This LYL Band performance of “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” is a bit imperfect. Alternative Parlando Project reader Dave Moore takes the lead here, but he and I are singing instead of our usual recitative, and we’re caught at the top of our range as well. So, yes this leads to some imperfection—but this lyric is so perfect that perhaps it can carry us along anyway.
I suggest you listen to this piece now and then read my discussion of what I see in it afterward. Dickinson, like a good melody, doesn’t require understanding before enjoyment.
“I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” begins with a homespun 19th century village dawn, and the singer starts right off almost bragging that they can tell us how the sun comes up. As proof, Dickinson unleashes a string of lovely, singing metaphors for sunrise, looking down from the dawn only once to let us see the squirrels running about as if with the news of the day. She concludes this section with finest simplicity: “That must have been the sun!”
Isn’t that a strange way to sum up dawn? It comes up and it’s already past tense, like Meng Haoran’s morning in the last episode, and Dickinson comments on this common splendor as if she’s a surprised alien from another planet who has never seen the sun. Her boast that she can tell us “how the sun rose”—something she and all of us should already know, set in nothing more special than a prosaic town—becomes instead a small, whispered, apprehended wonder.
In the second section, Dickinson shifts gears so smoothly that no matter how many times you read or hear this poem you will never notice. There is a little engagement of the gears as she says of sunset “I know not,” unlike our first gear’s “I’ll tell you;” but we’re soon on to a rural scene with the sun rays like children climbing up and then down a stairway over a hedge or fence row (a stile). At that point, there’s a bustle in your hedgerow as the dusk becomes a grey robed “dominie,” a strange and archaic word perhaps even in Dickinson’s 19th century, and a sure stumper for any modern English speaker.
A dominie is a Latin word meaning the leader of a congregation, a minister, a pastor—and ‘pastor” is derived from the word for shepherd—and that’s just what our grey dusk becomes as it leads the children of the dawn, now dusk, away like a flock, closing the bars, closing the gate, so that they cannot return.
Some readers are so charmed by Dickinson’s first section that they feel it is pedantic to think that this sunset section is describing a passage to death, “The undiscovered country from whose bourn, no traveler returns,” so no wonder that Dickinson moved from “I’ll tell you” to “I know not.”
That dominie seems so removed from the pleasant village of the first section, so foreign. Another subtle word choice contrasts the two sections. There’s only 88 words in this piece, and five of them are colors. “Rose” puns for dawn pink in the first line and then dawn is “amethyst,” a word for both purple and a semi-precious stone. The sun ray children are “yellow”, and our strange dominie is dusky “gray.” The stile sunset stairway that the sun ray children are climbing is “purple.” So out of our five colors, one of them is roughly the same color. In the first section, it’s semi-precious and wondrous, but in the second it’s just purple—a ruling, royal color perhaps—but those sunset ray children’s steps are ruled over not ruling, not shining like the amethyst steeples of the dawn.
Imagine a world where what you thought was poetry was entirely different. A world where short poems could be as celebrated as longer literary works. A world where the most admired poems could be clear as can be about what is happening in the poem (the poem’s plot) with no elaborate obfuscation in the language; and yet the meaning, the thought and feelings the author means to convey, may remain allusive enough that the poem’s meaning seems to change over time as your experience grows. Imagine a world where poems can seem to have no metaphors at all, poems that don’t so much interpret the book of nature, but seem to be a page from that book itself.
That’s what Chinese poetry seems like to me.
It’s a refreshing change from the Western canon. I can see why a grumpy modernist like Ezra Pound, who wanted to sweep away the rot of his culture, would find it influential. Or why the forefathers of the “beat generation” in the western United States looked further west than California for a way to apprehend reality on the page.
I’m no scholar of Chinese poetry. These are the feelings of someone who likes what he reads and finds lessons in translating it.
For today’s episode, I’m going to go over how I work on these translations with the aim of stripping away the mystery. I’ll use a short poem by Tang Dynasty poetry Meng Haoran “A Spring Morning.” It seems to be a good first task for Chinese translation, and the original poem is apparently known almost to the level of a nursery rhyme in Chinese.
I do not read Chinese, however, it’s now possible to find glosses of many poems literally translated from the original ideograms. Here’s what “A Spring Morning” looks like when each of its lines five characters is translated into an English word:
Spring sleep not wake dawn
Everywhere hear cry bird
Night come wind rain sound
Flower fall know how many
The first problem is there is no punctuation, nor anything like English syntax. Still that’s an interesting way to approach a poem, where in English we are often trying to find the word to fit our flow of thoughts and music, but in working from this gloss we have the words, or at least “a word,” but need to find the flow instead.
I decided to render the first line as: “I slept late this spring morning, awaking just after dawn.” keeping the season (spring) and the more specific time of past the daybreak moment. I added late, which is not in the glosses’ words, because I thought the poem needed some reason why past the dawn was significant when I connect it with the third line.
The second line required less thought: “From everywhere I hear birds calling out.” The main choice here was the word I’d use for the sound of the birds. “Cry” used in the gloss has connotations of sorrow in English (not always, for example “war cry”) and I didn’t want to tip my hand toward sorrow in this line. And in Spring I know these bird calls, they are in fact just that: birds calling out for potential mates, birds setting up their territories, birds that want to say something to other birds.
The third line I write as: “Last night I tossed and turned in the sound of the wind and the rain.” This gives a reason for why the poet slept late, adds a note of drama and, in a particularly personal choice I made, alludes to a traditional English song refrain “Oh no, the wind and the rain.”
Now the final line: “Who knows how many petals have fallen?” Here seeing other people’s English translations helped, as it otherwise might not be clear that this is a question. In a vacuum one might render this as “I know how many flowers fell.” And that ending has validity, essentially saying “(in such a storm as last night) I know for sure how much my lovely spring blooms are going to be damaged.” Others who know more about Chinese idiom have chosen to make this a question, so I’ll trust that, and this makes the concluding thought more like “(I’m worried about the damage of Spring storms. but it was night and I was asleep) and no one can change the way Spring does this, blooming and storming, so it’s a mystery to you and me.”
Overall, notice how this modest four-line poem, suitable for children, encapsulates a sophisticated thought, one that young children wouldn’t need to understand yet. It shows us Spring, as a sleeper sleeps past the now earlier dawn, through a rain storm that grows and destroys (compare our nursery rhyme “April showers bring may flowers” meaning “you might get wet, but it’s good for flowers” vs. this Chinese storm), alludes subtlety to the love and war of birds, and concludes with a wise line that says our ability to comprehend this cycle of growth and destruction, change and renewal, is limited. To a child, that last line may mean no more than the thrust vectors that allow that “a cow jumped over the moon;” but to an older adult, it reminds us more, that we will never know.
I’m often attracted to Chinese poetry, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the deceptive simplicity to the images, that hardly seem like images at all if one expects the showy metaphors used by many western poets. The concision of many of the most admired Chinese poems can be shocking. And to me there seems to be a radically flat broadness to the way some of the poets consider society and politics. Like a lot of my favorite UK folk songs, the tales of royalty and servants, peasants and generals, saints and drunkards seem to treat them all with the same even diction and consideration.
From what I read, Du Fu is highly regarded as poet in Chinese culture. He wrote in the 8th Century, about the time someone in Europe was compiling Beowulf between long drinks of mead out of cups made from skulls. Du Fu’s time was a chaotic one, with the Chinese kingdom falling into rebellion and civil war. “Spring View” is his response after his side had lost the battle and he was in disgrace.
In translating Du Fu’s poem “Spring View,” I thought of our own times, particularly here in the United States, three months now into some kind of change. Alas for Du Fu, I became so enamored of seeing our own current events in his lament that halfway through I started to get more “free” with my translation, until by the time I reached the final line, I chose to conclude on a different thought altogether from the original.
Last night my computer news feed informed me that Chuck Berry had died. As with any 90 year old of a certain fame, the obits with their career summaries were already considered and ready. There were many elements the obits needed to include, and they did their job.
Around 40 years ago I wandered into a group of Minnesota poets who called themselves The Lake Street Writer’s Group, because they all lived, as I did then, within a few blocks of this main Twin Cities east/west commercial street—but what attracted me to them was that they had considered The Chuck Berry Writer’s Group as a leading alternative to that name.
I was then (as I am sometimes still) and obscure little poet. I like my works short, but I don’t require them to be all that clear or straightforward. I like them to play with words, both in the sense of assembling and using words in new ways; but also in the sense that they play with words in the same way that musicians play instruments. Chuck Berry was a beautiful example of that.
Tomorrow is the first day of spring. Here’s an example of my trying to do that. We know how to write the traditional spring poem. Spring! New beginnings! Happy blooming flowers! That’s probably the most welcome and acceptable way to write a spring song, because the world needs hope—but is it the only way?
What does spring’s beginning really look like? A few episodes back I presented Boris Pasternak’s “February,” where he described a winter thaw not as a promise of Easter Bunny spring, but as a mucky, crow-ridden, rotten-fruit invocation of tears. Early spring is the cyclical end of dying, but as the wheel reaches March 20th, death is still palpably there to be ended.
For death, Spring is change—and how do we often react to change, particularly change that is imposed on us externally? I decided to tell that slant, to speak from those winter corpses at spring’s beginning. After all, we don’t choose spring, it’s decreed to us by nature and any ruler of nature we believe in, and nature is not a book only of triumphs, it’s full of predation and predestination.
John Renbourn, the English guitarist, and the subject of our last episode, once introduced a song in concert by saying he was now going to play an English song, “It’s a nice little melody—alas, there are just not that many good English ones.” As we said last episode, John’s repertoire was vast, so he had many musical traditions to draw from and could pick and choose. I mention this only in passing today, because when it comes to music, musicians accept no borders.
In the US today we have an odd holiday, St. Patrick’s Day, where we broadly and vaguely celebrate—well, not missionary saints. Instead many engage in an approximate celebration of Irishness, where amongst the dyed green rivers and dyed green beers, the “Kiss me I’m Irish” T-shirts, and the saucy leprechauns on everything, there is some occasional notice given to Celtic culture.
Alas, I have nothing prepared to be dyed green. I expect we’ll revisit Irish writers’ words soon enough though.
Instead I have a piece by the LYL Band’s keyboard player and alternate reader Dave Moore titled “He Hit Me First.” I think his words speak well enough for themselves, so I’m not going to add much here to them. When I asked him if the words were written about a particular incident, he told me that it was inspired by working on a book collecting some of his father’s sermons. Looking over a pre-publication proof of that book, and the sermons Dave decided to include there, I don’t see where Dave used any exact words from his father, Lester Moore, but I do see how Lester Moore’s inclination and approach informed it. Here’s a few words from a sermon Lester Moore delivered in 1981:
“Christianity conquered an empire that was more cruel than Hitler’s Auschwitz. And it was done by Christians who were willing to live the love that God gave them in the model of Jesus.
I sometimes wonder why it is that we still fail to see this. Christians who offer love in today’s world are called ‘soft-headed.’ But what happens when we bluster and threaten in today’s world? Are we nearer peace today because we speak in militant tones?
Psychologists tell us that we get a REACTION equal to the ACTION in the emotional world just as we do in the physical world. When we shake our fist at someone, we get a fist right back. So, who is soft-headed?
Love does not turn its back on evil. It does not pretend that evil does not exist. Love stands firm and insistent. It is disciplined and ready to sacrifice. It cares about what happens to people, whether it has to do with freedom or hunger or health or hope.”
This is a complex subject, and I’ve only given Lester Moore a few words for his position. Knowing the action/reaction pair he speaks of, I anticipate one response, something I could summarize as “That’s all very nice, but in the real world, you may want those fists, that military, those soldiers to protect your music, poetry, and preachers.”
I will note only that Lester Moore earned a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Silver Star serving in WWII, before he took up the ministry and eventually gave this sermon.
A perennial question asked of songwriters is “Which comes first, the music or the words?” Here with the Parlando Project, the words often were written centuries before the music; but with the pieces where I write both the words and music, the method is for the music to come first with the words.
By that I mean, I tend to compose the words first, but the words emerge for me as melodies do, as a series of sounds that may precede any idea of their meaning. And even when I sit down to write “about” something, the improvisation of their melody can lead me to change what I am writing, even in the end, change what I believe I think about something.
While it’s a good assumption that my methods may come from my visceral attraction to music and poetry, this sense that the act of writing shapes, even reshapes, the thought is a common finding among writers. Have you ever thought yourself, “I didn’t know what I thought about this until I wrote about it?”
So where do melodies come from, whether they are melodies played on a string or melodies played on words? The answer, after millennia of human thought and knowledge gathering, is “We don’t know.” That area of knowing that it is, but not knowing why, is the genesis of myth.
The classical Greeks and their Roman inheritors ascribed these creative incidents to “the muses”—nine goddesses that could engender music or poetry in humans. Their stories told of the bad ends that would come to those who would mock the muses by claiming they could practice the arts without them.
This sort of thing gradually fell out of favor. Shakespeare in his 38th sonnet claims his beloved is as good or better a muse as one of the nine classical muses, and by the 19th century his humanistic idea that another human could serve as a muse to an artist became the common myth.
So, what use then is this old myth, the idea of an inexplicable outside source that informs artistic expression? Here’s one use I’m attracted to: it lets the artist relax a little bit about their efforts. Ever try to be inspired? That rarely works. Even the inspiration tricks that worked once, twice or twenty times may wear out and bring nothing. Have you ever been impelled with an idea, shape, thought, or melody when it’s inconvenient and unexpected? Ever beat yourself up when the ideas and expression just won’t come? Using the myth, the metaphor, of the muses you can get a handle on these things. This does not mean you don’t work at art. This doesn’t mean that discipline isn’t a valuable artistic trait. This doesn’t mean you sit on the mountain top and dawdle. Worshiping and honoring the muses just means if you sit on the mountaintop and nothing comes up, you might try the valley next time, but that nothing is not your fault. If you look for inspiration 365 days a year and it only comes around a dozen times, that’s a dozen more times than it would come if you never looked. If you look for inspiration only a dozen times a year, it will take 30 years to do what you could have done in one.
That is a long introduction to today’s piece “To John Renbourn, Dying Alone.” John Renbourn was very good British guitarist and singer. Beginning in the 1960s, and with a small and wondrous circle of his contemporaries, he was fearlessly eclectic: blues, jazz, traditional British Isles folk music, American Appalachian ballads, 19th century broadsides, Asian music, modern singer-songwriters, or Renaissance tunes—all that could show up at a John Renbourn concert, or on one of his recordings.
Two years ago this month, he didn’t show up to demonstrate once again his amalgamation of music at a scheduled date in a Scottish club. He was not mocking the muses—it was soon found that he had died alone in his modest home.
The day I heard the news, I hoped his suffering had been brief, or if not brief, useful. I thought of him like Frost’s solitary man in “An Old Man’s Winter’s Night” or my father imagined in “A Rustle of Feathers,” or my own dear friend John who had died alone at home a few years earlier. I thought of John Renbourn and wished to apply this myth, this lie, of the muses to this man. An artist like John Renbourn, who informed us with his art, listened better to the muses than most any of us.
We’re going to drop back into questions of death and life for a little bit with this one.
Arthur Koestler was a novelist and public intellectual who lived and wrote about some of the greatest issues of the middle of the 20th Century, and his breakthrough work was his novel “Darkness at Noon.” Let me be honest here: I know of Arthur Koestler, but I have not read Arthur Koestler. I’m not sure how much of Koestler this piece’s author Dave Moore has read either. Perhaps that is of secondary importance, as this song isn’t so much about Koestler’s life or his works, but is instead about his death.
By 1983 Koestler was in his mid 70s and was suffering from serious and incurable illnesses. With apparent deliberation, he decided to commit suicide, writing his suicide note in the summer of 1982. Nine months later, in this severe but promising month of March, he decided to go through with it.
Later that same year Dave Moore wrote this piece, and the LYL Band would perform it with our usual sound at the time, which featured somewhat distorted Farfisa organ, organ bass keys, and loud discordant guitar. My understanding of “Arthur Koestler’s Death Song,” as we performed it then, was it was about Koestler’s intellectual and philosophical approach to this choice, and the hubris that implied. Of course, we were Thirty-Somethings considering the choices of much more esteemed old man.
The performance of “Arthur Koestler’s Death Song” you will hear here was recorded almost 30 years after this. It’s a solo piece I recorded as part of a collection I put together then to showcase some of Dave Moore’s writing.
A key part of the story of Koestler’s act is depicted in one verse. In March of 1983, Koestler’s original suicide note of the year before now carried an addendum. His wife, 20 years younger and in perfectly good health, was going to join him in taking the barbiturates and alcohol that was his chosen suicide method. “I see my wife sitting across from me. She’s going to join me in death.” The verse starts.
Please allow this to disturb you, because it should.
I’m no psychic. I cannot know what went into that decision and what was in his wife, Cynthia Jefferies’, mind, but I do know all too many relationships where the spouse of the artist, the intellectual—even if that thinker is an avowed proponent of freedom, liberty, and equality—is reduced to the role of servant and subservient.
“Arthur Koestler’s Death Song” lays out the facts and lets you consider the possible motives. It assumes you will be an active listener, one who can not only form your own answers, but your own questions.
I’ve been on the serious side for the last few episodes, but this time it’s going to just be a late night, late winter jam called “Bar Tryst, Late Winter.” I wrote the words to this one—at least I think I did.
Do you know the story of how the song “Me and My Uncle” came to be? It’s a great cowboy song, recorded and sung by many people, including The Grateful Dead. Sometime in 1964 or so a songwriter named John Phillips who had toured to no great acclaim during the American Hootenanny pop-folk era in the early Sixties got a royalty check for writing this song. Seems Judy Collins has recorded it on a live album, and his first thought was to set the record straight. He got in touch with Judy Collins and told her that the writing credit must have been a mistake, that he didn’t know anything about any such song.
Collins then proceeded to tell the surprised Phillips that they had both been at an after-concert party in 1963 where a heady mix of intoxicants were present. During this night she had heard him compose this song on the spot. Luckily someone had run a tape recorder during the party, and from that tape she had learned the song.
Well, Judy Collins was not involved in my story, but it’s more or less the same. Sometime early this century I was looking through some old notebooks from the 1970s where I had written some things, and there on a page in my handwriting was this piece. Not only had I had no recollection of writing it, I had no recollection of any night like it describes. It’s possible I imagined the scene it describes. It’s even possible that I didn’t write it, but why would I transcribe something of that length in the midst of other things I was writing?
Shortly after rediscovering it, I recorded this live take with the LYL Band and a drum machine. The guitarist I was playing with at that time was Andy Schultz who pulled out a lot of improvement in my playing as we wove lines between the two of us. Like the composition of the words used here, I can’t always tell when I listen to recordings from this time which of us played which guitar line back then.
Our last episode featured words by Phillis Wheatley, whose story I first heard about in a graveyard.
I was taking a walking tour in Boston, and there was a lot for the guide to talk about as we strolled through the Granary Burying Ground near one end of Boston Common, the cemetery where many of the instigators of the American revolution are buried. That’s where I heard Phillis Wheatley’s story.
There’s no tombstone for Phillis Wheatley there, and no record of where she was buried, though it could have been there. So, we don’t even know her graveyard, but we know her story.
Only a few days after wrapping up the work on the Phillis Wheatley episode, I happened to catch Viola Davis’ Oscar acceptance speech. Like David Harbour’s speech earlier this year, it compressed an artist’s calling into a few well-chosen words, and so, I set about creating today’s audio piece.
I recast Davis’ words a little, turning it from her own pledge, to an artist’s pledge than we all can take.
There are only a few words here, but the opening sentence announces itself strongly, while going—to my take on it—in two directions. “There’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered—and that’s the graveyard.” In that magnificent sentence, we may think of all the potential that’s totaled up short in every graveyard: potential lost due to life’s duration, lost due to injustice, lost to just bad luck, potential never reached for the many human failings. One of the most common of those human failings is to just not try, and when we fail to try, the graveyard is where that potential will end up.
This direction, where the sentence could go, is not where Davis takes us however. She reminds us: there, in those graveyard lives, is that precious struggle, the part-ways reach, all the somedays that someday may see victories. We should “exhume those stories,” she says.
And then Davis’ makes a daring statement. Art “is the only profession that celebrates what it is to live a life.”
Can that be so? Certainly, historians and social scientists collect and analyze information about lives too—but perhaps they must step beyond that role to light the footlights that art does. Art is the transference of the emotions and the perceiving inner being between people. Only at that level of communication can the celebration of what it means to live a life be reached. That’s what we do when we create art, or when we consume it actively.
Davis repeats her specific charge to artists, as she praises the creative acts of August Wilson, the writer and playwright: art’s radical empathy empowers and obligates artists to tell other people’s stories.
Writers listen to her here, listen to her evoke August Wilson: even your story is not your story. It’s your great-grandparent’s story, perhaps it will be your great-grandchild’s story. The graveyard, the grocery store and the stars are full of stories. Allow them to ask you to tell them.