We’re approaching the halfway point in the Parlando Project’s first year, and my plans for 2017 are to feature more 21st century words, when and if I can get permission from publishers/authors to use them here. Today’s episode features words from the first “external” 21st Century author to be used here: Phillip Dacey.
This year has been much commented upon for the death of musician/lyric writers, two great cultural stylists and movers, David Bowie and Prince, foremost among them. It would be careless to extend the list of 2016’s lost musician/poets for fear of who would drop off the bottom for reasons of length. After all, Merle Haggard or Phife Dog or Greg Lake mean as much or more to some listeners as Prince or Bowie. For me personally, two Fall 2016 musician/poet deaths hit me with specific force: Leonard Cohen and Mose Allison. You might have guessed that, for this is the place “Where Music and Words Meet”—though both are better composers than generally realized, both Cohen and Allison were known for their lyrics.
But that’s not exactly why. You see Mose Allison and Leonard Cohen shared a writing sensibility that I particularly prize: they’re funny as hell. “Funny as hell”—not as merely the common idiom— “Funny as hell,” in that both saw clearly the fallen human limitations and made us laugh at it. Laughter can be a good teacher, and as the profoundly comic blues sensibility tries to teach us, even what we can’t learn or think our way out of can be better endured knowing that it’s not right, that it’s incongruous, illogical, unexpected—in other words, that it’s funny.
The importance of our musician/poets may be falling in the 21st Century, though the speed of that decent is hard to judge, as we, their human society, are falling too. And if we look below we see the poets of the past: Dickinson, Whitman, Keats, Blake, Frost, Sandburg, Yeats, Eluard and all their heavenly host, and Shakespeare, Sapho, Basho, Homer, Li Bai, and many more that we cannot name and have never heard. We are falling toward all of them.
And Phillip Dacey falls with us, and he smiles “Look, we are all falling.”
Dacey too is funny as hell. So if you are coming to this podcast from a musician/poet listenership, you could think of Phillip Dacey as a Midwestern Leonard Cohen without all the sackcloth and ashes; or that Dacey is Mose Allison without the constantly modulating piano. And there’s another difference: Dacey’s poems find forgiveness more consistently and honestly than Cohen or Allison, or most any other writer.
We are all falling, and Phillip Dacey falls with us, and he says “I’ll bet there is an end to this fall, but who knows?”
Butterly: Upon Mistyping Butterfly is a love poem based on simple mistake (as love sometimes is). Phil, like Leonard Cohen—but like Phil—wrote a great many love poems. This one is uncomplicated (as love sometimes is). Mose Allison, wrote far fewer love songs, though I can think of one that is goofy and joyful, like these words of Dacey’s.
It’s not a coincidence that I put my remembrance of Philip Dacey as one of the first Parlando episodes, because when I heard that Phil had died I was working on gathering, performing, and producing material for the Parlando Project. I’m grateful for the permission to present the LYL Band performing my reading of this poem of Phil’s. If you like this, you may want to seek out one of Philip Dacey’s books or read more about him online at the philipdacey.com web site. If you’d like a taste of how Philip Dacey presented his poems, there is a 30-minute video of a late reading by him here.
Ok, did everyone read those “click here to read” user agreements for their new gift gadgets, software, and computers? Good, because we’re going to have a little fun with them this episode.
I suppose the purpose those ubiquitous agreements is to disabuse the user of any assumptions they may have about that new thing they now “own”. Will it work? Can you do with it what you will? Will it be fair and understanding to you? Does the software or device know about Asimov’s first law of robotics—even though that law won’t be written down for another 21 years? Have I given up my money, privacy and self-respect for the price of a free app? The agreement will let you know that the answer to all but the last question is “no.”
It occurs to me that poets have been doing the same thing for a long time, intrinsically restricting their subject’s and reader’s rights in various ways, but they don’t even bother with the user agreement. So, let’s fix this right now!
Today’s audio piece, User Agreement for this Poem, spells out those expectations with the LYL Band providing the musical setting.
200 years ago this month a 21 year old surgical resident decided to give up his studies to become a doctor and to instead concentrate on the writing of poetry. An interesting decision. He had already rolled up a considerable education debt, and while it’s possible that poetry’s earnings potential might have been greater in 1816 than today, greater than zero is not a high bar.
So how prudent was our young not-to-be surgeon? He had tried his hand at poetry and had published a couple of poems in magazines before his decision. Hmm. Not a great prospectus you might think. In a rough translation for our time, it’s as if the young student had ditched his studies and loan debt for a shot at touring as an indie-rocker.
His friends thought he had promise. In the forthcoming year, and with their help, he would find a publisher for his first volume of poems, but his work was mostly unnoticed, and where noticed, the reviews were at best mixed. One reviewer had rich fun with this impudence:
“The spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity…. It is a better and easier thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; go back to the shop, Mr. John, back to `plasters, pills and ointment boxes."
Another reviewer offered this judgement
“We regret that a young man of vivid imagination and fine talents should have fallen into so bad hands as to have been flattered into the resolution to publish verses, of which a few years hence he will be glad to escape from the remembrance.”
We know how this turns out, more times than not: the young fool will be unable to sustain a long career in the arts—and, yes, that was the case here. The young surgeon turned poet was indeed to have a career of less than five years—but that was because of his early death at age 25. Yup, he dies two years too young to make the 27 club. Our surgeon turned poet was John Keats.
Besides talent, and desire that was the equivalent of foolishness, Keats worked very hard reading poetry, thinking about it, and writing it in those less than five years, producing some of the best lyric poetry in English.
In my own twenties, this encouraged and discouraged me. On one hand, it said I could write and read fearlessly as a young poet in the first half of my twenties; and on the other, as I measured what I had accomplished, I often admonished myself: John Keats died at 25.
Almost exactly one year after he broke from medicine for poetry, John Keats wrote the words for this piece In the Drear-Nighted December. He wrote it after struggling for much of the year to write his first long piece, Endymion, a neo-classical epic in heroic couplets that he never thought he got right.
This is something many writers experience. You struggle mightily to create something. Something big, something impressive. You bring all your craft to it, but it doesn’t quite work. You finish it, or otherwise set it aside, and in the aftermath out pops another smaller-seeming thing that is much more perfect. It’s like the muse says to you “You don’t control me and direct this, and here’s the proof.”
What has Keats done here? First off, those words cannot be read and not sung. This kind of silent melody is not easy to do in English, yet here is the young Keats doing it brilliantly. His images? I’m deep in a minus 17 degree F. Minnesota afternoon as I write this this. His trees with their “sleety whistle,” those branches glued with ice, once flowing water frozen like mineral crystals—I know these things, but Keats has said them well to remind me that we both know.
And then his sublime last verse, so beautiful I could not help but repeat it. In two verses Keats has setup an nice lyric that doesn’t stray far from convention. To paraphrase: “Hey, look at nature in winter. Doesn’t look like it does in spring or summer at all. Even though we conscious beings know (more than dumb water and trees) that these trees will bud and the brook water will flow again, nature doesn’t care.” Now the third verse: “How smart are we compared to non-conscious nature? We will ‘writhe’ in pain as things are taken from us (and though unspoken, since the image has been of a repeating natural cycle, this will happen again and again). This is not a poem that says “Suffering? Don’t worry, spring will come again.” This is poem that says suffering will come again, as surely as winter. “The feel and not to feel it, when there is none to heal it.” What a line: “The feel and not to feel it!”
Well, maybe we’re not exactly wrong: it’s human to draw a variety of meanings from what other humans communicate. The Emily Dickinson poem in the last episode is perfect example. I don’t know exactly what Dickinson was trying to say in I Felt a Funeral in My Brain, but the strength of the language and music of her saying of it compels anyway. Poems, particularly short poems, often benefit from this kind of ambiguity. They become, in effect, several poems, poems that are experienced differently—even by the same reader—at each reading. In the end those varied readings become a kind of unstable hologram, a poem that the reader can see around corners in. I think that’s one of the benefits of these Parlando project recordings. You can listen to the words without making singular understanding the all-important goal as you enjoy the musical setting, and you can repeat the process of hearing them. A poem is not an important email from your boss that you must understand correctly immediately.
An essay on the other hand does prioritize clarity. “Hitch your wagon to a star” is from one of Emerson’s essays, and Emerson is a very clear essayist. You can read the published version of the essay, Civilization, where the famous quote appears here.
For the moment, I’m going to pass on Emerson’s racialist and sometimes racist views which saturate much of the first half of that essay. If you are an Indigenous American or a Central African, you may be so revolted by this section that anything Emerson says later may be lost on you. TLDNR: despite some nods to North African, Arabian, Buddhist, and Icelandic (Iceland! Was Emerson predicting Sigur Rós, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Björk?) cultures; civilization is kind of white, temperate zone, coastal U.S./European thing. Gee Ralph, checked your white privilege much lately?
In the second half of the essay, Emerson develops another point. He starts by saying “Civilization depends on morality.” What expectations does that sentence give you? Anytime you read that sentence in the last 50 years, you know what comes next: a catalog of received, traditional, probably religious, precepts that the author will no-doubt find are being violated frequently by a fallen mankind who is ignoring this at their peril. You expect him to say “Stop screwing around with traditional morality, or civilization is doomed.” Is this what you get?
Nope. He’s soon launching into a rhapsody about the telegraph, and since he doesn’t mention that great mid-19th century technology by name, you could almost dump it word for word into the last part of the 20th century as praise for the Internet. As he talks about the telegraph’s “invisible pockets” you almost think he must be about to invent TCP/IP protocols more than a hundred years early! Instead of the Moral Majority, you get Emerson the Steam Punk.
And then he moves on to describe a mid-19th Century experimental mill that was powered by ocean tides, and at his observation of this, he says:
“Now that is the wisdom of a man, in every instance of his labor, to hitch his wagon to a star, and see his chore done by the gods themselves. That is the way we are strong, by borrowing the might of the elements."
From there Emerson develops the thought that a natural morality of utility, justice, civil order and freedom is—like the geo-thermal power of tides—an undeniable force for progressive change and improvement.
This section of Emerson’s essay is still a complex and novel approach. Emerson’s fellow Transcendentalist Theodore Parker condensed this thought in a way that Martin Luther King often cited: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Is this not proof of the maxim? Emerson in the middle of the 19th century, suffering from the ignorance and misapprehensions of racialism and racism, yet works for abolition of slavery and his philosophy helps inspire others a hundred years later to bring about long-delayed progress?
So that’s why I say we misunderstand “Hitch your wagon to a star.” Emerson would approve the gist of our misunderstanding: that it’s good to set goals high—but that’s not what he meant. What he meant on striking the coinage was more like “align yourself with the natural moral laws of the universe and your struggle for change gains great power.”
Today’s audio piece, I Heard of Emerson and Wagons recounts my mother telling me to “Hitch your wagon to a star” when I was a child. She, like most of us, meant it in the “dream big” way, and in that busy-parent way “yes, that’s nice. Dream big, but I’m busy right now.” In this piece, the young me is puzzled by just which big dream is the right one—just the thing that Emerson thought he was, in fact, offering guidance on.
Besides the poems themselves, Emily Dickinson is a series of cracking good stories. One story is similar to guitar poets Robert Johnson, Nick Drake, or Rodriguez, all artists who never made it during their prime, but who get discovered later and find greater distribution and acclaim. In Dickinson’s case, she wrote most of her work in the middle of the 19th Century. After her death in 1886 over 1700 poems were discovered in her papers, and a selection of her work was published in the 1890s. As fortuitous as this discovery was, the process was fraught with complex family dynamics and a decision by the editors to edit the work to make it more conventional for print. All this was not sorted out until the last 60 years or so when readers could finally read the poems Dickinson wrote as she wrote them. So, there’s one good story—one every little-published author can envy.
Then there’s the legend of Dickinson’s life itself, which was in the forefront as I was introduced to Dickinson as young man: Poor Emily, naïve and unlucky in love with a mystery man in her youth, she secludes herself in an attic and spends the rest of her life cloistered like a nun, the patron saint of introverts everywhere. This turns out, like most myths, to be a misleading account.
I’m not a Dickinson scholar, no more than I’m an expert on Blake, Sandburg, Frost, Whitman, or Emerson. I’m a poet who’s worked at that for 50 years, a musician who’s done what he can for 40 years, and for about 20 years I worked in hospitals, mostly in emergency departments. I’ve got my theories, like those that have spent more time on Dickenson. She’s clearly whip smart and no more naïve than Frank O’Hara or Margaret Atwood. When she presents herself as naïve, she’s role-playing. She’s as stubborn about her own theology and philosophy as William Blake, and she’s just as stubborn and original about her musical tactics as Joni Mitchell. She can be as mordantly funny about the human condition as Leonard Cohen.
On one Dickinson question, I wonder about neurological matters. As an introvert myself, I suspect introversion, perhaps even something “on the spectrum” as they say these days. One thing non-introverts don’t understand is that it takes a whole lot of energy for introverts to do what others think of as little things. Add to that the burden of being an intelligent, free thinking woman with a talent for writing in the 19th Century—well then, choosing to restrict one’s social obligations makes a lot of sense.
A few years back, a Dickinson biography was published that suggested that Dickinson may have been an epileptic. Another theory is that she suffered from migraines. There may be something there, and either could explain her choice in reducing her social interaction. In poems like I Felt a Funeral in My Brain, one can easily see metaphors that could be framed as reports of the pre-event auras that suffers experience, as well as post-ictal, after the event states—but let’s show some respect here. I remember reading as a youth that Monet may have painted his impressionist water lilies because he became near-sighted as he aged, and those ponds just looked blurry to him. Well, I’m nearsighted, and I can’t paint like Monet; and if Monet’s art includes elements of a medical condition, “explaining” it that way is reductionist. Monet would still have to choose to paint those water lilies blending and floating, and if Emily Dickinson had migraine auras and dreadful headache episodes, she’s still have to choose to write so originally and vitally as she does in “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain.”
A few years back there was a little Internet brouhaha about a woman who looked like she was talking on a cell phone as she was filmed walking down a street in 1928. “Proof of time travel?” asked the rhetorical askers “In 1928 there’d be no cell phones for 50 years, so she has to be from the future.”
We’ve been talking here recently about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman, three 19th century Americans. As far as we know, none of them used cell phones, and their considerable accomplishments may have been easier insomuch as they didn’t have to worry about PokéStop locations. But maybe they were time-travelers none-the-less?
One of the remarkable things about Emily Dickinson was that she seemed to be writing 20th Century poetry in the middle of the 19th Century. Oh sure, skeptics will say, she was a genius, and through her genius became influential to later writers. Typical debunkers!
Walt Whitman too, often seems a prophet and precursor of a new age, but maybe he wasn’t a prophet? Maybe he was just reporting from the future, and he knew all his bets were sure things. How else can you explain Whitman’s podcast on gender equality streamed here?
Today’s piece, Whitman’s To a Locomotive In Winter, was written sometime between 1874 and 1876, but it reads like a “Futurist” poem written 40 years later. The early 20th Century Futurists embraced technology and sought to bring it into the arts. Poems, paintings, sculpture and musical works celebrating bicycles, airplanes, motor cars and trains were their stock in trade. Was Whitman a time traveler from 1914 who had read the Futurist Manifesto?
Another American who paid attention to the Futurists (besides time-traveler Walt Whitman) was George Antheil, a composer, who by the 1920’s was trying to engineer machines to make music. He had this idea that he could realize a musical composition by syncing more than one player piano together so that an even greater mechanized noise could be exactly made. By the 1940s, perhaps after hearing Whitman’s podcast on women’s strength, he was in Hollywood and hooked up with actress Hedy Lamarr—no, that kind of hook up. You see Hedy had this idea for a radio-guided torpedo. One problem: if you used radio to guide it, you could use radio to jam it. What if the control signals could use random radio frequencies Lamarr wondered? How would the controller and torpedo stay in sync? Antheil had the solution, the same thing you used to control player pianos: a roll of punched tape. The tape would tell the radios to switch frequencies in perfect time with each other. You couldn’t jam that jam because the radio frequency could hop at some sick number of beats per minute.
Antheil and Lamarr tried to interest the US War Department on this. Those square faces listened to this idea of randomization and said “No dice!”
Antheil and Lamarr patented their idea, but after rejection no one cared. Then decades later folks are trying to setup CDMA, the core technology for cell phone transmission. The engineers dig up that patent in a pre-existing-art search—or were Lamarr and Antheil time travelers who had been reading the cell phone engineers’ PowerPoint decks? Maybe that woman in the 1928 street scene is the elderly Hedy talking on a cell phone with Walt Whitman?
So back to Whitman then, and To A Locomotive in Winter, and to time travel. In this piece, Whitman time travels forward to 1956, to Chess studios in Chicago. Earl Phillips kicks off the loping beat. Hubert Sumlin, Willie Dixon and Hosea Lee Kennard fall in. The band is playing a drone their bandleader had heard Charlie Patton play back around World War I, but the bandleader is letting this strange traveler, this gray bearded old white man who says he’s from the over-soul, from the Emersonian universal mind. The bandleader has had to deal with racism for almost half the 20th Century, has had to figure that out as a practical matter, he’s seen enough to not ever be surprised. Walt Whitman steps to the mic…
The words in this piece are from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson is another of those 19th century New England worthies that we’ve touched on before. Many other writers were encouraged, promoted, and inspired by Emerson in their day.
If Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are the father and mother of modern American poetry, Emerson is their common grandfather.
For Dickinson, Emerson’s heterodox religious views seem to have buffered her from her family’s more conventional Christianity. Emerson’s ideas of individuality, of attention to inner voices and discernment, and on the book of nature illuminate Dickinson’s world-view. Some of what is obscure and puzzling in Dickinson (a poet whose music can grab us long before her meaning and vision can become clear) opens up when read in the light of Emerson and his circle.
Walt Whitman, that iconoclast who otherwise defies all authority, supported his career on the back of an enthusiastic letter of praise from Emerson. He published that letter for PR effect, and then blurbed it prominently in subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass. Never shy, Whitman’s work often trumpets Emersonian ideas and concepts.
To put it shortly: Emerson is the theory, and Dickinson and Whitman are the practice.
Emerson also wrote poetry, though his considerable 19th century fame came from other things. As a popular lecturer and essayist, he was able to introduce his ideas widely in American culture. As a scene-maker, he declared American independence in cultural matters roughly 60 years after the political fact of independence, and his school of thought, Transcendentalism, was in America the 1960’s counter-culture of the 1840’s.
For such an influential person, particularly as an influence to poets, his poetry is not always rewarding.
To put it frankly, Eros is strangely worded. It’s rhymed and loosely metrical—but despite the casualness with structure, some lines read like someone trying to contort English syntax to fit a strict metrical form. The next-to-last line “And, how oft soe’er they’ve turned it,” is an abomination. It sort of echoes the meter of the first part of the couplet, but it just doesn’t sound good or make it’s point well. I’m also not clear on the image in that line. Are “men and gods,” or some other “they”, turning love on a lathe and not improving its natural form?
So, regarding that line, good Transcendentalists may well just respond: “OK, Ralph, whatever.” The strong point in Eros, to put “To love and to be beloved” in the center of existence’s meaning is strong enough to overlook infelicities.
In creating this piece, I did some things to try to convey the poem’s strengths. I turned the separated rhyming lines “To love and be beloved” and “’Tis not to be improved” into repeating refrains to bring out that central thought. Musically I use a favorite tactic of mine: repeated motifs that seem at first to be repeating, but are actually changing. Sonically the guitar part has a modulated echo that adds a bit of microtonal warble, and I treated the vocal with a light “throat singing” effect. My sonic goal there was to tip my hat to Emerson and Transcendentalism’s introduction of Asian religious concepts to America.
Let’s a take a break from Whitman’s attempt to embody everything in his poetry and turn to a Dave Moore written piece where two Americans become one. Dave might comment here and bring more insight into his composition, but for now I’ll speak as myself.
I encountered Slim Harpo and Harpo Marx at roughly the same time, somewhere in the early 1960s. Slim Harpo then was a part-time bluesman (full time job: ran a trucking company) who was able to occasionally get records saturated with a humid southern feel onto pop charts where I could hear them.
I was young, and I knew little about where music came from. I also knew little about how it could be separated out into bins with labels stuck on the front of them, like “blues.” So, I didn’t know Slim Harpo was “blues” until sometime later. I’d never heard Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, BB King, Memphis Minnie, Bo Carter, or even any of the jazz-tinged blues divas like Bessie Smith—but I had heard Slim Harpo. He was right there on the Midwestern teenage radio in the early Sixties, just like Bobby Vee or the Shirelles. After dark, when the lone local teenage station would fade out by law to allow “clear channel” stations to bounce off the stars and the wire I’d run out my window to an apple tree, I’d hear KOMA in Oklahoma and WLS in Chicago spin records as late I could stay up.
Harpo Marx and the Marx Brothers came in via another late-night broadcasting practice: the late movie. TV stations then would run old movies at the end of their broadcast day, after the local news. The Marx Brothers movies were only around 30 years old at the time, but they seemed set in another century. In the Marx Brothers movie-world fresh off the boat European immigrants mixed it up with society matriarchs dressed like empresses, and leather helmeted varsity football players and professors in Victorian beards were collaged together.
Which was farther away: the Marx Brothers 1930s or Slim Harpo’s Jim Crow Louisiana happening in my time?
Somehow it didn’t matter that Slim Harpo was a near 40-year-old Louisiana African-American, or that the Marx Brothers were steeped in a disappeared immigrant vaudeville culture, or that either of them were ambassadors from the country of adult sexuality that I had yet to visit.
Did a poem ever speak to you before you could understand it? At night, Harpo Marx and Slim Harpo spoke to me, and neither exactly needed words to say what I heard.
Dave Moore’s piece “Slim Harpo Marx” fuses those two characters. Let me be clear, I realize this is a dangerous melding. In the course of “Slim Harpo Marx” an Ashkenazi German-American imitating a mute Irishman becomes one with an African-American born into a region retaining French colonial overtones. Is that harp Celtic, or a Germanic Hohner harmonica, a “Mississippi Saxophone?” Dave thinks that’s funny. If cultural appropriation is evil, well...
As Americans, we largely came here from pogroms, poverty, thwarted revolutions, and refused authority. Those here first from Europe got to rob the native peoples—and worse. Those here first got to declare the foundational republic of the modern world—and establish an economy buttressed with human slavery. Those here later got to both benefit from the appropriations of these tragedies—and suffer the disapprovals of those who were here sooner. That lesser Marx brother, Karl Marx, said “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
Karl, Karl, you say that like it’s a bad thing.