I’m going to ask you to not read these notes yet. Listen to today’s audio piece first at least once. It’s short, two minutes long, it won’t take long.
OK, now you’re back and you’ve listened to the piece at least once. Do you think the words were written recently? Do think it’s a satire, some kind of sly Machiavellian comment on a particular modern politician? Do you think it’s Donald Trump’s first draft of his recent speech to the Boy Scouts? Or perhaps is a secret litany of personal affirmations? It does at times seem like a twisted take on self-help.
So what is it?
It’s my quick and dirty attempt at a version of a section of the "Surrealist Manifesto" written by André Breton in the early 1920s. The Manifesto is sort of a grab bag, part a sincere plea for a deeper and broader application of imagination in art, part a catalog of examples of how unleashed imagination has already been applied, and part is indeed a parody of a certain genre of self-help, the kind published by occult gurus of the time.
My piece is taken from that parody segment, and I’ve departed from conventional translations in two ways. First, to disguise it, I removed one phrase specifically mentioning Surrealism, and secondly, I’ve chosen my own idiosyncratic translation of the phrase “Peau de l'ours” in it. This is a condensed version an old and French saying, “Don’t sell the bear skin before you have it.” (a French version of “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”) Breton may have been using that cliché to contrast with the religious campaign-promise of heaven, but he also could have been refereeing to a hedge fund of his time which used that exact Peau de l'ours” name. And critically, what the investor group bought (and later sold for tremendous profit) was modern French art. “Hedge fund” gave me both ideas in a way that would be meaningful to a 21st Century English speaker.
So Breton, as he often does in his pronouncements, is mixing the absurd, with recognizable satire, with sincere advice. But briefly, before I go, I ask you to think about a bigger question. What does it say that some modern artistic principles sound like they could be descriptions of Donald Trump’s (or other similar politicians) philosophy? Is it that Trump doesn’t have a philosophy, that he finds excuses or rationalizations? For past politicians, we would say they lack a sense of irony, but Trump speaks ironically so often that one wonders if there’s a word for unconscious irony. Or does it mean that the sincere iconoclastic individualism and commitment to their own personal freedom that 20th Century artists thought they needed as a corrective to disasters like WWI and a restrictive society and its expectations, is now leaching upward to more powerful men in conventional professions?
I promise you, we will end up today very close to the love song of the last episode, though we will travel a ways before we get there.
I’ve not featured any French writers yet with the Parlando Project, but as this summer has used the words of many 20th Century English poets, we may be overdue for that, as the start of that century found some of them looking to the French for some new ways to write.
French poets started to go “modern” before the British poets, around the same time that Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were making their own breaks with past practice in America, so they had a head start, and their avant-garde was way past the supply lines of conventional narrative and sentiment by the time the 20th Century really got rolling. The absurd casualties of WWI, largely fought in France and its neighboring countries, and so deadly to some of the generation of men doomed to fight in it, only accelerated the modernist direction away from the kind of meaning you might find in a political speech or battle plans.
This summer, 50 years ago, the Polish-French writer Guillaume Apollinaire coined a new word to describe a new way to approach the world in words: “Surrealism.” A few years later, his term was taken up by a group of artists who went about trying to practice a new idea, presented in 1924 as if it was a political manifesto, to write and create from “…The actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”
The Surrealists went on from there, going in various directions, becoming less an idea and more of a brand—but stop and think for a moment, that original idea, isn’t it powerful? The idea that there is a reality that we agree not to apprehend, not to speak of, that we constantly reframe our thoughts to, isn’t that idea political as well as aesthetic?
You take the idea of Surrealism, add music to it, and later that century you get Bob Dylan. You take the idea of Surrealism, apply it to the current reality, and you are woke, not from the dream, but to the dream that should not be denied.
Today’s piece uses the words of one of the French Surrealists, Paul Éluard. Éluard, like many of the British poets of this era, was another veteran of WWI. One story of his war service was that, since he was a writer, his military superiors assigned him to the office tasked with writing the official letters to the relatives of the casualties, and such was the efficiency of modern war that he sometimes needed to write 150 of them a day. After a year of this, he asked to be sent to the frontline trenches.
I have exposed you several times this month to pieces about the horrors of war and slavery, but I also told you we must travel a ways to get to today’s piece. After the war, as a founding Surrealist, Éluard produced verse with strange images and seemingly arbitrary combinations—Surrealist tactics to break the conventions—but his great subject, against the night, pain, and suffering, was love. Perhaps after those 150-letters-a-day forced march, he too wanted to look to war’s opposite.
“L’Amoureuse” (The Beloved) is one of Éluard's most famous early works, and uses my English translation of his words. The LYL Band performance of it was recorded live several years ago.
I said I would change things up last time, and by stepping back a few years, today’s episode does that.
How much different is “She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night” from the last few episodes? First off, we’ve left off from war. This is a love poem. Death appears in it only briefly passing—so fast it passes, as it can in a poem, you might not even notice it. And rather than being a piece by another poet, the words here are mine. We live here at the Parlando Project with the idea of presenting “other people’s stories,” but I also want variety, so I’ll make the exception this time, and present part of my story.
One of the modernist/Imagist ideas that Ernest Hemmingway liked to use in his early stories was to leave an essential detail out of story, and then to strive to write it so well that the power of that detail would become present subliminally.
“She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night” is an aubade, a traditional form of love poetry. An aubade features lovers awaking at dawn, and the poet lamenting that their night is over, so they must now part for their un-enchanted days. What do I think is different in my aubade?
Sixteen years ago, my wife died after a short and painful illness, not yet 44 years old. I cannot tell you all that means, but one thing I experienced in my grieving process was the question of where one goes from that stopped thing. After all, you are definitively stopped, you have no momentum in any direction, unlike in the normal flow of life. You can stay stopped, or move off in any direction.
I moved, and was moved, in the direction of falling in love again. There are some difficulties in that direction, knowing of love’s inescapable impermanence. Like the lover in an aubade, I knew now, deep in my soul and body, that love means that parting is intensified.
In the end, “She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night” is a love poem that hardly mentions death. I was trying to do that modernist/Imagist thing. Is death still there?
Alas, the other thing that I left out, is that other person, lying beside the speaker, stuffed with dreams no doubt with all the richness, sadness and choices of their life. My love poem fails, as some do, in that respect. Can it remain unsaid my partner chose to move, and move me, as well?
Here is one more war poem from WWI, this one by another soldier poet, Wilfred Owen.
Beside living with the trauma of his war service, Owen was another poet caught in the revolution as English poetry moved from old modes to newer modernist verse. Like his friend Siegfried Sassoon, he was a decorated soldier who came to broadly distrust the case for war. Unlike Sassoon, Owen did not take the risky public stand against the war while it was being fought; but also unlike Sassoon, his fate was to die at the front of the war. Owen’s war poetry was largely published after his death, with Sassoon’s assistance and promotion.
If WWI was billed as the war to end all wars, the anti-war poetry Owen and Sassoon wrote also spoke to universal themes. At least to what I’ve read, their poetry is not an argument against specific issues of their war, rather it’s an angry argument against war itself, and the associated patriotic justifications for sacrifice. Owen and Sassoon both wanted to rub their readers faces in the bloodied mud of the trenches.
It’s sometimes said that artists, if only they would happen to suffer the real struggles of non-artistic life, would see that art is only a trivial sideshow, inessential entertainment and decoration. Men like Owen are an example of how this is not necessarily so.
Today’s episode, “Strange Meeting,” shows Owen’s anger, but because he’s a poet not yet fully in the 20th Century style, he expresses it sounding like a 19th Century poet, more like a Keats or early Yeats. As I came to grips with this piece, I felt the thought and subject matter was sometimes obscured by its march of rhymes and occasional poetic diction—and though a poem’s music is subjective, “Strange Meeting” doesn’t consistently sing to me like Yeats does, but then Yeats is a very high standard to meet, and Yeats never lived the brutal fighting the war poets like Owen went through.
Speaking of music, I’m finding myself repeating ideas (or finding a style?) with the settings lately. “Strange Meeting” starts with sustained piano chords, unsteady strings, and a plaintive wind instrument (in this case, an English horn). But I felt that carrying that all the way through would work against the grit and bitterness of the story here, just as Owen’s poetic diction does, so for much of the middle section I break it down to just drums and bass.
I hope I’m not overwhelming regular listeners with the war poetry from WWI this month. Perhaps I can find a change of pace soon, and some new variations in my musical arrangements too.
It’s now a commonplace to note how divided the United States is politically. The way the story is told, there are now two tribes, each sure the other side is largely wrong. We are said to know this, even if we are less than sure about everything “our side” may say, even if we are skeptical, even critical, of some in our faction. You may not believe that this is true about you, but this is what is widely said, and you may say something like this about others, even if you do not believe it about yourself.
I’m about to simplify a story, condensing its humanity so that you will only see moments in several people’s lives. That means you are going to need to pay attention, because the things it may lead you think about are only going to be there for moment.
On a summer day, 177 years ago, a sheriff bearing a writ from a judge knocked on the door of a house on the banks of Lake Harriet, which was then on the outskirts of Minneapolis Minnesota. If you live in Minneapolis, perhaps you know this lake. It just so happens that I’ve spent many mornings this summer reading poetry beside it, as panting joggers and conversing walkers surround it like clockwork.
The judge’s writ commanded the appearance in court of a piece of evidence. As he knocked, that piece of evidence was being told by the people inside to run out the back door and hide. The evidence did not obey. The evidence’s name was Eliza Winston, a 30-year-old woman held as property by the family inside. By her home state of Mississippi’s laws, her mother would have been property too, and her children, if she would have any, would be property as well, the same as livestock on a farm.
How did she happen to be in Minnesota? The man that owned her had traveled up the Mississippi river with his family to escape the heat of the south’s summer, taking a steamboat as far north as the great river was navigable. For his and his family’s comfort, he had taken one of his slaves, Eliza Winston, with him. The laws of the state he traveled to explicitly forbade slavery, but three years earlier the national Supreme Court had ruled that a slave named Dred Scott remained property when he had been brought to Minnesota.
Living in Minnesota then were people allied with a faction that sought to end the practice of slavery. They were looking for people claimed as property to contest those claims. How did they view the slave owners? Of course, as evil you may think. Wouldn’t anybody? Somehow, Eliza Winston had made contact with these slavery opponents. One of them, William Babbitt, would swear out a complaint that her slavery on Minnesota soil violated Minnesota law.
Imagine if you could own something as useful as another human being as property, to have complete control over them. Wouldn’t that be useful; and as a business venture, potentially profitable? The faction that owned other people certainly felt that way. How did they view that other faction, the ones who sought to end that practice? They viewed them as wrong certainly, but they also saw them as annoying self-righteous busybodies that needed to be taught a lesson, a view that was sometimes shared even those that weren’t sure that slavery was a good and necessary thing.
Since Eliza did not hide, she was taken to directly to a courtroom. Despite the rapidity of the actions, the courtroom was packed with those from both factions. Eliza’s owner was there with his lawyer, who pointed out Dred Scott. The lawyer for Babbitt had testimony from Eliza Winston that she was indeed a slave, that she’d been passed around like property between several owners, and the lawyer stipulated that Minnesota’s constitution clearly forbade slavery in the state.
The judge ruled, that based on Minnesota law, Eliza Winston was now free. As soon as he pronounced, a clergyman in the crowd jumped up and condemned the decision as “unrighteous,” pointing out that, regardless of the state or federal law, Christianity and its scriptures approved of slavery. I don’t know more of what he said, but he could have claimed that Babbitt and his faction were worse than thieves and rustlers, in that they not only stole, they were self-satisfied in their actions. The crowd stirred at this, and then there was moment of calm in the summer courtroom. Eliza Winston’s owner walked over to the woman that he had owned like a horse or a cow, and he calmly asked her if she wanted to come back with him and return to Mississippi. And Eliza, no longer property, answered that she wished to be free and remain in Minnesota. As Eliza Winston left the courtroom, the Minnesota clergyman was still orating on the wrong that had been done to the slaveowner.
That night, those angry at the decision went out around the town looking for Eliza Winston. What would they have done if they had found her? One can only guess. They surrounded Babbitt’s house and battered down the door seeking Winston or Babbitt, and crying for blood. They similarly broke into another house seeking Winston. Winston, however had been moved somewhere else, and may have fled as far as Canada. A year later the Civil War broke out, and Winston, no longer property, became as if a ghost. There are no pictures of her, no tales of great or even small things that she may have done. Some even say she went back to the south after the war. In Minneapolis there is an inconspicuous historical marker about her case, placed along the Mississippi river that brought her here, and not much else.
Then last year Dave Moore was told a version of Eliza Winston’s story by a friend. The friend, or perhaps Dave, got a couple of the details wrong, and I have left a lot of details out of the story as well—that may not matter. Dave was struck, mixing Eliza’s story and the tale of his friend choosing to tell him this story together, and then forming this lovely, vulnerable song.
Here’s what I ask you, now that you’ve heard my telling of Eliza Winston’s story. If you ever find yourself in a world of factions, and you find yourself in one of those factions, perhaps not sure of what you think, but sure that the other side is clearly more wrong. Ask yourself what Eliza’s story, and the story of slavery tells you.
If you would like to read more of the details of Eliza Winston's story, William Green has the most complete telling I've seen here.
Anyone remember those sentry questions that would be used in to determine if some straggler in the soldier’s darkness was an American or foreign foe? “Who plays first base for the New York Yankees?” they’d ask.
Native Iowans have a similar method to catch those from out of state. They might start right off with asking about the state capital. “Dezz Moynens.” Wrong! Not an Iowan. “Day Moyne.” Native. Poweshiek, that fine county with a Brooklyn no one knows. “Poe’s He Eck.” Nope. “Powa Sheek.” How about that nice small town founded by lost Swedes in Boone County, Madrid. “Ma Drid?” Outsider, it’s “Mad Rid!”
While overseas in France in the early 1920’s Stephen Vincent Benet wrote his own catalog of place names that I have adapted for today’s piece “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names.” In it, Benet contrasts American place names with European ones, perhaps to staunch a little homesickness on his part, but also as part of his claim to something he and Carl Sandburg helped to define in the first half of the 20th Century, something that’s now used to label a musical genre: “Americana.”
To briefly define Americana, it’s the featuring of things that are distinctive to our country, most often things that are in the past tense, things that we are asked to pay attention to as our heritage. If these things seem a little odd, old-fashioned or provincial to us, that’s the tang the artist wants us to taste.
I came upon Benet’s poem after reading a Phillip Roth memoir in the New Yorker last month, where Roth takes off from Benet’s poem to discuss how a literary sense of a greater America he did not yet know expanded his horizons westward from his childhood neighborhood in Newark New Jersey. Roth remembered how, in the 1940s, even though one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world was a river and a marsh away from his town, New York City was a world away, perhaps as far away as America seemed to Benet in Paris.
Roth doesn’t mention it, but as I read Roth’s piece, I thought of Benet’s story “By the Rivers of Babylon,” were a future neo-indigenous youth ventures across the same river into the ruins of New York on a vision quest.
In the nearly 100 years since it was written, Benet’s “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names” has not fallen to ruins, but it has gained some tarnish or patina. I’ve cut a stanza because the notables referenced are now obscure, and I modified another line in it, not out gentility, but because it frankly stuck in my craw. By chance, one of the obscure and colorfully named towns in Benet’s catalog, French Lick, now is slightly better known as the hometown of basketball great Larry Bird—but that’s the not the greatest resonance the poem has picked up over the years.
As the poem builds to its ending, Benet uses something like the thought used by Rupert Brooke in his famous war poem “The Soldier”, the idea where even if Brooke was to die and his body was buried overseas, that his Englishness would remain. Benet sets up a series of places he might be interred in England or Europe, and ends with a line that later became the title of a landmark book about the cruel and unjust treatment of indigenous Americans. Did Benet choose to end his poem with the evocative place name of Wounded Knee because of the massacre that occurred there a bit more than 30 years before he wrote his poem, or was it only something that caught his eye on the page of an atlas? I don’t know enough about Benet to say. His litany of American places does include “a Salem tree” which sounds to me like a reference to the Massachusetts witch trials and executions. If we are to remind ourselves of the greatness in our heritage, we are likewise obligated to remind ourselves of the sins there too.
In my performance, I made the choice that, author’s intention or not, modern audiences will hear it as intentional, so I should perform it that way. The American name of my home state, Iowa, comes somehow from it’s indigenous people, but over 400 years passing, we no longer know what it’s meaning is. How strange to say that I come from a place of no meaning, knowing the pass-word to tell the magic ghosts of native sentries, but knowing not what I’m saying.
In the notes to the past few episodes I’ve mentioned how Ezra Pound was more than an exemplary writer, theorist, and promoter for the early 20th Century modernist poetic movement that he called Imagism. He was also an excellent editor.
His most famous blue pencil job remains T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” but he also worked with H.D. and Ernest Hemingway, teaching with his editing how to pare away extra words, overused similes, and extraneous authorial sentiment. And once shown, those writers we able to use Pound’s insights to do the create their own pared down, modern styles.
In the last episode, I noted that Pound had been critical of some WWI poems written by Rupert Brooke. Here for example is the first part of Brooke’s most famous war poem “The Soldier:”
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
Written as England entered into WWI, and as Brooke himself rushed to enlist, this poem was embraced by a patriotic public almost immediately. If one shares it’s sentiments, the actual technique of the poetry probably admits no impediments to a reader, even today—but ask yourself, does it have a sense of actual immediacy? As you read, do you share with a fellow human, feeling, seeing, smelling, this experience? What I get as I read it is a thought, where a soldier thinks that if he dies in battle and his body rots overseas, that his body will homeopathically retain its English birth and experience, and that experience, it is inferred, is worth dying for. Why? Well because the poet says so, and he says it with rather polite poetical words. “Die” and “dust” are perfectly good, simple words, but as a description of death and decomposition, they are surrounded by forevers, flowers, air, rivers, and sun—all presumably sweet and genteel.
Rupert Brooke died at age 27 of an illness he contracted while on his way to the Gallipoli campaign in his war, but what if he, like Yeats, had continued to live and react to the developments of his young century? And what if Ezra Pound had gotten a hold of him and showed him how to punch up his verse?
Today’s piece shows what could have happened. One of the last things Brooke wrote was this fragment written on the troop ship in the month he died. Here’s the original:
I strayed about the deck, an hour, to-night
Under a cloudy moonless sky; and peeped
In at the windows, watched my friends at table,
Or playing cards, or standing in the doorway,
Or coming out into the darkness. Still
No one could see me.
I would have thought of them
--Heedless, within a week of battle--in pity,
Pride in their strength and in the weight and firmness
And link'd beauty of bodies, and pity that
This gay machine of splendour 'ld soon be broken,
Thought little of, pashed, scattered. . . .
I could but see them---against the lamplight--pass
Like coloured shadows, thinner than filmy glass,
Slight bubbles, fainter than the wave's faint light,
That broke to phosphorous out in the night,
Perishing things and strange ghosts--soon to die
To other ghosts--this one, or that, or I.
What can I, acting as Pound might have, do with this? Well first I can locate the charged images in it, hidden as they are inside Brooke’s extraneous comment. What are they? The soldier pacing at night on his troop ship. He’s staring back inside the ship, looking at his fellow recruits on the way to their first battle. If we have any empathy as readers, we don’t need to be told anything about what he’s feeling if it can be conveyed by what he’s seeing. What are our charged images? The troops are playing cards, games of soldier’s chances. They can’t see the poet, and he can see them only imperfectly, backlit by uneven lighting, “coloured shadows,” which is a great image obscured by all the muck about it. And he sees the faint light of a wave’s phosphorescence as bioluminescent plankton are sweep aside by the wake of the ship. The soldiers, and the poet himself, are already in the course of war, like ghosts, fleetingly seen, or only partially and incorporeally seen.
Have you tried the exercise where you make a poem by taking a marker and blacking out most of page of text, revealing a poem could be in what remains? That’s like what I did with Brooke’s fragment:
On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli
I strayed about the deck, an hour,
Under a cloudy moonless sky.
Peeped in at the windows,
Watched my friends
At table, playing cards,
Standing in the doorway,
Out into the darkness.
No one could see me.
I could but see them
Against the lamplight,
Thinner than glass.
A wave's faint light,
Broken to phosphorous.
Perishing things and strange ghosts
Steaming to other ghosts,
I removed over a hundred words that didn’t need to be there, which covered up what did need to be there. I don’t need to say that these things relate to each other, putting them in a short poem together makes that clear. I added only one word, choosing to add “steaming” instead of just “to other ghosts” because it’s an action word, and because “steam,” though active and industrious, is another thing that dissipates and disappears.
I have two unfair advantages over Rupert Brooke as I transformed his words. First, he died in service to his country shortly after writing this, so he didn’t have the chance to revise his fragment. Secondly, the place he was going, Gallipoli, and the outcome for so many British and Commonwealth soldiers who were deployed there is now infamous for poor tactics and horrendous casualties. I can simply use “Gallipoli” in the title and magnify the dread of soldiers on their way to battle.
Today’s episode is dedicated to Julie Shapiro, who introduced me to Eric Bogle’s “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” This is a song about Australian troops at Gallipoli, and though I can link to one of my favorite singers, June Tabor’s, version of it, there is nothing but my memory to testify to the devastating version Julie used to perform.
Long post again, no time to talk much about the music for this performance. Perhaps I don’t need to tell, you just need to hear.
Here’s one more piece from Ezra Pound’s 1915 breakthrough collection “Cathay,” a war story he called “South Folk in Cold Country.”
At the time Pound was working from Ernest Fenollosa’s, and Fenollosa’s Japanese teachers,’ notes to translate classic Chinese poetry, World War I had broken out, and England, where Pound was living, had mobilized to fight this war. Like William Butler Yeats (with whom Pound was staying for part of this time) Pound did not want to take a side in the war. Not only skeptical of the war’s patriotic rationales, Pound also wanted to continue to focus on his modernist artistic revolution.
Earlier in the Parlando Project, we've seen how Yeats responded at the beginning of the war. His “On Being Asked For a War Poem” cloaked his disdain for statesmen’s’ rhetoric while seeming to take a aesthete’s stance of artistic superiority and inferiority.
Pound felt similarly. He may not have been sure, at first, of the what he would eventually call lies by the politicians by the end of the war, but his poetic BS meter was immediately sure that the patriotic verse being produced to ennoble the war was false ethically and artistically. But Pound also recognized that any poetry he would write in such a charged environment would be inescapable seen in the context of the war.
Still, he was wary of writing about war as a civilian who had never fought in battle. At one point, he reported he had tried to enlist, but was turned down due to his (then neutral) American citizenship. At another point, he wrote a review critical of Rupert Brooke’s war poetry, only to have Brooke, who was serving in the British armed forces, die while in service, leading Pound to qualify that he was only criticizing the poetry, not the citizenship.
So as Pound created and promoted Imagism, his vision of new modernist poetry by recreating classical Chinese poetry in English, he came upon a solution. He would use the Chinese poets, both as the model for his new kind of verse and as a way to comment on the war.
Today’s episode is an example of how Pound went about those two things, once again translating and transforming the work of 8th Century Chinese poet Li Bai.
“South Folk in Cold Country” is an account by Li Bai of a military campaign in the north of China that had occurred almost a thousand years before he wrote. Pound, taking this for his modernism, has the soldiers who speak of their war experience say nothing of what they are feeling. There is not a word of them saying they are tired, confused, frustrated, or suffering, but their world is described by them as the image of all these things. While Li Bai/Pound’s “River Merchant’s Wife” reads musically off the page, despite being “free verse” in English, “South Folk in a Cold Country” has a more abrupt and doubtful music. Pound was trusting Li Bai and his own artistic sensibilities so that he might get some of the war experience right.
When I first read “South Folk in Cold Country” this year I thought: this sounds like a bag of fortune cookies mixed in with Ernest Hemingway. Either or both of those comparisons may sound dismissive to you, but I suspect the best fortune cookie aphorisms have some relationship, however strained, to the concision of classic Chinese poetry, and Hemingway, however familiar he may seem to us now, was using Pound’s ideas as part of what was to be Hemingway's revolution in prose. Thanks to Hemingway, and in turn, to Pound who directly influenced and taught him, we now are not surprised by representations of war, violence, and death that assume concise description and charged observation can be truer than superfluous remarks by the author.
I did wonder about the General Rishogu mentioned at the end the piece. His Chinese name (remember, Pound was working from notes of Japanese scholars, not Chinese ones) was Li Guang, and his story is here. I like this as an ending. I’m not sure if Li Bai’s soldiers who speak in this piece are using Rishogu/Guang as an example of the hard fate of soldiers; or if they are saying, after what we’ve been through, making all those rapid marches to make Rishogu/Guang’s name, who among them will care about the general’s death. On the odds, I’ll take the later.
Just after the start of the 20th Century two teenagers met at the University of Pennsylvania. One was 16 years old, a smart and cocky boy without much in the way of money, who had somehow managed admission to the University at such a young age. The other was 15 and the only daughter of an astronomer and professor at the college. So devoted was the girl’s father to his astronomy, that it’s told that his wife needed to come by during the colder months with a kettle of hot water to unfreeze his eyelashes from the eyepiece of his telescope. This professor was the enlightened sort of early 20th century father who believed in women’s intellectual equality. He dreamed that his daughter would become another Marie Curie.
However, the two teenagers soon fell in with each other, and science was not in their bond. Poetry and the arts were. A year or so later, a new freshman arrived at the University to study medicine. That freshman was William Carlos Williams, and he would complete his studies and become a pediatrician and family doctor who practiced for decades in Patterson New Jersey while writing purely modern poetry. The boy and the girl fell in love, and were secretly engaged, knowing that the boy’s lack of money and established career would prevent the girl’s father from giving permission of them to marry.
The girl grew up and was sent to Bryn Mawr, a woman’s college that was known for having a tough “men’s curriculum,” following her father’s hope that she would become a scientist. There she met Marianne Moore, who also became a noted modernist American poet, but at Bryn Mawr she failed in her studies. The American oracle Barbie would later proclaim: “Math is hard!” and a career in science was out.
But wait. What of that cocky boy? Oh no, he’s gone to England! And double oh no, he now engaged to another woman there. After all this, we can now begin our story again.
This now young woman who had already met and befriended William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, went to England to meet back up with the young man she had fallen in love with as a teenager. The young man was Ezra Pound, and the young woman was Hilda Doolittle—but she wouldn’t be much longer.
Pound was in England trying to stir up a poetic revolution, something that would forge past the reformation of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites and give poetry a fully modern cast. Hilda showed Ezra some of her new poems, and Ezra did three things that he would do repeatedly for other poets in the next couple of decades.
He immediately recognized that Hilda was writing the kind of fresh, spare, honest poetry that he thought necessary to break the grip of the past. He would see to it being published.
After admiring it, it took his pencil too it, and slashed out parts of the already concise poems. I can hear some of you drawing a breath on that, considering the sexual politics, ready to cry “Asshat!”—but that’s Pound, even with poets of genius: cut it, pare it down, make it new, not one extra word. A few years later he’d do the same thing to T.S. Eliot, and the surviving variorum manuscripts show why Eliot called Pound “The Better Maker” of “The Wasteland.” Pound’s editing pencil seemed to teach like the sensei’s stick, and once shown, poets like Hilda Doolittle and Eliot understood how to do the same thing themselves.
And then he took that editing pencil and signed Hilda’s poems “H.D. Imagisite.”
That last move was another part of Pound’s talents. He was probably more successful in launching other poet’s careers than he was his own. He had a shrewd promoter’s eye. “Imagiste” or “Imagist” was the name Pound would give to the modernist poetic movement that would during the years of WWI as radically reshape English poetry as the war would reshape the maps of the world, and here he was saying, rightly, that H.D.’s poems would be the ne plus ultra of that movement. As a name, H.D. was as pared down as the new poetry would be. If he’d lived long enough to see video screens with 1024 lines, he would have said calling them HD for “High Definition” a prophetic tribute to his call for seeing things truly. And H.D. masked Hilda’s gender, still important in a world where women were widely thought to be incapable of great art. The former Hilda Doolittle didn’t object. She’d never liked the family name (“Do-Little” she thought it scanned) and besides, her sexual identity and friendship affinities were at least HD.
Let me admit that this post is unfair to H.D., the writer of the words of today’s piece. We’ve gone past my customary length limits and we’ve only barely touched on H.D.’s talents and extraordinary life. I’ll need to revisit her work soon and give H.D. her due.
What can I can about today’s piece “Heat?” Well it’s an appropriate July poem, and the titular heat, in true Imagist fashion is both a closely observed thing: actual summer heat, and an image that, without simile or extra framing, is imbued with complexity. Last episode we had Pound/Li Bai, two men, showing desire and longing in the “River Merchant’s Wife” with only a few actual named emotions or feelings. H.D., the better Imagist, shows female desire with not a single named emotion. The final phrase “that presses up and blunts/the points of pears/and rounds the grapes.” is sensuous beyond words—it’s only 13 words to be beyond after all—and with four p and s sounds it holds four kisses.
Today’s episode “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” has a very complicated history. I can’t even say “Ezra Pound’s ‘The River Merchant’s Wife”—though he’s often listed as the author.
Let’s begin, as a river or a journey might, at the beginning. Back in the 9th Century in China there were two great poets. One of them we’ve already met there: Du Fu. He was known for his wisdom and level-headedness. The other was Li Bai (his name is also written in western letters a Li Po and Li Bo, and in Japan as Rihaku) who was known for his more excessive existence. In China both have been continually revered, but in early 20th Century Europe or America, they were nearly unknown. Only scholars interested in off-beat subjects knew of these men’s work.
One such scholar was an American, Ernest Fenollosa, who had traveled to Japan and become deeply immersed in Japanese culture, and as a sidelight to that, he also was exposed to Chinese culture., but early in the 20th Century, Fenollosa was one of a group of Americans living in England. We’ve met others here who were part of this “reverse British Invasion” of Americans: Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot—and you’ll soon get to meet another, H.D. Fenollosa then died in 1908, still in London.
Here’s were something fateful happened. Fenollosa’s widow, for some reason, gave Ezra Pound a bunch of her late husband’s papers. Pound was a young man who was trying his damnedest to start some kind of artistic movement in London. In the papers were scholarly prose translations of Li Bai’s poems done by Fenollosa and two of his Japanese associates, Mori and Ariga.
Pound fell upon these scholar’s notes. He’d already sought out other old poetry for inspiration for his revolution (much as the Pre-Raphaelites had looked backwards for something fresh), but in this old Chinese poetry he found what he was looking for. It was concise. It was free of centuries of cruft that English poetry had accumulated. And Pound naïvely felt that the poems themselves grew out of the ideograms for their words, Chinese characters which had evolved from drawings of objects. He had found his poetic revolution. Poems should be constructed of little more than images. Not images in the sense of elaborate similes or strained allegories, images in the sense of a presentation of the direct observation of the poet, unadorned. Pound published what he created out of those scholars’ notes as a ground-breaking poetry collection “Cathay,” and he quickly began to compose his own modernist poems using his epiphany.
If Fenollosa hadn’t died in London, and if his widow hadn’t given this tranche of papers to an artistic provocateur such as Pound, it’s possible that Li Bai would be no better known in English today than he was in 1908, and it’s even more likely that poetry in English from that point on would have evolved differently.
Seems like a miracle when such things line up, doesn’t it? Well, here’s something as miraculous: though "The River Merchant’s Wife’s” source was written over 1200 years ago in a culture so far removed from America that the childhood legend was that one would need to dig a hole through the center of the Earth to get there, even though it comes to us filtered through non-Chinese scholars, and even though the particular words I’ll use today to express it were written by an avant-garde poet whose work remains little-read and understood today, many people have an immediate deep emotional response to this poem the first time they hear it.
Isn’t that odd? All that strangeness in customs, place-names, time, provenance—and yet more: it’s a poem of female desire written in the voice of young woman by a man, and translated and transformed by men. And yet, woman and men, young and old, hear it, and they feel the pangs of desire and separation just as much as any 9th Century resident of China—even though the poem, following the tenants of what Pound would call “Imagism,” barely mentions the speaker’s emotions (“bashful,” “desired,” and the only present-tense one, “hurt.”)
I know I felt those things when I first heard it, aged perhaps 21 on a sad journey with a young woman. I hear it now as an old man too, and think once again of my friend John, and of China. The place, Cho-fu-Sa, that the river merchant’s wife says she will go out to meet her husband is, I’m told, hundreds of miles from the named village in the poem. What is such distance to the heart?
With today’s episode, we’ve reached the 100th official episode of the Parlando Project, where we mix words from many sources (mainly poetry) with various kinds of music. For the 100th episode I’ve decided to feature an older recording of mine, almost 10 years old, of my performance of Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird,” because it marks some of the initial ideas that lead me to this ongoing Parlando Project.
Frost’s “The Oven Bird” is a devastatingly accomplished lyric poem written early in the 20th Century. The rhythm of the lines both grooves and varies itself, like the best music, and the rhyme scheme is elaborate, yet it never falls into forced rhyme. Frost’s language here is so plainspoken, ironically saving the fanciest and longest word for the poem’s last line. Frost is as rigorous a modernist as any of his contemporaries in the Imagist school. He’s as willing as any of them to hack away all the overused and overgrown 19th century “poetic language” and to use no word more than needed, but he does it here while writing a sonnet in rhymed metrical verse that sounds as natural as any free verse.
Allow me to indulge for minute my musical interests for a moment. What Frost does here (and elsewhere) is like what John Coltrane did shortly before changing his focus to what was to be called “free jazz,” where melodic freedom was stressed by radically simplifying the underlying harmonic structure. Coltrane wrote and recorded the most devilish difficult set of rapid chord changes constantly shifting the harmonic center, an obstacle-course of a composition called “Giant Steps”, and then proceeded to improvise over it as if it was no matter to him to make those changes. Like Coltrane, Frost could seem free, natural, and innovative, while writing inside a constraining form. This sort of kindred accomplishment speaks to what attracts me in the Parlando Project to equally privileging music and words.
“The Oven Bird” has a reputation as a downbeat poem, and while Frost will not sugar-coat the human condition, I did not, and still do not, find it so. In “The Oven Bird” Frost draws our attention to a bird that sings on, past the promising days of spring, and whose song is none-the-less, loud and insistent, even though he’s singing in a season where he might well feel out of place and out of time for song. Then in the closing section we’re first told that the future holds the fall season—and by extension, both the fallen state of man and the death cycle of nature—and “the highway dust is over all.” Some have read that line as Frost noting the coming of the 20th Century roads that will close out even more forest and bring some measure of end to the natural world. I think instead the “highway dust” is more at a statement of the death of all living things (dust implies in my reading “to dust”) and that dust is the dust of a set, laid out, road.
Finally, Frost hits us, and me specifically near 10 years ago, with his conclusion—one that says much for this project that seeks to find “The place where music and words meet.” He says those of us, also mid-summer and mid-wood who listen knowing these things, sharing the bird’s predicament, should know that the bird has these teachings to pass on to us, “He knows in singing not to sing” (a zen koan of a line) and that the present question is “what to make of a diminished thing.” What a progression to this, from the plainest language with simple words never more than three syllables long, singing us the oldest cycle known to self-conscious humans—and then Frost gives us a line suitable for meditative thought and a question.
This is where I break from those who see this as a despairing poem about death, failure and decline. The poem asks what to make of that, offering the example to loudly sing.
Today in the United States is Independence Day, a day celebrated with summer cookouts and fireworks explosions. Like many obligatory holidays in our modern age, what we are celebrating becomes obscure. Yes, Americans know it’s Independence Day, but what we think of as we celebrate is a mélange of things.
What makes up this celebratory mixture? We celebrate the warmth of summer, particularly here in the northern parts of the US where eating outside is a special season. Our children are celebrating what still seems like an endless summer away from school. Stores have banners of firecrackers and flags luring shoppers who have the day off from work. And we celebrate a diffuse patriotism affordable because America is a preeminent, powerful nation. Our modern patriotism is not short of convictions—far from it, our country is prominently divided by convictions—but that too is possible by the relative wealth and power of today’s America.
But the event we are celebrating is a sharp and definite thing. 241 years ago a group of Americans started an anti-colonial movement, and in the furtherance of that, they soon were to found the first modern republic. Those who did this many years ago perhaps did not know, or even think of themselves as anti-colonialists. Some merely had issues with particular colonial authorities and decisions. Some were indeed bound up in an immense evil of colonialism, human slavery exploiting yet other peoples and nations. Still, we should seek to understand them as their idea became understood through the Declaration of Independence they signed today: that the rights of kings and empires were not heaven’s design—rather, human rights were.
And as their rebellion against kings and empires evolved, it strikingly lead—not to the setup of a new king, or a new, locally-sourced strongman—but to a new form of government, a republic. Once again, these were not perfect men—their government “Of the people, for the people” was at first for white male men of property—but they were men of such devotion to the republican idea that they would not let even the worthiest of their lot become king. That was unprecedented, and even in all the time since, not one in ten or one in a hundred rebellions immediately ends in such a way.
I know not all who read this are Americans, but those are the two remarkable things that we celebrate here in my country today. And of these two things, the second is the most rare, and the thing we must take care to carry within us: that winners are not rightfully kings.
That reminds me, there was another Independence Day tradition, one that has fallen by the wayside: the patriotic speech in the town square. I guess I’ve just revived that. Today’s audio piece is based on another text by Dave Moore, but it’s my music and performance of it. When I asked Dave about “Implications of Fireworks” a few years back, he indicated it was more or less a diary of his impressions of a July 4th he had experienced. As filtered by Dave’s mind that day, those holiday explosions, cracks, and meat smoke brought different, less celebratory, feelings. If our independence was won with cannon and gun fire—if it’s maintained today by the same, and also with bombs made of seeds of sunfire—it is also must be maintained by, and be for, something more than that.
The end of the poem I feature today (“A New Colossus”) has become, slowly, over years, a sort of fourth American credo to go with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and yet it’s only its last lines that are widely known, thanks in part to a lovely musical setting of that part of the poem by popular songwriter Irving Berlin.
As a person who has edited other works for length to fit them into the focus of the Parlando Project, I can see why Berlin made his choice. The ending is the payoff of the poem, a charged and memorable statement. Most poets could only hope for as much as this: that many readers or listeners will remember at least a line or two of this ending, even after hearing it but once.
I am going to present the whole poem in my setting however. It’s only a sonnet, a 14 line poem after all, and there’s some good stuff in the setup. First off, it’s an independent American poem to its core, starting by dissing the glories of ancient European culture and one of the “7 Wonders of the Ancient World.” And its author, Emma Lazarus, also stands forthrightly for the power of women to express a controversial political opinion, though this poem was written in the 19th Century when women had no right to vote. And although this is not a modernist poem, such as those that would be written 40 or 50 years later, the lesser-known part of the poem contains one powerful compressed image, a flame of fiercely desired freedom that is “imprisoned lightning.”
Honoring that image, I’ve chosen to not present this piece as a musty patriotic homily, but as the impassioned cry that it was meant to be. And besides, the sentiments of this poem are likely now as controversial as ever. Irving Berlin presented the excerpted ending as a chorus of hope. I take the whole of it and pierce it with Telecasters, drums and bass.
Back when I was kid there was something we were taught to be concerned about, our “vocation.” This was somewhat like the perennial question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but with a religious and spiritual aspect.
As the word “vocation” suggests, we, while still children, were asked to consider our calling, what task God would ask us to do with our lives. Yes, there as an expectation inherent in that, that some of us would find that we had been called by God to become Christian clergy, but at least in my small town and church, this was not set out as the answer most of us were to find. It was assumed that each of us would obtain a distinct answer fitting to our talents and the universe’s needs.
The folks who provided religious instruction in my town were practical people, and I couldn’t picture any of them expecting us children to be visited by spirit birds, or hear mystic voices to lead our country into battle. Rather they expected a small inner voice to whisper to us that we should be family farmers, or mechanics, or nurses and so forth. In my family, I could look to a grandfather who I never knew, who was called to the Christian ministry, or to an uncle who followed his father’s path, or to the more complex stories of my parents, whose vocational path I’ll defer talking about for reasons of space now. It never occurred to me, but I could have asked my teachers or myself about my great-grandfather and namesake, who would have had to have been called to be a common laborer by this scheme. Somehow this talk of calling and vocation seemed a bit grand a process for that.
I never knew what to answer that question with until my late teens when I decided that I would be a poet. That’s certainly a grandiose enough answer for this religiously-infused process, but even in my naive youth I knew that meant I’d be doing something else besides with my lifetime. So, a calling, but no answer to what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Most decisions to become an artist of any kind expose a person to things that will mess up one’s life. First off, you are going to do something that is likely unlikeable—you are going to privilege your own interpretations of our common life as somehow more valuable than modest silence or undecorated space. Even successful artists most often have a majority of people judging what they produce as not worthy of their time, or generically replaceable by something similar but different from what you do. And these odds of rejection, combined with the concentration of effort needed for much artistic work, make many artists defend their self/center with self-centeredness.
So there, as so often here in the Parlando Project, I’ve violated one of the principles that I set out to follow: I’ve spent time here with my story, talking about myself. Alternate Parlando Project presenter Dave Moore avoided this in today’s episode “Wally Wood” which Dave gave the longer title “Wally Wood’s Co(s)mic Philosophy.”
Here’s what Dave had to say about the piece:
“Wallace Wood was one of the great comic book artists of the fifties and sixties. His detail work for EC Comics and Mad is still astounding to look at. Like many, he was also an alcoholic, and increasingly bitter as he aged. His words in the song are from a late interview in some fanzine.
I can't draw, so far be it from me to draw conclusions about success or happiness. Or the scope of a talented artist's frustrated Fifties ambitions. What strikes me most are the words ‘And yet’ after a pause. No matter what he says, no matter how things ‘work out,’ it was worth it for me and all the thousands of others who enjoyed his work. Go look him up, you won't forget him.”
What did Wally Wood add the “And yet” to? Listen and find out.