Did I just say it’s been awhile since I featured a piece with words by Carl Sandburg? I started this Sandburg piece early this month thinking it would appropriate for the onset of spring and National Poetry Month. It fairly short order, I came up with the general chord progression I wanted to use, one which is somewhat ambiguous as to key-center (D, A, F#minor, E, with the cadence generally descending from D, but resolving either the A, the E, or the F#minor, and with a single Bminor thrown in).
I liked this musically when I laid down the initial acoustic guitar track of the chords; but I intended to add additional parts to fill out the arrangement, and when I started that, I found I had given myself more of a challenge than I had anticipated. A better orchestrator than myself would have had less trouble I suspect, but I finally came up with something I felt I could accept yesterday.
If you search for other Carl Sandburg pieces that have been part of the Parlando project, you can see how fond I am of Sandburg as a writer of short poems. For someone who writes generally in free verse, Sandburg’s work has been set to music more often that one might expect. As I worked on “Spring Grass” I assumed someone else had taken a crack at it, but I put off looking at that to concentrate on my own musical problems. This morning I did some searching and found that there are at least two other settings besides mine, one done by the young Phillip Glass, a composer I very much admire.
I find one word Sandburg used here intriguing: “spiffed,” which is obscure enough in his poem that I’m not sure what it means. At first I thought it was a nice onomatopoeic sound for the wind horse in the poem snorting gently near the poet’s face—and perhaps it is—but if I read Sandburg’s sentence right, it’s the spring grass smell riding on the wind that “spiffed” the author. Does he mean “spiffed up,” the only idiom I know that uses that word? I’ve never heard “spiffed” without the “up” myself.
Well, the word-mystery doesn’t stop the poem, there’s enough mystery in Spring itself. Enjoy the rest of #npm17 and keep telling folks about the Parlando Project and our combining of various music and various words in various ways.
Writers often like to compose their written works in their heads while walking, and poets, all the more so. It seems natural—the walking footsteps and the metrical foot compare apace.
I too have done this; and with poetry in particular, composing lines while away from any paper or screen may also help winnow out the more memorable flow from forgettable stumbles. But my old joints now rebel more at morning walks, and my later day is filled with daily work on the Parlando Project and the mundane tasks of living.
My solution to this is that great 19th Century invention: the bicycle. In wheeled weightlessness, I am able to roll along through nature and the city morning’s opening scenes: the gloved gardeners, the obedient dog owners, the students at their stops, the hopeful sidewalk joggers, the babies held crooked in the left arm as the right sweeps the straps from the child car seat. I do this in all weather, rain and snow included, not wanting to miss one act of the theater of the seasons.
It’s April, the National Poetry Month in this country, and I ride in the experience of that Chinese birdsong that Du Fu and Meng Haoran heard once and I hear now, and I know that the birds need no translation. One Sunday dawn, as rain threatened, the sun shined through the clouds as if they were translucent filters. The steeples of the churches and peaks of houses, illuminated thus, were indeed rose and violet as Emily Dickinson promised to tell us.
April isn’t just #npm17, it’s also serving up #30daysofbiking, and with the two in the same month I’ve said, “Emily Dickinson should have gotten a bicycle!” She could have maintained her thoughts’ enclosure, pedaled surely between the skeptics and the believers, and served her self-reliance within a somewhat broader world. Alas, she was just a bit too early for the modern bicycle—but it was close. Her mid-life “preceptor” Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a proponent of the bicycle and of women bicycling. Higginson, speaking about one of the early long-distance cyclists said:
“We found that modern mechanical invention, instead of disenchanting the universe, had really afforded the means of exploring its marvels the more surely. Instead of going round the world with a rifle, for the purpose of killing something – or with a bundle of tracts, in order to convert somebody – this bold youth simply went round the globe to see the people who were on it….”
Higginson, although speaking about my chosen ride, the acoustic motorcycle, seemed to be foreshadowing Robert Pirsig there.
Once more, a long preface to a short piece today. When I started the Parlando Project I thought I’d avoid that. Is another reason that April is National Poetry Month from the nursery rhyme “April showers/Bring May flowers?” Today’s episode “What Is It the Rain Dissolves” was written on a bicycle on a morning ride in a light rain. I passed two kids trying to master skateboards and a woman coming the other way on her bicycle, arms bare except for some elaborate tattoos.
Emily, is that you?
Given that poetry contributes the great majority of the words to the half of the Parlando Project “Where Music and Words Meet,” it’s reasonable to suspect, if you are reading this, that you like poetry. That’s too bad. Even during the National Poetry Month and #npm17 that were are talking about this April.
You see, poetry is often a frustrating thing. That high-flown language may be artful, but it’s an earful too. If you were seeking directions to escape some emergency, would you want your rescuer to choose the most precise and beautiful words, words that say more about what a clever speaker your rescuer is than about which way you must turn and where the dangers are?
Do you love the dense allusions and surprising metaphors of poetry? Do you admire the narrative fracturing and careful examination of the shattered facets that expose the common lie of ordered stories? The next time you are searching for how to work some complex gadget or system, do you want your tutorial or manual to scatter its tale in novel ways?
Speaking of lies and too simple statements, here’s one: that there are people who simply like poetry. No, most people who like poetry sometimes, hate poetry sometimes; just as most people who like music, hate music sometimes. The intensity of the like times does not decrease the intensity of the hate times. I think it’s important that poetry tries to capture the allusiveness of things. I continue to admire some poems I don’t really understand—that’s what the music is for, both the poem’s own music and the external music we apply to the words here at the Parlando Project. But there are times when you just want a poet to come out and say what they’re getting at.
The words to today’s episode, by William Butler Yeats, are clear in their meaning. “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing” is an example of “occasional verse,” a poem written in response to an event. In this case, almost everyone has forgotten the event, but the sentiments of the poem apply broadly anyway. Yeats has such a musical way of expressing himself, he could have flown off on some obscure path and we might have followed him anyway. As it turns out, the things he leaves out here, the particulars of the dispute, probably help the poem survive as a general piece of council.
Still, I’m a curious and literal sort. Who was the “Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing,” and what was the work? It was written about and perhaps to a man named Hugh Lane who wanted to donate his substantial modern art collection to a museum he proposed that Ireland should build to house it. And the man who would lie unashamed to oppose this? A newspaper publisher who opposed building the gallery.
What happened to Hugh Lane, whose work had come to nothing? About a year after Yeats wrote this poem, Lane went down when the Lusitania was torpedoed during WWI. And his art collection? His will seemed to leave it to the British National Gallery after his proposal to build the Irish museum failed, but Ireland disputed this will, and later in the 20th Century, after Lane’s and Yeats’ deaths, Lane’s collection was again on display in Dublin Ireland. So eventually, in prosaic history, Lane’s work succeeded.
It often takes a while to know who has died.
When Prince died a year ago, the shock-wave for fans was breath-taking, the air went out of the room, and for each of them there was something that went missing when they got the word: the promise of new music, a memory of concert or a night of dancing, a period of their youth now seemingly past all reliving, and probably a dozen or more other private things.
If it seemed impossible that Prince had died, it was because it was impossible that he had lived. About him it could be said that he could dance like James Brown, sing like Marvin Gaye, play guitar like Jimi Hendrix, write a song like Curtis Mayfield—and arrange it all, and play it all, and record it all for himself or other artists. He was the most astonishingly broad musical artist of our time.
And he did this over and over, for decades, to the point that no one could ever really keep up with all he did. I suspect the longer time we now have will allow us to discover, in his work, things that are still overlooked, ideas that he had that somehow weren’t understood, things we skipped over because we thought Prince should be doing something else.
Tonight, as I write this, I’m struck by one other thing: has there been enough recognition that Prince was in the vanguard of bringing women instrumentalists into the context of the rock band? Let’s propose a rock band gender integration variation of the Bechdel test: name a successful band with two prominent women instrumentalists before The Revolution that wasn’t a “all-girl band. (1)” Every example that comes to mind (and it’s not like there are hundreds of them) stops the count of women players at one. I can think of only two (2), and neither achieved a modicum of the cultural prominence of Prince’s band.
And he did it again performing with his late career power trio, 3rdEyeGirl.
That’s just a part of his career of course—but please, this isn’t some kind of rote identity politics thing, or merely a piece of trivia like “Name a band with two left-handed Canadians?”. This is half the human race!
With the Parlando Project I get to audaciously tackle the work of a lot of great writers. I use their words unashamedly and try to find something I can relate to you about their work. For some reason, perhaps because Prince Rogers Nelson embarrasses me as musician, I’ve been hesitant to post this episode, and to share this modest musical piece The LYL Band wrote and performed about his leaving.
But I’m going to do it anyway. The best parts of this piece “Mr. Nelson” are the work of Dave Moore: most of the words and the electronic piano part. You can dance if you want to.
(1) I exclude the “all-girl band” not to denigrate the talents of those who performed in them, or because a band somehow needs men to be valid, but because however intended, the result in the 20th Century cultural context was seen largely for its novelty value.
(2) The two bands I can think of: Joy of Cooking and the Country Joe MacDonald led “Paris Sessions” era All-Star Band.
Readers of these notes may recall a discussion of the theory that Emily Dickinson’s reclusive nature in later adulthood was caused by epilepsy and that her poem “I Felt a Funeral In My Brain” may have been describing the auras experienced around epileptic seizure events. I think it’s an interesting idea, a plausible one, but in I also warned against reductionist explanations for art.
Even recognizing that danger, I’m about to risk that sort of thing again, for what I think are good reasons.
Is T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” introduced to students later and less often now than it was in my youth? If so, I suspect this is because “The Waste Land” does not present itself as a friendly introduction to poetry. It seems proudly obscure. There’s no frank self-expression in it where a recognizable author/speaker tells us about their life and outlook. Instead, there’s a flurry of voices and characters that are barely, if even that, introduced. And there’s no interesting story, no fable or tale with a twist that carries us along. There’s a shortage of obvious similes, no “fog comes on little cat’s feet” to introduce metaphor.
In my youth, all these shortcomings of “The Waste Land” as a teaching tool were overlooked because it was a landmark in the rise of Modernism, that defining artistic movement of the first half of the 20th Century, and because it was full of the stuff that made up a Liberal Education: foreign phrases, cosmopolitan settings, wide-ranging cultural references to other literary works from across time.
And now? The odds are that if T.S. Eliot was to stand up at a Moth story-telling stage or a slam poetry event and deliver “The Waste Land” in whole or in part, that boos, snores, or some variety of non-pleasurable puzzlement would result. We are inured to a different kind of poetry, confused enough, bothered enough, by modernity and its incessant messages that Eliot’s fragments shored up against ruins seems to offer us no balm, no pleasure of recognition.
I’ll offer two keys, two aspects of “The Waste Land” that can allow you entry into it. The first is: it’s intensely musical. The imagery, outside of “The Waste Land’s” overriding dry vs. wet scheme, never strays far from sounds, and all those unintroduced voices are like new strains in a composition. No wonder the Parlando project is drawn to it, because we believe that one can appreciate poetry without understanding its meaning, in the same way that you can appreciate music without being able to somehow explicate it.
The second entry point, the one that risks being reductionist, is that this is a poem written by someone suffering from depression. Whatever voice is speaking in the poem, it is heard and reflected out the mouth of someone who feels it has all gone wrong, someone who cannot fully trust any other feeling other than that—other than the emotion of fear that that is the reality that any other feeling would mask. Although it must sacrifice the music, the incandescent reading of the “The Waste Land” by Fiona Shaw illuminates this aspect.
Today’s episode is just a part of the first part of “The Waste Land,” but it’s the part the begins in April, our National Poetry Month. I don’t know if Eliot intended to refer to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” prologue (our last episode), but it sure seems to rhyme. The opening of Eliot’s series of tales has, like Chaucer’s prologue, rain, flowers, journeys and travelers; and later in the poem Eliot will in bring birdsongs and churches. And Chaucer, who begins singing in Spring merriment, introduces at the end of the prologue the promise of “Strange strands,” and tells us that the pilgrims may be taking the pilgrimage because they have been sick.
One way to get experience is to seek it through the directed travel of a pilgrimage. Many religious traditions include the idea of a such journeys, and one side-effect of a shared destination is the mingling of travelers from diverse setting-off points along the trail.
In the Middle Ages, in England, one pilgrimage had the greatest potential to bring a diverse group together, the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Canterbury where the sainted Thomas Becket had been assassinated. A series of stories ostensibly told by various tellers together for this trip became the great early work of English literature: Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”
April is National Poetry Month in the US, and though this celebration’s founders give no exact reason for April being chosen, two widely known poems explicitly start in April, and whether it’s cause or effect, I think of these poems when I think of April and National Poetry Month. The oldest of these, is today’s episode “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.” Which begins:
“Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote”
Now I know I’ve let slip too many typos in these notes before today, but that’s not a particularly bad day at the keyboard—instead, it’s Chaucer’s version of English as spoken in the 15th Century. It’s a challenge to read this in the original pronunciation, though I once was delighted when a skilled classical music DJ mic checked at 5:45 AM one morning with a perfect rendition of this Prologue in Middle English. I’m not going to attempt the same; today’s episode uses a modern English version for clarity, and in consideration of my thicker tongue.
Musically I’m not in the Middle Ages or in Canterbury for this piece either. I’m going to use the 12-string guitar once more. There is no shrine here in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, but for some reason three of best players of this troublesome priest of an instrument came to prominence here: “Spider John” Koerner, Leo Kottke, and Steve Tibbetts. For this episode, the 12 String’s musical tale is told in the character of Steve Tibbetts—or rather a modest imitation on my part using Tibbetts’ distinct stringing of the 12 string, which uses octave strings only on the two lowest courses of the 12 string with unison string pairs on the rest.
Here’s another piece by Dave Moore. Dave plays almost all of the keyboards on the LYL Band music you hear here, and without his contributions I’d get tired of hearing my own voice all the time myself. Today’s episode “Experience” started out intended as a poem, as Dave explains:
“My friend Ethna mentioned the Common Good Books poetry contest, which paid cash, on the theme of experience.
Naturally the next word in my mind was prurience, which in this version I ‘eschew.’ although I changed the printed version to ‘avoid.’ Still, I love the roll of ‘eschew prurience.’
I set out to state that every moment is an experience, and most of them are accidents, which constitutes the glory of the show. But - But seriously...
When I brought this lyric to a LYL session, I draped it around a tune, trying to see how the words spilled over the dam. Thus edified, I tinkered with it some before submitting to Common Good.
Of course, I lifted ‘life is but a joke’ from Dylan's ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ but it worked so well in the stanza (is it a chorus?) of philosophy. I chose to leave the ‘do’ and ‘done’ lines as ironic music which states the case.
So, am I experienced? Conclusively, I can say yes or no.”
Experience is an interesting topic for this book store’s contest. William Blake titled one of his collections of short lyrics “Songs of Experience,” after which I cannot think of the word without thinking of Blake—but Blake also put much store in the auguries of innocence. Ralph Waldo Emerson toured the country as a speaker, but his contemporary Emily Dickinson famously constricted her travels as she grew up. Emerson’s mind worked best traveling widely, as in his essays. Dickinson mind produced compressed words pinned in a matrix of her famous dashes, and it’s Dickinson’s poetry that we are more likely to turn to today. “Like a dream, experience is being where you are” Dave says.
The most popular TV show of my youth was a strange yet derivative series called “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The basic device of this comedy was as old as Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals, and as common as 19th and 20th Century perennials like hillbilly plays, Ma and Pa Kettle films and even minstrel shows.
They all work the same way, and the joke never seems to grow old: rural folks are stupid, prone to exaggerating for comic effect all errors in human logic. They are above all inexperienced, leading to all kinds of misunderstandings; and they are peculiar in their language: misuse of words or odd pronunciations are rife. Abstractly, this is the ore of comedy gold, but culturally these traits are being applied to an “other,” a group that can safely be made fools of to demonstrate the audience’s superior understanding.
One trap of that kind of comedy: the dumber the writer thinks the audience is, the dumber the writer believes he must make the characters, until they lack all worth, delight and surprise. While one could worry about such authors violating political correctness, the worse danger to the authors’ career is for the audience to figure out that they are being played for rubes through a play about fools.
I was young when “The Beverly Hillbillies” was going strong, and living in a very small town in a rural state, but I found this show funny. I never occurred to me that my own inexperience might be blinding me to the idea that I could be part of this bumpkin class, at least in some people’s eyes. My little town was progressive, proud of its school, and besides I didn’t think like those silly folks, I knew full well that richer folks’ houses could have a swimming pool in the back yard and that they were called just that, not See-Meant Ponds.
But my youth and my small town were a course of inexperience. I was forever mispronouncing words and authors' names because I had never heard them spoken—I had only seen them written on the page. I was, and yet wasn’t, those stock comic characters.
Is there any value in small towns? I believe there is. I’ll give you one example before I move on: in small towns there is no surplus of conscripts, everyone needs to do their part. Slacking doesn’t mean someone else does it, it means it doesn’t get done, and there’s no escaping that knowledge. I’m afraid that in my old age and life in a big city, I’ve become just such a slacker.
And there’s one other value to such a youth: going from a smaller, less varied place to a larger and more diverse one gives an eye a very sharp lens to look at things. I’m not sure movement the other way works as well. If one looks in the big end of the telescope, everything you point the small end at looks tiny and indistinct. It’s no accident that a very large group of writers follows that biographic path from town to city.
All this leads to today’s piece, “The Lake Street Testament,” which is an urban story through and through.
The path of a long build up like this to a short ending is another comic staple: the Shaggy Dog Story. Earlier here you’ve seen me write about the essentially comic dimensions of the human condition, particularly when talking about Leonard Cohen, Mose Allison, and Phil Dacey. This piece takes that thought into this religious season and puts it on Lake Street, which is a main commercial east/west street through the center of Minneapolis, as urban a road as exists anywhere.
Monday night here in Minnesota it snowed. As I took my pre-teen son to school in the morning, he looked at the inch of fresh snow on the spring ground and said “Mother Nature is drunk. Shut her down!”
I rode my winter bike to breakfast that morning, and the trees overhanging the street were shedding overnight ice chunks that their budding branches were rejecting in the morning. As this shrugging hail fell on my ski helmet’s hard shell, it bounced off with a “ping!” like marbles or ping pong balls, and popped onto the icy street like broken ornaments. A few hours later, in the late afternoon, I rode again to the grocery store in considerable sunlight. The streets were dry and I was in shorts and a T shirt.
Minnesotans have a well-worn phrase for our edition of the book of nature. It’s not a hand-bound collection of poems like our New Englander Emily Dickinson’s, but a play script: “The Theater of the Seasons” we call it. Famously, we try to hide emotions here, but we sure do enjoy a little drama with our weather forecasts, keeping an eye peeled for news of storms that can kill or injure you. Sitting in the upper Midwest we can receive weather sweeping up from the Gulf of Mexico or dropping down from the Northwest Territories. So, particularly in Spring and Fall, the Theater of the Seasons plays in repertory here in Minnesota.
Today’s short audio piece is called just that: “Theater of the Seasons,” expanding on that phrase a bit. I think you’ll enjoy it.
I find it a wonderful “Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet” co-incidence that one of Christina Rossetti’s sonnets and one of David Crosby’s songs share a title, “Triad.”
David Crosby is a musician and songwriter who first came to prominence in The Byrds and then as part of another triad, Crosby Stills and Nash. When I first came upon his songwriting many years ago, I was attracted to his distinctive abstract melodic and harmonic sense. Almost no one before, and few since, wrote music for songs that sound like his did then, with the exception of some Joni Mitchell tunes. Lyrically Crosby styled himself as unconventional as well. His “Triad” is a blissful ode to free love—well at least free love as long as David Crosby is the one explaining how things will be.
Christina Rossetti was a pioneering British 19th century female poet. Her biographical triad was that she had two brothers William Mitchell Rossetti and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, also writers, who went on to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Hmmm, “Brotherhood”—I wonder if girls get to join? Not officially, though she was used a model in some of their paintings.
Christina Rossetti’s “Triad” is a not-so-happy look at romantic love, and the writer is none-so-sure how it should be either. Rossetti draws her portrait of three women who once sang together. One the stereotypical harlot, one the blue spinster, one the smooth compliant wife. Each of them finds the dead end of the limited paths available for passionate women. Conventionality decrees the hot harlot is shamed and the cold virgin dies for love, but Rossetti steps outside conventionality to tell us that the “temperate” spouse grew gross in her compromise until left with the devastating line droning “in sweetness like a fattened bee.” How much has changed since Rossetti’s Victorian England in this regard? Some things, not all things. New Rules are still rules, look at who makes them.
Musically here with our "Triad", the LYL Band somewhat refer to the psychedelic vibe of Crosby’s musical style to accompany Rossetti’s sad and lovely words.
Minnesota goes wild in spring when it finally gets warm, and so today, which promises to touch 70 degrees, will surely display this. Like the day described in today’s episode, I’ll probably go for a bike ride with my young son, and we’ll ride on The Greenway, a several mile reclaimed railroad cut that runs, as time does, east and west through the middle of Minneapolis.
Raising a child as a musician, writer, and sometime bohemian brings extra questions. Do you want your child to follow the most conventional and unquestioning path? Certainly not. You encourage him to question things, even allowing that this will encourage him to question you. You look at your own life backwards as you look at his coming forward, and wish him adventures, but only so much. You know there will be hardships and wrong choices, but you hope only enough to be instructive. As an artist you may worship art, but you’re not sure you’re comfortable with him adopting all the tenants of that religion.
Today’s piece “Biking on the Greenway with My Son and Bob Stinson” speaks of this from the seat of a bicycle.
Bob Stinson was the animating force in The Replacements, an ‘80s punk band that never tried to split the difference between insouciance and not giving a @#*&. As a guitarist he was an anarchist, and the band accidentally worked like the NY Dolls, the Kinks, or the Rolling Stones, with a great front man who had the lyrical wit and the staggering lead guitarist who embodied the music’s soul.
The Replacements’ front man, Paul Westerberg, was quickly indicted as a fine rock’n’roll songwriter, which damaged the band because songwriting implies loitering with intent to commit James Taylor. The band rebelled by making sure that a regimented presentation of a set of songs was not the aim. On any given night, this could be inspiring or a shambles: Dada or do-do. Being blotto on stage to the point you couldn’t hide it was almost a requirement, and for no member of the Replacements more than for Bob Stinson.
Eventually the dichotomy demanded an ostomy and Bob Stinson was asked to leave the band he founded. Things did not go well for Bob without his artistic outlet, and chemical dependency played out its run until he died, his body worn out at 35.
Self-destruction aside, you can see that as path of purity. Chasing after success and an ego-driven desire to rise above others can harm too. The addict and the monk believe they have two different gods, but they have the same scourge. Negation and creativity; the not this, so this can emerge, is part of the religion of art.
Music, Minneapolis, and life are different now 30 years later, and that’s the place my son now lives in. Somewhere 30 years on from today will be the place he will live in, no longer young, if he survives rebellion and conformity, if he finds the balance between the worship of the self and self-destruction.
William Butler Yeats, when he spoke admiringly about the ubiquity that songwriters like Rabindranath Tagore could achieve, had already made his forays into setting his poems to music. As a sometime playwright, and a founder of the Abbey Theater in Ireland, he was already familiar with the dimensions performers can bring to words. Around the turn to the 20th Century he began to forthrightly seek to combine his poetry with music. Working in collaboration with musicologist and luthier Arnold Dolmetsch and performer Florence Farr he had a psaltery (a stringed instrument like a lyre or small harp) constructed, and Farr (a fascinating figure in her own right) then performed Yeats poems with it.
Yeats and Farr’s performance style was not a conventional art song setting of the poet’s words sung to a melody. Yeats explicitly rejected that (even though his words have often been set to melodies in the years since). Rather he thought the words were best chanted or intoned in a rhythmic and somewhat elongated speech. Such performances are controversial then, and I would suppose they would be controversial now as well. George Bernard Shaw called Farr’s chanting “A nerve-destroying crooning,” but Ezra Pound and other early 20th century modernists took note, and they were influenced by these performances to add a more incantatory and musical element to their poetry.
Now let us break in our story for about half a century.
In the late 1950s an actor and folk singer Burl Ives recorded an album of Irish songs, and one of them was “The Wondering of Old Angus”, a Yeats poem sung to melody that Ives claimed he learned from Sara Allgood, another actor who had performed with the Abbey Theater group and would have likely known of the Farr performances. Around the same time, another folk singer, Will Holt began singing the Yeats poem to a very similar melody, using Yeats’ title “The Song of the Wandering Aengus.” Then in 1962, Judy Collins, having learned the song from Holt, made it the title song of her album “Golden Apples of the Sun,” which is where I first heard it.
No one seemed to know where the tune Ives, Holt, and Collins used came from. Those knowledgeable in traditional Irish tunes do not recognize it. Some credited Holt for it. However, early in the 21st Century a man named Bill Kennedy writing in the folk-song forum mudcat.org linked the tune to a transcription made by Dolmetsch accompanying a Yeats essay “Speaking to the Psaltery” re-published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1907. The tune there of course was not meant to be sung, as Yeats discussed in this essay, but it is recognizably the one used by Ives, Holt, and Collins in their singing renditions.
So the tune may well be Yeats’ own, or perhaps it was composed by Farr or even Dolmetsch. Since the words are Yeats’, I’m going to call it, and make him the composer; and if so, that makes Yeats yet another singer-songwriter (along with Tagore and Dylan) to have won the Nobel prize.
But he didn’t sing it, nor did he intend the words to be sung. Since we at the Parlando project are working in something like the same vein, here’s a version, using more or less that tune, but chanted not sung.
When it was announced that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature there was a substantial reaction asking if songs could be literature—no, that’s not right, I’m mischaracterizing much of the reaction I read as if it was an honest inquiry into this question. No, the reaction I read was more of a conclusion that songs could not be literature, and so this Nobel award to Bob Dylan was a break with tradition, a loosening of standards.
This is complex subject, one I’ll probably return to, as I have much to say on this; but missed in the hoopla and questioning was this fact: Bob Dylan was the second singer/songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 1913 Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize, the committee citing:
"Because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West."
In 1913 when the prize was given, Tagore had only one such work they could be talking about: “Gitanjali,” a 1912 collection of his song lyrics that Tagore had translated himself from Bengali into English prose poems.
Tagore is a fascinating man and artist, with achievements in so many fields that you might think I’m making him up. He wrote every kind of literature, started a university, seriously pursued modern painting, and gave Gandhi the title “Mahatma.” But he was no dabbler at songwriting, having written over 2000 songs. He’s even the only composer to score a hat trick for national anthems, having written the national anthems of India, Bangladesh and Siri Lanka. His songs are so pervasive in Bengali culture that his thousands of songs have become their own genre.
Poet William Butler Yeats wrote enviously in his introduction to Tagore’s “Gitanjali” of the power of songs:
“These verses will not lie in little well-printed books upon ladies' tables, who turn the pages with indolent hands that they may sigh over a life without meaning, which is yet all they can know of life, or be carried by students at the university to be laid aside when the work of life begins, but, as the generations pass, travelers will hum them on the highway and men rowing upon the rivers.”
This spring as I read Tagore’s “Gitanjali,” I hoped to find there on the page what is promised in Yeats’ introduction and what would normally be guaranteed by such acclaim. I failed at this. I couldn’t find it. The English of the prose translations seemed so archaic, the expression stilted, the voice vague. From accounts I’ve now read, this seems to be an acknowledged problem; and it appears that, for whatever reasons, Tagore purposely framed his translated work in an incomplete way. In the longer term, I will seek some of the newer translations. In the short term, I stood back and remembered something.
Song. These are songs.
Not only are they missing their music, but songs, like plays, are works for individual voices and talents to embody. Their creators are not claiming the real, complete thing exists on the page, that they are performing them mutely with ink on the white page. No, they expect, demand, that someone step in them, surmise their meaning, fill the blank white space with emotions, and speak them.
All art is like this really. Songs admit it. Songwriters generously say: I need you to fill these things, your humanity is better than any of my approximations.
So, today’s episode is the second of my attempts to bring something to a piece from Tagore’s “Gitanjali” using his original prose translations, as that’s all I have for now. With the last episode’s “Light” I tried to meet Bengali music partway, but this time I’m staying firmly in the Western side, maybe even a bit on the Country and Western side. As I read this piece on the page I heard it as sounding like one of those weird Lee Hazelwood arrangements from a few decades ago, but since I was producing this myself, I had to sing the Nancy Sinatra part as well.
If you wonder about the floating lights ceremony mentioned in the song I call “Maiden with a Lamp,” it may be this one.
What is lost when poetry is translated? Robert Frost thought it outright: “Poetry is what is lost in translation.” Those who’ve read my notes here on the Parlando project know that I hold that poetry is words that want to sing. Those sound effects of the flowing sound of words, the call and response of rhyme, the beats of the dancing syllables—all that music can hardly be asked to make it past the visa-check at the translation station on languages’ borders.
In recent episodes I translated two poems from classical Chinese. As a non-Chinese speaker, I could not even hope to convey what musical effects the originals had. To better see this as English speakers, let us look the other direction, and think about what Emily Dickinson’s “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” would lose if we were to translate it to classical Chinese?
Would Dickinson’s easy music carry over? In English we have the movement of the common meter/ballad meter in her poem, a beat that is ingrained in those who sing common Christian hymns or know secular songs using this meter in the folk and popular music fields. Since this is a common form in our culture, we are primed to move to this meter, and rich associations may arise from other times we have felt the same beat. And that is most likely lost in translation.
There’s a pun in the first line. The sun “rose” and is pink. Puns won’t likely make it across the border.
Dickinson rhymed her poem. Translators sometimes choose to create rhyming poems in their destination language, but adding this degree of difficulty to the task may cause other defects in translation as the rhyme is sought.
English sometimes has an advantage when one translates to and from it, because it is the language of a much-invaded island, which was then taken up by a polyglot country across the ocean. English as we know it today is full of words with Latin and Germanic origin, echoes of French, Spanish, German, even Dutch. Occasionally, puns or even rhymes can be saved when the foreign language has these connections. And metric rules for accents and syllables can be somewhat portable across the European range.
But what if we were to translate from English to classical Chinese? I’ll take an audacious shot at Dickinson's first verse, the English gloss from the ideograms resulting might go like this:
Tell Sun Rise
Towers Wet Purple-Quartz
Hills Unpinned Hats
Soft Talk Inside
Well, there’s something still there isn’t there, even if we as English speakers see the losses. What remains is Dickinson’s attention to an ordinary event with extraordinary details. And there’s some musical structure remaining: parallelism, theme and variation that doesn’t rely on beats or syllables that can still peak through.
Today’s episode is an English translation from the original Bengali by its own author, Rabindranath Tagore. Despite having attended school in England, despite familiarity with English as a resident of a then colonial province of the British Empire, despite some rumored editorial assistance from renowned English language poet William Butler Yeats, and despite Tagore’s well-attested to genius, “Light” was published in English in 1912 as a prose translation.
Paradoxically this may be due to the original’s musicality. I’ll have more to say on Tagore next time, but for now just know that Tagore was a composer and songwriter, and that his songs are widely known and appreciated by millions of Bengali speakers.
So, to try to restore some of the impact originally present in this piece, I composed and played a rather dense musical accompaniment for Tagore’s translated words. I did this in ignorance of if Tagore had his own melody for this poem in Bengali. Besides animation and illumination of his English prose, I aimed to combine some of my appreciation his native region’s music and Western electric guitar based music.