose woods these are,” he probably means, “I could tell you if it were noon, but not in this dark.” In the rural area of my youth, even forty years after this poem was written, directions were still given by knowing who owned (or once owned) a piece of land. Is he lost? Possibly. At the least, he wants us to know that he’s not exactly sure where he is.
At the end of the first stanza he says he stopping to watch the woods fill up with snow. If he accomplishes this, he doesn’t tell us. There are hundreds of good lines to describe snow falling on trees visually, and Frost has written many of them, but he doesn’t do it here. Is he leaving us to visualize it ourselves, from our own rich storehouse of memories? That’s possible. And if you and I remember the poem as having images of falling snow drifting through tree boughs in moonlight, that worked. My current guess is that Frost’s narrator could “see” this too, but like us, only in their mind.
It’s a testament to how thoroughly we prioritize visual imagery in poetry that we think those images are there, even if we’ve memorized the poem. Frost was especially proud of the poem’s third stanza, and justly so. It’s all sound images. The dark and solitary nature of being in the middle of un-occupied rural space at night allows sounds to take the place of what our eyes would lord over otherwise. It starts with the horse sounding his harness bells, bells not merely a decorative pretext to sing “Jingle Bells,” but a useful method of letting other narrow-road users know someone’s coming around a curve or hill-crest, particularly in the dark. And the snow image that’s really there? It’s so quiet and he’s so focused in the darkness, that he can hear the sweep of the top layer of snow blowing across the surface of the rest.
The infinite depth and darkness of the woods in the final stanza is not just a metaphor. It’s dark out, and it will not get lighter until morning. Its loveliness, invisible in the dark, is conceptual art at this point for Frost.
In this view, the decision about staying or continuing the journey is not a temptation of a seductive external snowfall-on-the-woods scene, nor is it a thought of embracing death or a contemplation of suicide, though those elements may be there as subtext. The situation is “I’m not even sure where I am on this road in the falling dark. The momentary beauty I sought here is elusive and mostly in my head. Keep following the road, though I don’t have sure landmarks and don’t know for how many miles. Better the finite, even if not quantifiable, promises of the rotating wheel of my buggy than the depth of a forest I cannot see.”
And the sleep he ends the poem with? Frost always maintained it wasn’t death in metaphorical disguise, despite what professors in electrically lit rooms might think. The story is that he wrote “Stopping by the Woods” at end of a long night of work on another, longer poem. Any writer would recognize that it’s actual sleep he now desires, rest that we only allow after exhausting our attempts to see what is lovely, dark and deep despite the night.
It’s been awhile since a new episode, what with holidays and family occasions, but here’s another piece, “Rosemary,” using the words by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Millay was one of the most popular, most often read, poets of the first part of the 20th Century, but the later part of the century gave her less consideration. A contemporary of the Imagists and other poetic Modernists that we’ve featured a lot this year here, and while connected to their world, she didn’t sustain favor with the rise of the “New Criticism” that became the dominant academy in the English-speaking world after WWII.
Reasons? Well, there’s gender. One must assume that played a role. And popularity of the general-readership sort would not have been an asset either, as perhaps only Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson survived being read by a general readership in the mid-century without losing their high-art cred. Why couldn’t Millay have joined Frost and Dickinson in these critics’ esteem?
I think it’s largely a case of her poetry not seeming to have the subject of their criticism: fresh, complex, allusive and illusive, imagery. Frost and Dickinson may have used homey sounding language, but in the end those funerals in the brain and snow, roads and woods added up to something to talk about in critical prose.
The New Critics were an inflection point. Before them, poetry was largely considered musical speech, a container that could hold a variety of subjects, after the New Critics, poetry was about the imagery, how you portrayed things with it. And unless one aimed for satire, such complex rhetorical structures must be in service to serious matters.
And so, there’s subject matter too. Millay’s great subject was love and affection, it’s presence, absence and all the shades in-between. In doing so, she addresses much of life and its condition, but did she receive enough credit for that? Is a heartbroken man a tragic philosopher of fate, and a woman merely a spurned lover? Narrow-mindedness can’t be ruled out.
“Rosemary” allows us to examine these issues. This looks to be a poem about the death of a passionate love or the death of a dear one. I’m not sure which of those two possibilities is standing for the other, but for an audience, it does not matter as both events are common to our hearts.
I think there is an intent here to conjure a complex world of timeless folk magic. Though written in the 20th Century, it could have been written anywhere up to five centuries earlier. In the title we have rosemary, an herb associated with remembrance even in Shakespeare’s time (Ophelia’s mad speech in Hamlet for example), and in the first stanza we have rushes being scattered on a room’s floor, a custom from medieval times to hide the stink and mess of a less hygienic age, a strewing of reeds that may have included rosemary because it was thought to be something of an insecticide. Bergamot is another fragrant plant. Stink, rot and pestilence are all inferred subtly in this verse that on the face of it seems only a short catalog of flowers.
The second verse adds a rain barrel to catch rain, or is it tears? And what’s with that iron pot. Is it a cauldron? The poems last two lines are in quotes on the page. I was suspicious that the “An it please you, gentle sirs,” line was a quote, and finding out what it was from might be important, but I can’t place that line—if any reader knows, please clue me in.
And at the end of this timeless lament: “well-a-day,” which might sound to you or me like “have a nice day,” but is instead a word that harkens back to Old English, meaning woe-is-me.
What I think we have here is a poem, that read quickly, seems to be a trivial verse about some flowers with a bit of a kitchen scene, but it’s stated with deliberately archaic specifics so that the attentive modern reader might notice that time cannot heal this loss. And each thing in it is an image, though they don’t loudly announce themselves as such.
I’m reminded of my distant relative Susan Glaspell’s famous play “Trifles” where the domestic clues hide all the information the dense men seeking important information miss.
One joy of this project’s exploration has been coming upon poets I know nothing about and acquiring their words in my bloodless version of that conqueror on the “peak in Darien.” Writing about Frost, Pound, H.D. and Eliot in England early in the 20th Century lead me to T. E. Hulme, an Englishman of pugnacious artistic pronouncements and surprisingly modest and moving poetry. And T. E. Hulme led me to F. S. Flint, another writer and literary theorist in this circle in the years just before WWI.
Last month I introduced readers of this podcast's blog to Flint’s amazing rise from Victorian poverty. In the interim I’ve been reading more of his work, including his 1920 collection of poems (he called them “cadences”) titled “Otherworld.” Since Flint is not commonly studied or anthologized, each poem as I encountered in the collection was a fresh experience, no different than reading a new poet’s chapbook published this year. I could start a poem in “Otherworld” about a confused midnight awakening, and come to find it’s a first-hand account of a deadly London air-raid by a German Zeppelin.
Today’s piece, in the same collection, held another surprise. It tells you it’s a Love Song, but contradicts that before the end of the title. What it is instead is an unstinting examination of the corrosion class and gender inflict on the grail of love. The singer of this song lays bare a combination of disgust at how he’s judged as a poor man with an undisguised desire to own the things he cannot have, including this other human being, the woman of the title.
I can think of dozens of popular songs that deal in some variation of this, but it’s harder to come up with 100-year-old poems, much less ones as good as this one, that talk of this. Ignore a handful of references to the interior decorating trends of Flint’s time, and this poem could have been written yesterday, except few writers of any time would be as acute as Flint is in observing this.
What new poets of the Modernist movement do I get to discover and share with you in the upcoming year? I can’t be sure, but I noted that Flint’s “Otherworld” is dedicated to Herbert Read, and from what few poems of his I can find online, Read seems just as fresh and fascinating.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Musically I’ve been telling myself I want to utilize some of the methods of hip-hop records, and yet each time I set out to do this I get side-tracked by my own idiosyncratic musical muse. The melodic top line is my appreciation of early 1960s hard bop organ playing. The bass part is a combination of a left-hand organ part with electric bass. Two bass lines shouldn’t work, but I think it does here. That’s not the only duality in this: the drum machine beat is augmented by some percussion which keeps the drum machine from ruling the groove “correctly.” The hip-hop rhythm flow eludes me again, though maybe I recall some predecessors like Dr. John the Night Tripper?
Over the years I’ve developed a tough-enough way to be cheerful and productive, my own “grant heart” to myself. Though on the face of it, it sounds glum, I’ve learned it by reading about artists or from artists talking about their work, and it goes by this cheerful motto: “All artists fail.”
All artists fail more than they succeed. Every. One. No artist is so broadly popular that everyone likes their work. Even those that might gain a plurality of some kind, for some time, that likes their work, will find most of that group “ignoring” them most of their lives, because our attention is so precious and limited as audiences. One’s privilege as an artist is to get to fail again. If you don’t like how you’re failing, fail better, or fail differently, fail more often.
And even those artists we think of as succeeding sometimes, sometime find themselves succeeding in misunderstanding or misapprehension.
How can this knowledge help us, grant us heart, and not crush us? Anyone who makes things should carry in themselves the conviction that the world needs more of what they do, even if they or the world don’t know it yet. We are making more of what needs to exist, though that may fail when the world doesn’t know what to make of it. It may fail because we are wrong about its necessity. And it can fail because of how we choose to manifest our art.
Are we good enough to manifest our art so that it will not fail all the time? If our desire, our artistic conviction, is somewhere around helping heal the world and cleanse it’s perceptions, you may take that as beside the point. Decades ago, in the early days of the modern emergency medical system, I once helped receive a patient in cardiac arrest as they arrived at an ER, delivered by a volunteer ambulance corps. The man in the back of the rig, still in the human heat and confusion of the moment, said that he would have performed CPR, but that his certification for CPR had expired.
Well, you have to try, even though CPR then, as I suspect it does now, mostly fails. Art, even good art, usually changes our perceptions for only moments, leaving us nearly as deaf, blind and numb afterward. If art can heal the world, it’s a long course of treatment, and its healing is imperceptibly slow.
So, if you want to make art, want to write or make music, take heart and make sure your goal is to cleanse perception or heal the world. Add to your goals one more precept, to try to not bore the audience when it grants you it’s precious attention. If you want to create art because you want to succeed, consider a lottery ticket instead.
What a roundabout way to get to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Merry Autumn,” a piece that is appropriate for Thanksgiving. How did the poet Dunbar “fail?” The child of two enslaved African-Americans, raised by a mother who learned to read to help educate her son, Dunbar was able by the age of 21 to gather some appreciation for his poetry, which spoke in three voices. Voice one was that of an accomplished 19th century poet who spoke like the East Coast “Fireside Poets” such as Longfellow, using a middle-Atlantic diction that may sound slightly old fashioned to us, but was the established voice of poetry in America at the time. We in the 21st Century may hear the peculiarities of that voice from our vantage point in time, but it would probably have not seemed like a dialect at all to his contemporaries. He also wrote in two other American dialects, and dialects were a great American literary fad of the late 19th Century. We might rarely encounter the remnants of this fad in Mark Twain or some other regionalist writers nowadays, but the idea of using written English to represent the different pronunciation and syntax of a big country before broadcast media was an artistic and commercial success of the time. Dunbar’s poems, then, also “spoke” in an informal, less-educated Midwestern dialect, and in what was considered as the southern black dialect of the time.
It’s hard to say how accurate this black dialect was. Dunbar’s mother likely would have spoken in it. Even though we’re speaking about speaking of just a bit more than a century ago, it may come down the same informed guessing that allows actors to perform Shakespeare in “original pronunciation” productions. And Dunbar’s transcribed accuracy aside, how it would be read by fellow African-Americans and how it would be read by Americans of European extraction would likely have differed greatly. On the page, his Afro-American dialect poems can look/sound like the black-face makeup minstrel-show dialect performed by successful white entertainers who perfected cultural appropriation for laughing audiences. The humble-brag of the Afro-American dialect poems may be abstractly similar to the tropes of the his midwestern regionalist dialect language, but in the end, it was not “read” as similar by the predominate culture.
What did a young Dunbar think of all this as he wrote his poems in either of these languages? I do not know, but his dialect pieces were something he was praised for by the cultural critics of the time, and they no doubt aided his marketability. He eventually expressed despair at the concentration of the attention on the Afro-American dialect poems. Perhaps he had wanted to say that he’s all of these things: a black man, a Midwesterner, and man who could sing a middle-Atlantic song as sweet as Longfellow or Whittier, and instead he was seen as the man to represent only the borough of his race in the eyes of those who did not share his experience. He had to try. He “failed.” Today we may be grateful for his failure.
Today’s piece “Merry Autumn,” doesn’t show Dunbar’s later despair. It’s largely in the “Fireside Poets” mode, though he drops into informal Midwestern idiom once or twice. And following the precept to not bore the listener who lends their attention, he takes a contrarian stance toward the old poetic trope of Autumn symbolizing death and a fall to winter.
Today’s words are from William Carlos Williams. Unlike our last episode, I wouldn’t call this a love poem. Oh, I believe there’s an assignation between two people in the opening section of this poem, but affection seems missing and the desire, if present, seems to be questioned—no, that’s not quite right—the questioning of desire is silent, present in its absence.
This is another poem I came across at the Interesting Literature blog, where it was included in a round-up of seduction poems. We’ve visited a few of that type of poem here as well, with shepherds, nymphs, a merchant’s wife, and Williams’ fellow physician-poet Thomas Campion making invitations—but this isn’t really a proposition, any more than it’s a love poem.
Williams’ poem is not titled something like “Come Live with Me and Be My Love”, it’s titled “Arrival.” So yes, an assignation, but one with a schedule like a train or airplane flight, or as we’ll soon see, like a season. Is there desire in the unhooking of the dress? In modernist, Imagist style, that emotion is not stated, but the passive voice and sparsest of descriptions argues that it’s there and is not there.
After the poem finds itself, as many of us have or will find ourselves one day, in a “strange bedroom,” a sea change occurs. The woman in the dress has disappeared. In her place: an autumn tree, disrobing its leaves because the season is felt arriving. Again, desire is not mentioned—it wouldn’t be mentioned, this is an Imagist “show not tell” poem—but this image is also passive and rote.
I’ll let you feel and figure out the image of the final few lines yourself. The now naked woman as bare winter tree? Or is her presumably male companion’s body being synecdoched?
What of the music today? The instrument that sounds something like a mandolin is an Appalachian dulcimer, a simple American instrument, but one, like the sitar of last episode, that has drone strings. The music is modal too, based around D Dorian. On the percussion side I remain attracted lately to little instruments, so there are shakers, maracas, a cabasa, congas, a chime tree, even some finger snaps in this. I could say that this is a tribute to William Carlos Williams’ Puerto Rican heritage, but really, it’s something that is pleasing me musically this month.
Here’s another piece adopting words by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize winning songwriter and polymath. Tagore is a remarkable man about whom I know only a little more than that average Western musician or writer. His life as a writer is only a small part of his impact in South Asia, but that alone is enough to bring your attention to him. Knowing as little as I do about Bengali literature, I take it from others that he’s exquisite in that language, and that, at the beginning of the 20th Century, he accomplished the same task for his culture that the modernist poets writing in English did, bringing a fresher, more colloquial language to poetry.
Tagore wrote in many forms of literature, but when his Nobel Prize was awarded, the only work available in English was a book of his lyrics, which he had self-translated into English prose—which makes him the first songwriter to win the Nobel for Literature. Tagore’s own translations do not fully hide the musical nature of the works, but they often sound somewhat stilted to this English language reader. I’ve adopted his words somewhat in this case. It’s a love song.
Now for those that come here for talk about the words used, we’re going to diverge this time and talk about the music.
It’s likely that Tagore also wrote music for this, but I do not know his tune. My knowledge of South Indian music is limited as well, but like many Westerner’s my introduction was the Ravi Shankar records that were widely available in the Sixties. Ravi Shankar had become something of a cultural fad then via his association with A Beatle! and the sideways belief that this music was “psychedelic.” That word, a neologism of the times, was formed from the Greek words for “mind” and “manifesting,” meaning music that could produce altered states of consciousness, inferring that it was like mind-altering drugs and that it might be a suitable aural counterpart to the ingestion of same. Looking back, I find this a quaint sort of categorization, as much music—and even the mind itself—can change one’s appreciation of consciousness, perhaps not with as much of a whipsaw impact as the psychoactive drugs of the time, but powerfully enough.
Mark me down as a man who doesn’t know when to let go of a fad. Despite my listener-only naivete about South Asian music, three things attracted me upon hearing those recordings, or viewing the small portions appropriated to Shankar in the rock concert films of the era:
The drone. This is a complex music based not on a progression of chords, but instead where the color changed not from a new chord or key, but with timbre, melodic scale, rhythm, and expression against a static, home chord or tone. I might have grabbed this from something else eventually (listening to John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis were also there to tell me this about the same time) but Shankar and South Asian commonplaces like tampura and harmonium drones were where I first appreciated this.
The tabla. The rhythmic structure of South Asian music is as complex as any I know, and is its most “foreign” element. The rhythmic structures have extraordinarily long cycles, difficult to “count” in a mathematical toe-tapping sense. I have a fair to poor sense of rhythm myself, but I heard these complex rhythms “melodically,” not as marks on a grid, but as string of events with a compelling line of sound. As expressive hand drums capable of vibrato, the tabla encouraged this.
The sitar. To this day, the strum of a sitar is the go-to sound effect to say “hippie.” Which is a shame because it’s a remarkable instrument with many musical features exploited by its virtuosos. To my ear, and to many guitarists who wanted to approximate the impact of the sitar, the main things were the ability to provide its reinforcement of the drone with resonating strings, and the raised frets that allowed “notes” that were in fact a cluster of microtones sounded in close vibrato.
For “She Is as Near to My Heart” I approximated all these things with non-South Asian instruments. The song’s harmonic home point is a arpeggiated cluster consisting mainly of D, E, G, and A notes, giving a key center that is ambiguous, but that I thought of as A minor for my purposes. In place of the tabla, I used a syncopated 4/4 that is comfortable to our rhythmic toes, but to give that tabla sound I used congas and a drum machine with its own electronic approximation of the tabla’s pitch bend. For the sitar element I used a MIDI interface to play a digital instrument approximation of the real thing with a guitar. And over the top, well why not, some electric guitar where I mixed blues with some more sitar sounding licks like psychedelic guitarists liked to do back in the Sixties.
Hmm. I just noticed something. The Telecaster I played that lead part on was made in India. Maybe there was a South Asian instrument on this piece after all!
One of the harder things to do when performing a song or a poem—or in talking about what either means—is to tackle a well-known piece. As far as American poetry goes, Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” qualifies as such a case. It’s one of those “most anthologized” poems. I’m certain I ran into it in high school, and it is like a lot of great and popular poems: it can be about three-quarters understood by a schoolchild being introduced to poetry scholastically.
Is there anything new and fresh that can be brought to it? And what may still be there in that other quarter of the poem beyond what one first understood as a teenager?
When I write and play the music or perform the words here I need to make choices. One of the most important of those choices is what is the mood? What is the overall outlook of the poem’s speaker? You can use educated guesses to what the author intended, or you can just make a wild guess, even a perverse one. For example, you take most any song that was written as a party anthem, and then slow it down and sing it with some doubt in one’s voice, you will completely undercut the swagger and good times vibe (as Aztec Camera’s cover of Van Halen’s “Jump” proved years ago).
With “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” I decided the mode I would use is sardonic. This is a good ground choice for any Dickinson poem in my mind. This is a poem about death, sure, but it’s a poem mocking death, or rather our appreciation of that subject.
That starts from the start: like death is a social appointment we don’t have time to schedule, but then also, a slow passage of the entire trip of life at a fine and boring pace is appropriate too, as it’s a trip to the graveyard in the metaphor of the 3rd verse.
In the sublime 4th stanza, when the speaker has passed the days of her life (the slow carriage ride of life so stately that the sun transit of a day outraces it) she finds herself unprepared for the weather of death, dressed only in useless, ladylike garments that may reference a bridal dress, a burial shroud or a nightgown.
The afterlife presented in the last two stanzas is not any heaven, but an eternity of nothingness. As a final irony, the speaker says the centuries of eternity seem like less of an experience, than even a day of a slow life.
So, on one hand this is a mock solemn poem about death, spoken in a mode not that far from what Maila Nurmi/Vampira might have vamped on TV a century later. But it’s also a carpe diem poem, written this time by a woman, one whose artistic life is not giving her time to stop for death, nor the daily deaths of an unexamined, uncreative life. When Thomas Higginson was editing the first collection of Dickinson poems, he may have appreciated that aspect when he added the title “The Chariot” to it. “The Chariot” as in “Time's wingèd chariot” in Marvell’s poem.
At least that’s what I think is there. I could be wrong. You have to make choices.
Dickinson poems, which are largely written with her internalized Protestant hymn tune rhythms, can be set to music easily. And the basic track in my performance would have demonstrated that, as played on just a 12-string guitar, even though I undercut its simple three chord progression with some chord alterations. The piano part brings the strangeness in by playing simple arpeggiated chords, but in an insistent cross-rhythm.
Sometimes the things we present here come together quickly. For example, the LYL Band pieces are often first takes where the musicians are reacting to the words spontaneously the best we can. Other pieces ask to spend a little time underground to think like seeds think.
Today’s piece is one of those later ones. Nearly two months ago Grant Hart, a founding member of Hüsker Dü, a Minnesota indie rock group that achieved some fame before breaking up in the late 1980s, died. After Hüsker Dü broke up, Hart continued working in music and visual art, some of it quite striking, none of it as well-known as it should have been. We are used to stories of a young person whose indie band is on the rise, there is less notice for those artists whose work continues past middle-age. After all, even when there are new levels to the work, there may be no apparent market. While thinking of him, I noticed, strangely, for the first time, that Grant’s name was, in effect, a two-word prayer.
Around the same time, I was talking with Dave Moore (who you’ve heard here, vocally, keyboardely, and composerly) about his household’s garden bounty coming to an end.
These two thoughts combined into the words for today’s piece back in September. And early last month I wrote the music—so this piece has existed, on paper, for a month. I performed it on acoustic guitar for a handful of people in a living room in October. It seemed to work. So why haven’t you heard it yet?
I really wanted to get the performance right. And this month I attempted that, getting as close as this recording. I wanted it to be good, but I didn’t want it to be polished either.
The LYL Band began roughly the same time as Hüsker Dü. We even shared a producer of our first recordings back in the day (Colin Mansfield). But we were much different. We were a band of poets and artists, closer to the Fugs or Billy Bragg than the Who or the Jam. And I was then, as now, not a consistent and confident performer and a problematic singer. That was my problem as a band-member back then. As passionate as I could be in my writing, I couldn’t find the heart to focus that passion on stage, to the detriment of the band.
So, it didn’t take just the two months the song was in process, it took some decades to get close to what this song requires. When you listen to “Garden Elegy (for Grant Hart)” you’ll hear me going for it as best I can, trying to focus passion. About halfway through you’ll hear the body of the guitar slam into the amplifier.
And that’s my prayer for artists today, perhaps your prayer too: that we may be granted heart.
How did you spend your extra hour given to us by the Daylight Savings Time changeover? Some spent it snuggled with a loved one, or others for splendid dreams given time for extra chapters. I spent my night and hour wrestling with another poet’s poem and creating and performing music for it.
A few episodes back we presented William Carlos Williams “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a widely anthologized and very short Imagist poem. My current feeling, shared in the notes to that, was that Williams really was talking about a red wheelbarrow, a simple tool used for important tasks. Of course, he was also aware that the rain-glazed red paint of the wheelbarrow and the white chickens around it was a bold visual image, consistent with the modernist art he appreciated, and that he didn’t mind the provocation of calling attention to this without elaborate justification, any more than a classical painter or poet would think they would have been required to tell us why we should give a fig about Artemus.
Here's another short Imagist poem, this time by Hilda Doolittle, who wrote as H. D. H. D. knew William Carlos Williams from when Williams was a college student, but then H. D. knew or crossed paths with many of the principals of Modernism over her lifetime. Modernist poetry admitted more women creators than painting or music, or most other arts at the start of the 20th Century, but that’s a low bar to clear. H. D. cleared it however, and she continued to run her own race on her own course from the start of her career.
H. D.’s 26 word poem is much different from Williams’ 16 word one. It’s much stranger, and the internal state the external images present is more complex than even many longer poems reflect.
In some ways, the title “Oread”, the effective 27th word, helps us. For those not up on Greek mythology, we can look it up, it’s a mountain nymph or spirit. Like many Greek nature spirits, an Oread is female.
So, from the title of the poem, we can say that it’s an Oread that’s speaking—but even if we grant that, this ain’t Tinkerbell. The supposed nymph is commanding nature, as a full-fledge god or goddess or a magician would. And the Oread is not asking it for protection, or forbearance, or even for it to put the hex on someone else, it’s asking it to do it’s best to overcome her. “Whirl” “pointed” “splash”, and “hurl” are some of those 26 words.
One huge difference between Williams “Wheelbarrow” and H. D.’s “Oread:” the former is intensely visual, the later, just as intensely, tactile.
And who’s the Oread talking too? Three words in, it seems to make that clear: “sea.” Except the sea is described largely as a forest—a forest that can splash and form pools, but a forest at least as much as a sea. The sharpest readings of this is that the Oread is speaking of the sea with the images of the forested mountain (waves are like trees, water drops are like the needles of pines), but by saying it so, she is saying that the overcoming she commands is a merging of two like things.
I’m left with a conclusion that this is a spell of desire. Whether it is sensual, spiritual, or artistic desire makes no difference in the frenzied merger that is being called into being.
So, what did I do in writing music and performing “Oread?” I repeat most of the lines at least twice, to emphasize the incantational aspect. Despite my recently expressed desire to re-explore artificial drum machine sounds, the percussion has lots of little instruments for a ceremonial air: shakers, maracas, cymbals, tambourine, even a chiming triangle. The main musical motif is a four-note synthesizer phrase that seems to be looping, but once again isn’t, as permutations occur throughout. The bass part rarely plays the same note as the synth motif, a musical effect that can be likened to “rubbing,” an apt metaphor for this sensuous poem.
For reasons of copyrights, I’ve been focusing a fair amount here on using words from the most recent poems whose rights are in the public domain (pre-1924). One side-effect of that: during the run of this project we’ve presented a good number of poems about World War I, which I recently called “The last war covered by poets.”
So, we’ve had a poem from a man waiting to enter his battle: Rupert Brooke writing on the troopship carrying him overseas; and poems written from first-hand views in the trenches by Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and T. E. Hulme. We’ve had reactions to the war and its losses from Ezra Pound, Tristan Tzara and Carl Sandburg. William Butler Yeats, even in refusal, is writing a war poem of a sort, one I suspect has a hidden barb at the politicians’ war propaganda.
For the most part, the poems I’ve used so far would not pass as journalism. Owen and Sassoon use fantasy to illustrate the war’s folly. Pound, Tzara, and Sandburg tell of the subjective emotional impact of the war’s losses. But Brooke’s fragment has the power of a closely observed diary entry, and T. E. Hulme comes closest so far to a straightforward war dispatch with his compressed account of the front at St. Eloi.
Today’s piece, using words by F. S. Flint, comes closer yet. Flint, the man who urged the “School of Images” in pre-war London to hew to a cadenced free verse, felt that verse and prose existed on a smooth and unbroken continuum, that good writing was good writing, regardless of the label on the tin.
Besides being present at the birth of modern English poetry, Flint also was in the right place to witness another modernist invention: aerial bombardment of cities. It’s little remembered now, but nighttime terror bombing of London was not an invention of Hitler’s air force in WWII—it was, instead, first carried out by Zeppelin airships in World War I.
Flint’s report, though artfully framed with its first-person account of being awakened from sleep in medias res, and ending with a surprising and telling conclusion, includes enough exact detail to say that it describes the first of these London raids on May 31st, 1915.
It’s a gripping account, no less than if it had been filed this year in Syria or somewhere else were bombs fall on civilians in our time.
Does the element in Flint’s work of mere journalism detract from its “poetic” qualities? The romantic element would say yes perhaps, there is no other “realer, now revealed” world invoked, no intense yoking of disparate images or modes of perception (although I would maintain it does just that in a subtler way). More elaborate language, more elaborate metaphors could decorate this. Picasso’s “Guernica” is the same subject, painted decades later, but it’s also more worked out as a cubist statement.
In a sense this question is like a question I wrestle with here as I contemplate the Parlando Project which combines music with words. Does the addition of a substantial thing to something else: in the case of Flint’s “Zeppelins,” documentary, journalistic facts to modernist poetic imagism; or in the case of my Parlando Project pieces, music and performance’s addition to what is often canonical page-poetry—are those things additive, making a greater sum—or do they, paradoxically, detract, diffusing or de-fusing the impact of the uncombined thing.
Or are these questions of art a sideline here? Do Henry and Caroline Good, dead of flames and smoke in their bedroom in that night in 1915, or Leah Lehrman, age 16 killed by a Zeppelin-dropped bomb explosion care? Do we appreciate that we live now and ponder these questions?
By title this would be the perfect piece for today, though it does not describe the axis of these months this year in the upper Midwest, which is cold, gray, blustery, and threatening sleet or snow. So, this is not the day or night for sitting on arbor-seats in some garden, and the blazon leaves have already succumbed to a snow storm last week.
But never mind the weather, it’s an early enough poem from Hart Crane to have fallen into public domain, so that I can use it here. “October-November” shows only a little of Crane’s eventual poetic style, but that means it might be a good way to introduce him.
Crane’s just a bit younger than the other early 20th Century modernists, but you can see similarities to some of the branches of modernism we’ve already climbed out on. Like Tzara or the Surrealists he loves extravagant images; but though he is utterly romantic, there’s a certain classicism to many of the images he uses, just as H.D. or Eliot would. On the other hand, like the Futurists, he loves to touch on what was then modern technology. Like Edna St. Vincent Millay or Yeats his music can sound older than his subjects. Crane is a master of Elizabethan-style iambic meter and he doesn’t avoid the old habits of poetic diction. You can even see links in Crane to the original American Modernists: the ecstatic pronouncement of a new world and a new version of humanity like unto Walt Whitman and the concisely packed and puzzling lines of conclusion that Emily Dickinson could use.
But what you see most in Hart Crane, although it’s only hinted at in this early poem written when he was a teenager, is extraordinary, stunning, eloquence at the phrase level, lines with heart-stopping lyricism. Like Shakespeare, Dickinson or the writer of Ecclesiastes, a Crane poem may hold gnomic and gorgeous sounding lines, even if they are as inexplicable as what they sum up. One could write dozens of books or poems with titles taken from lines in Crane poems, though few have done so.
There’s more to say about Hart Crane, perhaps another post that tells about how the Modernists he lived and worked among never fully accepted him, but let me leave that for another day.
“October-November” is simpler than later Crane, just a pair of images of sun dappling a garden as if it’s still summer followed by a fully delirious autumn night. I sense a growing intensity as this short poem proceeds, and tried to reflect that in the music I composed and played for this one, extending that ecstatic line in the instrumental section at the end.
One last ironic Halloween tie-in: Crane’s father invented Life-Savers, a candy that is now a rainbow diversity of sugared flavors that one might find in a ghost’s or skeleton’s bag at the end of tonight; but when invented Life Savers was more of a breath mint line, successfully sold to cover up the vices of drink and tobacco on the breath. The thing that remains its essence? The round shape, the hole in the center, like the floating ring made to be tossed to a drowning person.
In 1932, a 32 year-old Hart Crane vaulted over the railing of the ocean liner carrying him back to New York City. One witness says they looked after and “saw Crane, swimming strongly, but never again.” Perhaps his leap was too far and his swimming direction away from them, but there is no account of a round, perforated life preserver being tossed in after him before he disappeared and died.
Let’s get one more Halloween appropriate piece in before the holiday.
We’ve featured a lot of words from Dave Moore this month, but not enough of his voice, so let’s get to that with a performance by Dave backed by the LYL Band. Dave’s a founding member of the LYL Band, singing and playing various keyboards with it. Beside his own band, Moore wrote lyrics for other bands back in the beginnings of the Twin Cities punk/new wave/indie rock scene. Around the same time, Dave worked with Kevin FitzPatrick on a well-loved literary magazine “The Lake Street Review.” Besides poetry and songs, Dave Moore has produced the comic “The Spirit of Phillips” for many years.
Besides Dave’s words, voice and keyboards that are often present here, you’ve also read me talking about Dave’s father, Les Moore (he of the Bauhaus name). That should be enough background from me.
I found Moore’s “Did You Miss It” mysterious, in a good way, so let’s let him tell us how it came to be:
“I could have called this ‘3 Moores Stew,’ where the ‘philosophies’ of Dave, Alan and Les collided in my head around the issue of predestination. It’s also an attempt to celebrate first-and-only-take songs.
For my birthday last year (10/17. #67), I got (my hero) Alan Moore’s 1200-pg. novel Jerusalem. Wonderful, literally. Took a while to read such an intricate structure, and parts of it started to show up in my dreams.
Concurrently, I was editing my dad Les Moore’s sermons, typing over 50 transcripts. I’d class him as liberal Methodist, the admirable socially involved 60s Christian. I heard him speak every week till I went off to college & expected that many of his words would bang something up from my subconscious.
The lyric starts in Alan-psychogeography-zone, where one of his characters is choking to death for hundreds of pages as reality is explicated.
The joke of the chorus is also from Jerusalem, shared by Sir Thomas More with another shade. How could you miss the free will you didn’t have?
2nd verse (‘more hairy’) extrapolates Alan’s simultaneous beauty & death across time.
3rd verse (‘Belief’) is Les’s gift of Heavenly beauty despite death.
4th verse (‘Lights go on’) Dave points out you make your own beauty & might as well enjoy it. If it’s yours, you can get the joke.
Unlike most of my mistakes, those in the concluding instrumental are intentional. If everything’s pre-destined, who would bother pre-scripting this? Or could they?”
Dave points out the contrast we get from having LYL Band performances mixed with the more composed stuff here, where I play all the parts. “Did You Miss It” is one of those “first and only takes songs” that we’ve done, were the arrangement and parts are happening just as the recording light is lit.
Obscurity in modernist poetry is a funny issue. What makes some writing hard to grasp, difficult to understand? Esoteric and little-known words like Wallace Stevens loved? Far-flung allusions to works in several languages like T. S. Eliot was prone to? Exploding normal written syntax and logical flow as Gertrude Stein did? Taking images into realms where direct one-to-one symbolic meaning is not only impossible, but more than likely, not the aim, as Tristan Tzara or Paul Eluard demonstrate? Presenting things “slant” in iconoclastic riddles as Emily Dickinson could? Writing works of epic length that few if any human minds can comprehend in their whole, like the Cantos of Ezra Pound?
And then there’s this poem, the basis of today’s piece, William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.”
From empirical evidence you could say that it’s the very peak of the canon of modern American poetry. Remember that compiled count of the poems that appeared most often in poetry anthologies, most of which were explicitly focused on modern American poetry? “The Red Wheelbarrow” is alone at the top of that list, included in over half of the anthologies counted.
Does that make it a “best loved poem”? Does it even assure that critics consider it great, much less the greatest? No, it does not. I think I first ran into it as a teenage student, in one of those anthologies used in some English literature class. Did my young teacher point it out as a poem of special merit? Did I view it as such? No. If I can trust my memory, if it was discussed at all, it was as if it was some kind of stunt, an intended provocation that so short and mundane a piece could be considered artful. “Now class, let’s get back to T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens.”
And how about critics? They largely part like the Red Sea on “The Red Wheelbarrow”. If we look to one side, in among the mollusks and manta rays now behind the water curtain of the divided sea, we find those who care little for it. There’s nothing there demanding to be written about. No virtuosity is demonstrated to be noted and admired. And what important point is it making, other than, well, no point at all?
So, we turn to the other side, those swimming with bemused dolphins who wonder if they could leap across the band of Israelites walking on damp seabed, those critics hoping to demonstrate their microscopic perception of the hidden art in this terribly short and compressed poem. Carol Rumens is concise and representative of this when she says of Williams’ poem “This is his manifesto, surely–a poem quietly declaring how modern poetry works.” And she also warns “A naive reading could take it as a comment about the great usefulness of wheelbarrows on small-holdings where chickens are kept.”
And then, here I am, now. No longer the teenage student, sure that someone has figured these things out, and I need to find them. I can’t see far enough ahead where Moses and Aaron are, nor can I see far enough back how close Pharaoh and those charioteers are getting. I’ve got my hasty bread and a few grabbed things in my little cart, pushing it across the mud. I think I must be naïve. Yes, Williams is a modernist, as committed to the new way of writing as clearly as possible, a proclaimer of “No ideas except in things,” which means in retrograde, the things must be the ideas. If he had wanted to write a manifesto, he could, and did in the other poem that stated that dictum.
The obscurity in this poem is that there is no obscurity other than what we bring to it externally. There is no allusive, secret meaning, other than the secrets of our tools and our companion responsibilities.
Yes, there is art in these 16 words. The line breaks that ask us to hold our gaze, even in the middle of words, the “so much depends” warning that bids us look. The choice to look at just these simple common things, is a choice, is an idea. I think the dolphin side of the parted sea has smarter companions than the mollusks side, but I am looking down at my wheelbarrow, and Williams,’ and saying, naively that it matters, even if I’m in the middle of the band, unable to see Pharaoh or Moses.
I’ve spent too long on the words again, but I feel I need to say a bit about the music I composed for my performance of “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I chose to use a twelve-tone row, a modernist musical idea from the same time as when Williams was writing the poem. It would be pretentious for me to say I got this from deep study of Schoenberg or Webern, though I’ve listened to a good deal of modernist music. However, “serialism” never stuck with me until I heard the prologue part of “This Town Is a Sealed Tuna Fish Sandwich” written by Frank Zappa. I’ve loved that piece from the first time I heard it.
Twelve-tone music subverts expectations of a tonal center or “important” scalar notes, so it can sound a little woozy or random, but, of course it has its pattern, by definition, which the mind’s ear can hear if you stop thinking in expectation of familiar patterns, which is the simple and profound thing it is asking you to do.
Once more we visit a song from the Dave Moore song-cycle looking at the innovative goth/horror persona created by Maila Nurmi in 1953-54. Today’s piece “Hollywood TV” continues Nurmi’s story as commerce finds a place for her Vampira character as it seeks to fill out the expanding television time slots.
In the 50s, the moving picture industry faced an existential crisis of its own: television was going to deliver its kind of entertainment right to people’s homes, no need to go to the theater, no need to pay admission, make your own popcorn, Philco Playhouse and chill.
One way the old entertainment empires sought to use the new TV medium was to sell rights to rebroadcast movies that had completed—sometimes, long-ago completed--their theatrical runs. One studio, Universal Pictures, wanted to monetize their classic horror pictures it had released back in the 20s, 30s, and 40s and so put together a package of these films for TV stations to buy and rebroadcast in 1956.
It’s hard to believe now, in an era when SciFi, Horror, and Fantasy are the dominant commercial film genres, that in the mid-50s these films were considered shoddy goods. Reflecting back to 19th Century characters and tropes even when they were made before WWII, they were not thought to the stuff that a forward-looking post-war world was looking for.
But wait, we’re in 1953-54. Even this is still in the future.
Nurmi had created the Vampira costume for a Hollywood Halloween costume party in 1953, and the story goes this novel combination of sex and death was noticed there by an entertainment figure, through which she was eventually connected with a TV station looking to broadcast old movies. The TV execs thought such old-fashioned and low-value fare needed something else to make it viable, a host to contextualize the old movies to be shown at night when such niche material could fill otherwise uncommercial air time.
So, in 1954, two years before the Universal “Shock Theater” package was offered, Vampira began hosting a show made up of old movies whose rights could be obtained on the cheap, with her character leavening the proceedings with quips and intentional perversity. This is an old show-business tactic, as even in vaudeville theater, a master of ceremonies might be called on to hype or explain the acts, or to fill time when a performer had dragged down the audience’s interest. And intentional perversity was decades old too, what with the Dada cabaret of the WWI years.
Even if this is recent history, in the lifetime of people still living, it’s hard to know how big the Vampira character’s impact was in her time. Her late-night show lasted about a year ending in 1955. A follow-up show with the character on another local station didn’t stick. During the years 1954-56, there was a substantial publicity push, a local Emmy nomination, a Life magazine profile, guest appearances in the Vampira persona on other TV shows; but there was the short run of the show, and a general tailing off of Nurmi’s celebrity and performance career afterward. How big were the waves in that ripple?
If we can’t see how big the first ripples are, we can see the waves that built off it, as they are substantial, and still rolling.
In 1956 came that Universal Pictures “Shock Theater” package, eventually followed by “Creature Feature” and others. Over the next decade, most major local TV markets gained a horror/SciFi host. The pattern was unmistakable. Costume. Macabre humor. Campy name. Maybe a little dry-ice fog, screeches and screams, and a haunted house décor. All parts of the Vampira scheme. What wasn’t copied? The Thanatos remained, however distanced by humor, but the Eros was toned way, way down, and the follow-on horror hosts were invariably male.
In pop music, the erotic and self-possessed element of Vampira saw a revival by the late 70s with Poison Ivy and the Cramps, and in the UK, bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees. Eventually a goth subculture and “look” developed often borrowing from first or second level influences of the Vampira character with various continental European influences.
It took a generation from the 50s before the female TV horror host was revived in 1981, back again in Los Angeles, with a character, Elvira, largely based on an updated Vampira. Nurmi had helped with the creation of the show, but had a falling out with the producers.
By the end of the 20th Century, the Vampira character was still being kept alive by a wordless cameo in a widely viewed “Worst Movie of All Time” “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” Irony wasn’t just a pose for the character, it was the way the character survived.
More irony: the mostly male 50s children who watched Vampira, Shock Theater, Creature Feature, and the other black and white movies rerun on TV at night past their bedtimes, had grown up and became the new Hollywood elite, making tens, and then hundreds of millions for a revived Hollywood, revising the tropes of the shoddy goods whose TV rights had been sold on the cheap.
If you take pre-Comics Code EC Comics attitude, the TV horror hosts and their old movies and modern descendants, add some bite-sized marketing from the candy merchants, and there you have modern American Halloween. If you walk by the rack of tacky vinyl and polyester costumes at the store, past the Star Wars characters in kid’s sizes, over to the adult-sized costumes, and there you see a “Sexy Vampire” hanging, black and low-cut, long, dark-haired wig included. A colored sheet suggests it worn by a thin young woman with red lipstick, white makeup and weaponized eyebrows. Think, then, of Maila Nurmi for Dave and me, won’t you.
Continuing our change of pace, temporarily stepping away from our usual spoken word and music combination, I’m going to dress-up once more for Halloween as a singer, which I fear is not a totally convincing costume. Today’s piece “Prevailing Winds” is the second cut from the song-cycle about ‘50s goth/horror innovator Vampira. Dave Moore, whose voice and words you may have heard here before, wrote the words for this piece, and I wrote the music and performed it. The first part, “Helen Heaven” was posted here Monday.
As I mentioned yesterday, the 1950s has, somewhat in retrospect, gained a reputation as a peaceful, relaxed, and satisfied time in the United States. When a political figure such as our current Presidential performer refers to “make America great again” it’s generally assumed that his clientele understands this as “like the 1950s” in hat-band shorthand.
But, as experienced, America in the 1950s was not so peaceful. The decade began with the Korean war, now commonly forgotten, but deadlier proportionately than the Vietnam war. Somewhat more so than the Vietnam war, and more like our current “war on terror,” the Korean War was viewed as only a small part of an open-ended global struggle against an evil multi-national enemy. And as the decade went on, there existed a widespread and increasing fear that the atomic weapons first unleased just prior to the decade, and held in a rough but uncertain balance by the central powers of the enemies, would return again, but in multi-fold form threatening worldwide destruction, threatening human survival.
On either side of Los Angeles, where Maila Nurmi was formulating her Vampira persona, these human-survival threatening weapons were being tested in deserts and on Pacific islands, right in the open air. Radioactive isotopes were measured in milk as Nurmi fashioned the dropping white décolletage of her costume.
As someone old enough to reminder those times, I’m often puzzled at the ebb and flow of nuclear worry in American minds. There have been times when it almost disappears, and times when it is so omnipresent that the topic is nearly as unavoidable in social and party conversation as the weather or sports teams. As this is being written, Korea and nuclear worries are on a slight upswing, and I have no way of knowing if this level is proportionate to the threat or not—but I do believe it’s still less amplified now than it was in 1953-1954 when the Vampira persona was being created.
The human condition is mortality, this does not change. Poets have spoken of this since before the time they could write their songs down. But the human condition in that time, the 1950s, was the first to consider humanity itself as mortal.
Let’s leave off those modernists of the era around WWI for a while, and move to a few songs about some midcentury mods. This is the time when popular culture mutated into something recognizable as ours, as it still is into this 21st Century.
Somewhere in this second decade of the 21st Century a new modernism is likely being born, but I do not know it yet. Back in the early 1950s people expected something new, perhaps as much or more than we expect change today in 2017. As it turns out, we may have not gotten all the change we thought we were due.
Today’s piece is the opening song in a song-cycle about one woman who had a moment in this moment of change in the early 1950s in Los Angeles/Hollywood. The woman was a second-generation Finnish-American, Malia Nurmi, who created a character that for a short time, just about a year, captivated TV audiences in Southern California with a strange take on sexuality and various horror tropes, blending in a beatnik/Dada critique of “normal” as a reaction to the unthinkable. The character was named “Vampira.”
Somewhere in the later 1960s it became a commonplace to view the 1950s as an era of calm, peace, satisfaction and complacency, and this characterization has only increased over time. But this was also the era just after a cataclysmic war ended with atom bombs, a horror that eventually moved from reality, to nightmares, to repressed acceptance, to forgetfulness and finally now again to present fears. This was the decade of a forgotten, brutal, war in Korea. This was an era when society tried to put back into the bottle the broadening social roles for women and Afro-Americans that WWII had allowed. This was the time that revealed the horrible efficiency of the extermination and slave labor camps, and the decade in which the utopian dream of Communism exposed its shames and shams. This was a deeply uneasy time when some feared everything “normal” was a dream and others saw clearly the waking hours outside the dream.
All of which makes this campy TV quipster host who created the makeup, costume and persona of Vampira seem inadequate to address this. Well, what is? As we move to celebrate Halloween, that strangest of holidays, where we make fun of our inability to escape fear, death, and too much candy, let’s reconsider her.
“Helen Heaven” has words written by Dave Moore, the alternate voice and writer/musician here at the Parlando Project, along with music written and performed by myself. This piece is the first song in the Vampira song-cycle, contrasting the LA-based white-dressed pop-religious phenomenon Aimee Semple McPherson with Nurmi/Vampira’s dark negative.
I’ve been a bit long-winded in the past few show notes, so a short-winded one about today’s piece. The words are another poem from Carl Sandburg, this time from his 1919 collection “Cornhuskers.” There’s not very many words to it, a warning that there are not many leaves left here in the upper Midwest.
I can compress talking about those words because I’ve already talked about Sandburg on the previous occasions when I’ve used his words here. In his poems of this era, he’s as perfect an imagist as any of the expatriates mixing up modernism in London and Paris around the same time.
Many of the Sandburg poems I’ve used previously have been from his landmark “Chicago Poems” collection, but Sandburg, a child of middle, rural Illinois, spent time across the Midwest in his youth, from urban centers to the farms and small towns. The poem I use today, “Autumn Movement,” is from that rural setting.
Images for autumn and fall foliage have been mined forever, which makes Sandburg’s key image here as unusual, even a century later, as T. E. Hulme’s red-faced farmer appearing as the harvest moon in his British autumn poem. Sandburg has the red and yellow of autumn leaves in a farm field vista as a yellow scarf with the copper color of a literally red-necked woman. So nearly has this skin color become an epithet, that few would think of using it today, as honest an image as it is.
Today’s audio piece is musically ars longa to the vita brevis of the words. I’ve been telling myself to allow space compositionally, and then going ahead anyway and filling things up like a compulsive cluttered room with only paths between piles of old newspapers. So, for this one, the drums (which are often quiet and spare) are the most dense element. I added a simple bass line played on my fretless bass, a theme played on a Telecaster, and a digital synthesizer part that is a mix of four different patches played together rather than filling up the space with multiple synth parts.
I was reminded of this poem, and Wallace Stevens in general, while writing about the 20 most anthologized modern American poems recently. It’s odd that I needed to be reminded of Stevens. His poems were always present in the anthologies of my school years, back in the last century, along with Frost (who I disliked when I was young), William Carlos Williams (who I didn’t understand), and Eliot (who I liked for his verbal music without much understanding). There must have been something about Stevens that attracted me, as when I recall the poems I wrote in my youth, they more often looked and sounded more like Stevens than those others. There’s a wit of a very contrarian kind that’s all over Stevens’ work, so I’m sure that was a big part of it, but I think it was also Stevens’ verbal music that pulled me in, and unlike Eliot’s, I (subconsciously) imitated Stevens.
I later read that Stevens walked to his famously conventional job as an insurance executive every day, and composed his poems in his head as his walked. This makes sense, as I did the same thing, with the two-footed meter of walking informing the rhythm from the soles of the feet up, rather than from the head down. Another thing about writing while walking: the music of that rhythm carries you into a more hypnotic and subconscious space were lines that sound good and fit to the beat are carried and held into memory more than carefully considered phrases that one would compose at the keyboard or with thoughtful pen in hand—and that same flow can knit together the unlike before thought can reject it.
If you take Stevens’ particular perverse wit, and meld it with composition of poems while walking, you have the recipe for a Wallace Stevens poem like this one.
The title of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” has that impish quality. It seems to be light-hearted. Who’s his consort, the Dairy Queen? Is his uncle the King of Burgers? Did he know Prince? Queen Be? Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Gelato. And the poem starts off as if we are in a variation of the nursery rhyme “Old King Cole, he was a merry old soul” by calling for the strongest man to crank the ice cream maker.
A digression: do 21st Century people even know what an ice-cream maker is? It’s a bucket, no larger than one used to mop the floor, filled with ice that surrounds a smaller metal canister with a hand-crank-driven paddle screwed into the top. Salt is poured onto the ice, melting it so that it can get the canister colder than zero centigrade, as the crank is turned to churn the mixture of sugar and cream. As the process continues, the contents of the cannister thickens and the force needed to turn the paddle increases. Even with a strong man cranking, the resulting ice cream will be softer than the concrete brick of modern ice cream, as that is a creature of modern refrigeration unknown in Stevens’ youth; but the cool, rich, sweet taste would also be all the rarer then too.
So back to the poem. We have the strong cigar-maker man churning, amidst young, common, unmarried women and boys bringing flowers. The resulting ice cream demonstrates Stevens comically expanded vocabulary, it’s “concupiscent,” lustfully good! Freud may have famously insisted that “a cigar is sometimes just a cigar,” but a multitude of Blues metaphors contemporary to Stevens would agree, this is a lusty scene.
And the title reappears. Pleasure, broadly drawn, is the ruler of all!
So far Stevens has only been perverse in the weird “Old King Cole” language of the revelry, capped off with the word that most of us can’t even pronounce, much less spell or define.
Bang! Into the next stanza. I had always thought “dresser of deal” was flowery poetic diction for “we need to deal with” the situation in this next scene, but it’s more of Stevens’ vocabulary quiz. “Deal” is an archaic term for cheap pine wood. The exquisite detail of the missing drawer pulls, so much like the shabby second-hand dressers of the bedrooms of my pre-IKEA youth, yields to the fullness of the scene: it’s a room with a dead body.
Digression again: my son bursts into the room where I am writing this. He has just heard a robocall barking “If you or your loved one is over 65, they have a 1 in 3 chance of falling. Don’t let that fall be their last. Press 1 to…” He’s laughing, and continues “…hear about our warning-thingy scam…”
I follow on with my additions “…and press 2 if you want him to die anyway since he’s not allowing you any screen time today….and 3 if you are hard-of-hearing and WOULD LIKE US TO REPEAT THIS MESSAGE LOUDER.”
Back to the solemn dead body, cold and dumb, being covered with a sheet from the dresser of deal that is poignantly too short to cover the feet. Stevens leaves the light on, we need to see this clearly. And the title returns, now a refrain, and in this new context, the ruler of all offers only fleeting pleasures that one strives for, passes through, and melts away.
Stevens arrives at the insurance company offices. He strolls in past the receptionist, arrives at his office. Warren G. Harding is President. He asks his secretary to take this dictation. Obedient to her accustomed role, she folds back the steno pad, pencil in hand. Did she care for his poetry that she transcribed? That would be immaterial, she has only to listen.
Two scenes. Two passing stations on a walk perhaps, or a flight of memories as lines emerge along steps. Only one more perversity to note, a puzzling line that looks like a typo: “Let be be finale of seem.” Let the steps the author is taking when he wrote this be our guide. One stride: “Let be”, then a double-time step: “be finale,” another step: “of seem.” I had never figured this line out, but someone on the Internet named Daniel E. Burke pointed me to this letter Stevens wrote in 1939. If Stevens had caught a crack in the sidewalk causing a hitch in his step, the line might have been more clearly composed as “Let being be the finale of seem,” but the Hartford sidewalks were too-well maintained, and Stevens never cared to be understood anyway, only listened to.