I’m going to tell you a very sad and very wondrous story. A little over 350 years ago, when America was still a colony of England, a young girl about 7 years old was abducted in West Africa by men who took and sold human beings for profit. This enterprise then shipped her across the ocean along with other abductees. This business, a very profitable and respectable business of the time, was slavery.
The way this business worked then, those who were deemed useful for labor would be shipped to the West Indies. There some were put to work as slaves, and others were—to use the term sometimes applied to the harnessing of wild horses—“broken,” so that they could be more useful as laboring slaves. In this case, with this ship, it took those that were not figured to be the good laborers— the odd lots and freight salvage of their cargo—and carried them on to Boston in the American colonies.
Our 7 year old girl was one of those less valuable pieces of cargo. And when she arrived in Boston, she was also sick, and so she was sold to a family for a very low price, because the ships master figured that if he didn’t sell her quickly she would die and there would be no profit in her.
The family that bought this girl treated her unusually. They named her Phillis, as that was the name of the ship that carried her away to America, and as was the custom, used the family’s last name Wheatley for her as well. They taught Phillis Wheatley to read and write English, and then as she showed extra facility with language, they allowed her to extend her learning. By the time she was teenager she was reading not just the Bible, but Greek and Latin classics and the works of the leading English classical writers of the time. And something even more remarkable happened: she started writing like these men.
Nothing like this had ever been seen. An American, in the far-off colonies, writing like an educated Englishman. No, an American woman—wait, not just a woman, an African-American woman, a slave, someone’s property, writing like an educated Englishman!
Did the business of enslavement of Africans, the thing that brought this girl to America, arise because of a belief in the inferiority of black Africans? Or did the widespread belief that black Africans were mentally and spiritually inferior become widespread because it allowed otherwise moral human beings to take part in this repulsive practice? Whichever, Phillis Wheatley, this young girl, had become a wondrous rebuke to those ideas of racial superiority.
In 1773, only 20 years old, Phillis Wheatley once more crossed the ocean and traveled to England, met Lords, Ladies, Counts and Countesses. A book of her poems was published there, the first book of poems by an African-American ever published. She was even going to meet King George, but she had to return to Boston before a date could be arranged. Back in America, as the foment leading to the American Revolution began, she wrote a poem to King George, reminding him that she was his loyal subject, but it might be wise to reconsider things like the Stamp Act that were riling up the colonies.
Yesterday, February 22nd was George Washington’s birthday, and three days ago I celebrated the holiday that replaced Washington’s Birthday with a piece based on a poem written by the teenaged Washington. After the Revolutionary War broke out, and Washington became the commander of the American forces, Phillis Wheatley wrote a poem and sent it to General Washington. Washington wrote back that he was impressed by her “great poetical talents” and suggested that if it could be worked out, he would “be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses.” Alas, as with the King George, this meeting with the General (and slaveholder) never happened.
So here is Phillis Wheatley, a person who was abducted, torn from her family and home, sold for a pittance as damaged property, shipped across an ocean to a new land that speaks another language. She owns nothing, she herself is owned. And what then does she obtain? Poetry. The ability to speak fluently in the voice and art of this land of exile, and for a time, a measure of fame for this accomplishment. Is that enough?
I look at her words now, over 350 years later, and the style she wrote in is so mannered, often encrusted with the gilded and blushed Georgian portraits of Roman myths. I told you at the start: this story is sad and wondrous. We know, it is our obligation to know, the sadness of slavery, committed by humans on other humans. The wonder of what Phillis Wheatley was able to accomplish fades somewhat with time. As a small gesture to that wonder, today’s episode uses a lyrical evening pastoral "Hymn to Evening" that Phillis Wheatley wrote, wrapped in some music I composed and performed.
Here a piece "Frances" based on a short, incomplete poem written by a teenager who went on to do other things. You can tell he’s a clever young man. He’s infatuated with a neighbor girl, but there’s no such thing as texting yet—no such things as telephones either. Thankfully, love songs are a well-established technology, so he sets to work on one.
To make sure that she knows he’s serious about her, and not the other young ladies he’s been seen cavorting with, he decides it’s not just going to be a poem, it’s going to be an acrostic. The first letter of each line will, if read downward, spell out her full name.
If John Lennon had wanted to write “Oh Yoko” as an acrostic, it wouldn’t have added much difficulty to his verse. Alas, our teenager’s object of affections is Frances Alexander. Well it could have worse, if he was a teenager who wanted to write a love song to the New Zealand singer who performs as Lorde, and wanted to use her full name, he’d have to write a 27 line poem to Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O'Connor.
He only needs 16 lines to prove his love.
He gets to line 11. Gotta start with “X.” He grabs onto Xerxes, the famous Persian leader and general to fill out his acrostic, but one line later he runs out of gas and just drops the poem before finishing.
Didn’t finish the poem, didn’t get the girl, but our teenager like Xerxes became a famous general and eventually his country’s leader. He’s got a birthday coming up on the 22nd, but they celebrate our boy George Washington’s birthday as a US holiday today.
A couple of episodes back I mentioned that we’d meet Yeats “rook-delighting heaven” again as we visit some more expressions of the month of February. Well, here’s one, Boris Pasternak’s “February.”
Coincidently, it appears that Pasternak wrote his “February” within a few months one way or another of Yeats’ “A Cold Heaven.” And both poets put ravens in these poems, though Yeats’ crows show up early, and Pasternak’s drop in near the end. Though Yeats wrote his “A Cold Heaven” in more temperate Ireland, it resonated with a Northern Midwesterner like me with its burning ice and unwarming sun. Pasternak, presumably familiar with a colder climate more like my own, sets the thermostat on his February to an early spring melt; but this is a muddy, sodden spring. His black spring holds cold rains, mud, and slush—more like a real early spring than a happy-butterflies-and-wildflowers May spring.
I’m not fluent in Russian, but the challenge of translating this lyrical poem from Russian to English has attracted many. As I recall, when I tried to put together the text for this performance, I used several of those as gloss, tempered with Internet translator apps fed the Russian. I know nothing of Russian diction, so I aimed for an informal American diction, and unlike some translators, I didn’t try to keep the original poem’s rhyme scheme in English—after all, I knew I’d be supplying music for this.
I believe the music I choose here, bluesy rock’n’roll, while American, is fitting. I hear Pasternak here singing the Russian Blues: blues like unto our great American music of endurance, and rock’n’roll that cares only to seek the state he speaks of in the last two lines “The more haphazard, the more true, the poetry that sobs its heart out.”
So I’ll be putting this episode up, and then I’ll go out in our haphazard too-early spring February myself. I too will head out past the noise of city church bells, past the cars, biking to the edge of my city where I’m going to buy George Saunders sad new novel.
Today’s episode is dedicated Renee Robbins, who once was lost on the edge of Moscow herself, the last passenger remaining at the end of a bus route. She found her way back long enough for us to know her.
I decided on my own that Yeats’ piece in the last episode was about February, but I have some other pieces that say, right out, in their own words, that they are about our current month. Here is one, “2ebruary.”
Earlier this month I saw Jim Jarmusch’s film, “Paterson.” This movie succeeds, in its modest and appropriate way, to do something impossible: to film poetry, or more exactly, the composition of literary work. It does this two ways: by having a writer, its central character, portrayed as a regimented, routinized person, grounded in a particularized working-class city and job; and then by having him compose “aloud in his head” his work against this background.
This is a wonderful choice. The city, the routine clock of the days, the job, become the metrical, musical background for the flowerment of the writer’s consciousness that becomes the poems.
Though the movie is set in the New Jersey city of it’s title, the filmmaker refers often the “New York School” of poetry, using the poems of Ron Padgett to stand in for the work of the film’s main character.
The New York School uses a lot mid-20th Century Modern ideas, combining them into various combinations, depending on the individual writer associated with the movement. Some of it can be obscure and abstract, taking off from the same ideas that launched abstract expressionism in painting around the same time. But some also find a tenderness and wonder in the abstract patterns of urban existence, a Pop Art with a depth beneath its surface able to hold a beating heart. At a point in the film, the main character opens his noon lunchbox to eat, and to write down the intermediate state of his morning’s writing aloud in his head, and there like a Thermos, nestled above an orange and a sandwich, is Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems.” It has to be there.
O’Hara wrote in a great many styles, but this slim chapbook features several poems that someone once called his “I do this, I do that” poems. where O’Hara walks about, seemingly composing aloud in his head amidst daily tasks. These are my favorites, because, like “Paterson,” these poems seem to be about their own grounded creation in a city of routines, reflected inside the moist, encased, flowing mind of their writer.
Today’s episode “2ebruary” takes off from that Frank O’Hara mode, as I often like to do, though I’m an old man, writing in another century, in the Midwest, not New York City, and my old joints creak best on a bicycle.
“2ebruary” is a short bicycle journey thinking of history, and past the events that are turning into history that we can still change. I take a pause, as every American should, to note that American culture is made from those who came here carrying something from elsewhere. And Midwestern culture? For many, those packing trunks are hardly great-grandparent’s-age-old, at the eldest.
At one point in the journey, I note those that had no trunks when they came to America, they had only their chattel bodies and souls—and even of those two things, the former had been appropriated by others for handy profit. What could they unpack? Well for one thing: the largest and grandest part of our American music. Our history is short compared to many nations, but it contains mighty things like this. We who are joining that history, already in progress, can turn it one way or another. Which way do you choose to turn?
We’ve already met Irish poet William Butler Yeats with a brief poem earlier this month. Now his words return with a piece suitable for the aftermath of Valentine’s Day, for “A Cold Heaven” is the tale of a rejected valentine. It’s also fitting, because Valentine’s Day comes in the midst of late-winter. February, as Margaret Atwood put it, is a “month of despair, with a skewered heart in the centre.”
Here in the northern Midwest it was a “seasonable” 19 degrees F. this morning, and hardy ice has outlived any soft covering snow. There is a promise of a thaw this weekend, but that will only recall mud and the detritus of what the snow once remembered inside it.
Critics from more temperate climes praise Yeats for his oxymoron here of “ice burned,” but up north we know that’s just what happens to skin in the cold, with no need for poetic intercession. And my back yard, my cities’ parks, and our central greenway have been home to that “rook-delighting heaven” he speaks of as well. Strange isn’t it, that the bird of death is so smart, so intentional, so sure, and yet inscrutable.
In “A Cold Heaven,” Yeats’ winter and his death-omen birds lead to a missed and misunderstood, “crossed” love; and he takes the blame: if not for the season, for the failed love. Like so many, and without the succor of chocolate or flowers, he is left in the rejected lovers worshipful, davening stance, “rocking to and fro.”
But he is a poet still! “A Cold Heaven” breaks itself in two with an image that is also a pun: “Riddled with light.” Yes, we Northerners know that winter light. Brighter than summer, and paradoxically the sign of a piercingly cold day. He knows his love’s in vain, and yet no amount of blame that he can assign himself—even if he exhausts “all sense and reason” to catalog that blame—can account for the failure of his love. What can solve this “riddle?”
Yeats begins again, with a majestic “Ah!” only to take us on a short ghost story, the spirit of his love in purgatory, in bardo, naked as a corpse or as a lover, wandering and asking why clear skies, clear answers, seem like punishment.
So to all those whose valentines were not accepted yesterday: peace. Such riddling has no end to its depths. I know this: that hole is too deep to be plumbed, just know that it’s deep. The correct prayer for such things is unknown.
As a performance, “A Cold Heaven” had some challenges because Yeats makes use of enjambment, where lines break in the middle of sentences; and where the meaning too, often forks, seeming to mean one thing before the line break and another afterward. Since I like to let the lines “breathe,” so that the music can interject, and so that the words’ impact can sit a little bit before the next line, I resorted to repeating a few words. There are also a couple of other audio tricks in the piece. The string parts, particularly at the beginning have a “backwards tape” articulation where the sound swells from louder to silence, in the reverse of the normal decay of strings, which I hope signifies the drop into the past in Yeats’ text.
I feel I’ve been a bit long-winded lately with the notes for these episodes. In my defense, I would say the topic of several recent episodes, the relationship between art/artists and politics is a complex subject. Today episode, “The Garden of Trust”, is shorter, and the notes are too.
Weston Noble was a long-time conductor and choral director at Luther College in Decorah Iowa. I never met the man, but shortly after he died at the end of 2016 I heard this lovely quote from him, In a matter of a few words, he moved from vulnerability to trust through music. Thanks to the permission of the kind folks at Luther College, I am now able to share that with you. Today’s episode, so appropriate for Valentine’s day when we think about love, lets the man himself speak those words surrounded by the music I wrote to celebrate them. I can add no more than that music, other than to urge you to listen to them.
Let's continue our investigation of connections between art and politics that I’ve touched on earlier this winter.
The motto of the Parlando Project is “The Place Where Music and Words Meet,” but in practice it has been the place where music and poetry meet. However, just as I want variety in the music used (within the limits of the musician’s talents) I don’t plan to always use poetry for the texts here. Today’s episode is an example. I’m going to use a short public speech, but as I have done with poetry in other episodes, I’m going to treat the words as if they are specifically meaningful, and I’m going to treat those words as if they want to sing.
About two weeks ago, a cast of actors received an award, and the actor acting as spokesmen for the cast delivered the acceptance speech. Though not entirely a political speech, it was received as one, and it was almost certainly intended to make a political point.
The actor, David Harbour, was representing the cast of a series currently available on Netflix called “Stranger Things.” That show is a sort of bumblebee. Like the famously un-aerodynamic bee, it shouldn’t fly, but it does. “Stranger Things” is a show that uses tropes of 1980s movies and books to tell a story set in that same decade. It should be a winking meta exercise where you spend more time noting the references than to the story itself, or a dreary “I’ve seen this one before” drama that plays as an unoriginal re-hash of ready-made plot points and incidents. Perhaps for some viewers it is one of those things, but for many viewers it’s an ingenious contradiction of all the ways it could fail, doesn’t, and instead flies.
As an actor, Harbour was part of that levitation. In his acceptance speech, he makes a choice as doomed to fail as the concept of “Stranger Things.” In his awards-banquet tuxedo, standing in front of an audience of actors, he gives his acceptance speech more-or-less in the person of his character, a gruff, down-on-his-heels Midwestern town sheriff.
What’s the percentages on this working? First off, actors are not their characters, often not even close. Humphrey Bogart wasn’t a grizzled tough guy, he was the son of a cardiac surgeon who grew up upper-middle class. John Wayne was a football player and son of a dirt farmer, not a cowboy or a military man. Actors themselves would know this more than anyone else. Secondly, whatever audience size “Stranger Things” has, that audience isn’t everyone. Will folks who haven’t watched “Stranger Things” get your message if it references tropes from your series?
Well, like the series, like the bumblebee, Harbour’s speech worked in the room none-the-less. You can view that short speech and the reaction here.
In turning this speech into today’s episode, "Artists Hunting Monsters," I changed a few things. First off, the video I first saw after the event did not include his prelude to the words I ended up using. In the part I didn’t have while composing, Harbour talks eloquently about his view of an artist’s role today. In editing the words I did have, sifting them down, and dressing them with music, I choose to universalize his rhetoric to the degree I could, so that even those who haven’t seen “Stranger Things” would have access the message; and in so doing, I changed things to address the role of artists in general, not only the actors that were his present audience.
I’m once more going to violate a principle I thought I would hold to here, and “explain” the text. Harbour, and my selection and recasting of his text, says that an artists’ job, an artist’s calling, is to offer succor to the disenfranchised: to show with our artifice, truth; with our play fighting, successful struggle; with our imagined detectives, the underlying monster. It’s a call to arms for artists to pick up blunted stage-swords and to deploy magnifying metaphors against oppressive decisions, systems and persons.
That’s not all I have to say on this issue, there are important questions yet to discuss on the role of the arts. Subscribe to this podcast for more expressions of these questions and others as we more music meets up with more words.
Today's episode is a short, yet puzzling piece with words by William Butler Yeats: “On Being Asked for a War Poem.”
Why puzzling? Yeats is good example of an artist engaged both in spiritual concerns and politics. In the struggle for Irish independence, Yeats was a leader in the idea that Irish cultural independence as a pre-requisite for political independence. If skeptical of armed rebellion, Yeats consistently pushed for what eventually became the independent Republic of Ireland and he become a Senator after Irish independence. One of Yeats inspirations, Percy Bysshe Shelley had famously said “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Yeats in effect revised Shelley’s passage by striking “Unacknowledged!”
What would you expect from such a man in regards the use of his art for political purposes? You’d guess he’d be all in. Well, he was asked, just like the title says. Edith Wharton asked for a poem from Yeats for book meant to raise funds for Belgian war victims during WWI, and this was his response, which indeed was printed and therefore served its charitable purpose.
“I think it better that in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.”
So why is Yeats seeming to refuse to put his artist’s shoulder to the wheel and write a “war poem,” as so many others did? Well first, Ireland’s position in WWI was complicated, as it was not yet independent. Ireland’s colonial ruler, England, was engaged. The ancient principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” might make an Irish nationalist (at the least) abstain from taking sides.
He goes beyond that however, on the face of it saying that a poet—“a poet,” unqualified, not “this poet,” or “given that I’m a colonial subject against my will, don’t ask me for poetry about your war." Poets, he says, have “no gift to set the stateman right.”
I don’t know what was inside Yeats’ mind, nor am any kind of expert on his work, but in thinking about these things, about how the artist, the clergy, and at times that statemen, are all in the same line of work; an alternative reading has come to me.
That pronoun “He” that starts the fifth line, why did Yeats not make the antecedent clear? Most readers believe that the “He,” the one who’s suited to pleasing an indolent young girl or an “old man upon a winter’s night”—that last, a character who could be that frightened and lonely farmer in Frost’s poem we recently featured here—is the poet, or a poet performing his rightful role. If so, it’s a surprisingly modest, even dismissive, statement of a poet’s worth. However, the last noun before that pronoun “He” isn’t the poet, it’s the “statesmen.” English syntax rules indicate that “statesmen” could likely be the “He.” If I write “Frank went to a Minnesota Timberwolves basketball game, saw Karl Anthony Townes, and he scored 42 points.” We know that I couldn’t score 42 points, even in an empty gym, not because of my athletic ineptitude, but because we usually think the pronoun refers to the last applicable noun before it.
So did Yeats slyly mean to say that a statesman, like the poet, like the artist in general, is engaged in the same game, fooling the youth and the feeble old?
I have more why artists with political opinions are treated differently at frankhudson.org and I’ll also have more to say on artists and politics in the next episode here.
Eric Burdon and the Animals had a considerable run of hit singles in the 1960s. To the degree that we remember that output today, it’s to recall songs that Burdon’s voice made famous, though they were written by outside writers: “House of the Rising Sun,” “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” All great songs, all great performances, but what’s forgotten are the songs Burdon himself wrote.
That’s not an accident. Eric Burdon as a writer was often topical, writing about social and cultural events while they were current, before the ink had dried on things; and he was heart-on-his sleeve sincere, without protective layers of irony that made Jagger/Richards or Ray Davies harder to pin down. These things sometimes make his writing seem dated or naïve, but I think folks don’t value his commitment to immediacy enough. And then there’s Burdon’s steady stance against racism, something he never gets enough credit for.
Fifty years ago Burdon and the Animals visited San Francisco and he commented favorably on the warm climate and the altruism; and while charmed by the chemically-enhanced visionary culture they found there, Burdon noted issues with police/public interaction and recommended that the American Dream should include Indians too. That bit of reportage was a top-ten hit record in the US and the UK.
To me, a lot of the charm of that record is its spoken word opening, a deadpan “Dragnet” parodying recital of the worth of experiencing San Francisco. Spoken word—sounds like a Parlando Project idea!
So this is my rough parody of warm summer “San Francisco Nights” written in and for the cold winter city of Minneapolis. It’s 9 degrees F. as I write this, and the temp is dropping overnight. Snuggle someone if you’ve got the chance.