I describe the Parlando Project as various words (mostly poetry) combined with various music. The limits on the music portion are largely the limits of my own musical abilities and those of the LYL Band, but I try to stretch those limits as much as I can. The words we’ve used have been poetry more than 90% of the time, but I like to mix up eras and writing approaches there too. Today’s piece uses words that weren’t published as poetry, but they are instead taken from an interview with Laurie Anderson published in The Believer magazine about 5 years ago. The interviewer (a couple of whose interjections I’ve included) was Amanda Stern.
Just before the small section I used from the interview, Anderson was relating that artists do not necessarily need to invent something new themselves, rather they can use art to just call attention to things that already exist. That’s an idea that we honor here with the Parlando Project. Instead of endless creating and featuring new sets of words that Dave or I write, we instead largely seek to pay attention to the work of others. That thought, attention versus creation, led Laurie Anderson to her meditation on the sky that I have now combined with my music for today’s piece, “Sky.”
Part of what attracted me to this was her attribution of her sky meditation to growing up in the American Midwest, in a town without big mountains or large bodies of water. In such matters I could easily resonate with her feelings, having been similarly enraptured myself by the sky blue and clouds or the black with serious stars in my youth in Iowa. The book of nature has few words and a lot of blank spaces, but it reads deeply if you look at it.
While I write this, I’m still reading more about the last episode’s author, pioneering English modernist T. E. Hulme, finding out that he felt the need to change his art after spending time on the Canadian Great Plains. Certainly, there was sky where he grew up in England, but the sky of great open places, with its null, yet present reflection on the earth, is the whole garment, after which having seen it, one can be reminded of it, even if all one currently has is a tattered swatch.
I cannot describe Laurie Anderson fairly in the space I take for these things here. There are no other better-known artists like her, and so resorting to record store clerk shorthand such as: “She’s like Garrison Keillor combined with Yoko Ono and Andy Kaufman and…” is so strained it doesn’t really get the point across. I can see the lineage from Dada though the developments of 20th Century art in her work, but after all, everyone has influences and comes upon things they resonate with, just as Laurie Anderson’s way of combining spoken word with music is an influence on me.
Anderson’s spoken voice phrasing and speaking style is one of the distinctive things about her audio art. Some describe it as a monotone, but I’d say that’s incorrect. Yes, there’s a compression of affect, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t considerable impression of mood and attitude in it. Perhaps she’d ascribe that to Midwesterness as well. Even her non-pitched performance speaking has in intensely lulling cadence and music to it, not just hypnotic in metaphor, but very much in the mode of the spell-casting of a stage hypnotist.
That shouldn’t work—and as much as I love her work, in larger doses I sometimes find it hard to retain even sub-conscious attention throughout the whole work—but with the right amount of attention, it’s extraordinarily powerful stuff.
As she has developed her audio style over the years, she’s added singing and a strong use of electronic voice modifications. As far as I know, she’s one of the pioneers in the use of that electronic voice manipulation. I even considered using some of that in “Sky,” but opted instead for a more straightforward presentation.
I return today to the work of pioneering English modernist poet T. E. Hulme, he of the entire compass of work comprising 260 lines. “The Embankment” is 7 to 9 lines, 63 words, of that.
What can a writer put in such a small container? Hulme was in some ways the founding theorist of Imagism. In that small circle in England where Imagism emerged, the pioneers looked to various models in poetic concision. Pound to the Tang Dynasty Chinese poets. H.D. to Sappho and the early Greek lyric poets. Hulme probably considered the classic Latin poets—a form of writing I’m largely ignorant of—but in his writing about what modern poetry should be, he spoke more about what his ideal of poetry was in opposition towards.
He called everything he didn’t want in the new poetry “Romanticism,” and he was having none of that. Lofty, fulsomely expressed sentiment? Away with it. Elaborate conceits where everything would be compared to something Olympian and mighty? Nope. Mankind, and mankind’s artists, the heroic part of the world? No! Fallen, humbled, limited…
Instead he propounded a new classicism, a “dry hardness” he called it. Imagism, presenting things directly without extraneous comment, and the concision of Hulme’s poetical works, follow from this thought. The epic, the soaring ode, the dramatic statement many acts long—even if it reflects those same convictions in its content—defies its argument with its elaboration. Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, two writers influenced by Hulme, tried to disprove this, but with Eliot’s "The Wasteland" or Pound’s Cantos, they often used small, fragmented sections collaged into a larger thing, trying to make this contradiction work.
I’m now halfway through Dr. Oliver Tearle’s book-length consideration of Hulme’s poetry (T. E. Hulme and Modernism, available wherever books are sold), but besides introducing me to Hulme’s work, Tearle’s book points out that Hulme, so sure and combative in his critical writing, was not so pure in his expression of those ideas in his poetry. The poetry’s radical simplicity can achieve a humility that no theory written in disputive counter-punches can express.
“The Embankment” demonstrates this. Following the theory, its sole character is that of a homeless man, his history shortened to a former gentleman’s status, once accustomed to finesse, joy, and fine clothes, currently sleeping outside on the banks of the Thames. Then, for three lines, theory breaks in: “Now see I/That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy./Oh, God, make small”—that last line ending, we will find, in an enjambment, but we do not know that yet as we listen or read.
Hulme has called for a “dry hardness” in his critical theory, and the bum in his poem certainly has the hardness in the pavement he’s sleeping on, and we can only hope he also has the dryness to go along with that. Is the warmth that the bum desires, that he—suddenly an aesthetic philosopher—states is essential to poetry, part of his fallen state? Or is it, as we the reader might empathize, a universal human want that none of us can escape?
And then that wonderful, short line, Hulme’s own “Beauty is truth, truth is Beauty” — “Oh God, make small.”
And as the enjambment on the embankment falls to the next line, we learn that what the bum wants small is the sky, presented in a perfect Hulme reverse-Olympian image, as a star-pierced, moth-eaten blanket, full of holes.
Is there comfort in those lines of prayer that conclude “The Embankment?” If there is, it’s in the strange—and unstated in the poem—comfort of empathy, that sometimes painful human emotion of warm connectedness that possibly transcends our imperfections.
Today’s selection was also recorded a few years back, and is more conventionally in that “poet reading beat poetry while a band backs the poet up” school of performance. While that’s one of the influences that has led to the Parlando Project, I didn’t want to confine myself to that style, and if you’ve been following along here with what we’ve done over the past year, you can hear some of the other approaches we’ve taken.
As I’m in a busy end of August, I don’t have time for much commentary on this piece, but I don’t think it needs it either, which is part of why it’s here today. This is a story set distinctly in South Minneapolis and the early 21st Century, and it talks obliquely about the time of falling in love with my wife. The Riverview Theater mentioned in the poem is still a going concern, a neighborhood single-screen movie house that shows movies near the end of their theatrical release without concentrating on any one cinema genre, leading to marquee billings like the one the poem mentions, a series of titles that often seem like little Dada poems to me.
Outside of the localism of the poem, the main obscurity in it is the title: “Like John A Dreams.” That’s a reference to one of my favorite speeches in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the play’s Act II, the hero Hamlet is asking why he cannot take action on the death of his father, and he rebukes himself as “Like John A Dreams, unpregnant of my cause, and I can say nothing…” John A Dreams was apparently a stock folk character in Shakespeare’s time, a foolish character who lived in his imagination and ignored more pressing reality—a character flaw all writers should be able to appreciate.
So, if you’re a writer or other artist, Hamlet’s speech is for you. Your life is quite possibly bifurcated between that artistic thing you do and the life you press aside to do it. Art is often about making “and” choices. Life is often about making “or” choices.
My own lunar eclipse piece is set in our century, and in my Midwestern place. I start off by musing on the same planetary shadow play that Hardy wrote of, but wondering if we were our planet if we might make sport of our standing between the sun and moon, as we did as children when the film strip broke in class, or the slide tray of vacation photos needed to be changed, by making hand shadow puppets in the light. Then, as the blood moon eclipse neared totality, and the dark was dark, save for the streetlight at the end of the block and a houselight here and there left on, every hand up and down the street raised itself to the heavens, holding their lit smartphones, as they took pictures of the sky and the moon blocked by ourselves on our planet.
What did I mean by the last line? Well, as I sometimes do, I wanted to mean several things. I wanted to say we thought we could capture this cosmic event that had stopped our routine in with the birthday pictures on our smartphone camera roll. I wanted to say, as Hardy did, that we are seeing the whole of our planet, the lives of all our neighborhoods, yet it is only one disk in the wide sky. I wanted to say that our present, particular lives: all our details, our family, our neighborhoods, our homes—the only way we can experience living—are but one transit of life. Maybe I wanted to say something else that even I wasn’t sure how to say? If so, I wouldn’t know. Sometimes that happens in poems.
We seem to be in a month of sky omens in the Midwest, with the Perseids meteor shower and a solar eclipse following one after the other. Perhaps because solar eclipses are rare, poems about them are rare too. I’m going to cheat then, and present two pieces about lunar eclipses, a slightly more common event that occurs when the Earth comes between the Moon and the Sun, blocking the moon‘s reflected shine.
I’ll lead off with one written sometime in the 19th Century, Thomas Hardy’s sonnet “At the Lunar Eclipse.” I remember the moon-trip photos, taken near the middle of the 20th Century, looking back at Earth, where for the first time, we could see our planet whole. Hardy reminds us, a hundred years before that, that we could see our whole Earth in a shadow play during the lunar eclipse.
Optimists at the end of the 1960s thought these whole Earth pictures would help us understand our solitary yet majestic unity and common cause. Hardy, though he had only the Earth’s shadow during an eclipse to work with, is not so sure.
The LYL Band’s performance of this Hardy poem is a live recording from a few years back and it strains to reach “bootleg tape” recording quality, but still I hope it retains some vitality. And since this Hardy poem is referenced in the next piece, I thought it wise to give this rougher recording an airing.
Though neither I or the Parlando Project had anything to do with it, if you’d like to hear a restrained and lovely simple solo voice and piano sung setting of the same Hardy poem, you can view it here.
There’s a long tradition of “the answer record” in pop music, where another artist responds to a hit record with an opposing viewpoint. Christopher Marlowe’s 1593 “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (our last episode) received a similar diss from Sir Walter Raleigh with his “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” which is today’s. Who will rock the mic harder? Feel free to re-listen to Marlowe’s inning before considering Raleigh's reply.
As I mentioned last time, these poems with their shepherds and lovers, called Pastorals, were proudly artificial, and set in a completely stylized and relaxed world of affection and sufficiency. You may find any desire to dwell in this unreal world strange and old-fashioned, but perhaps we imagine now another kind of locus amoenus/“pleasant place” to dream of going to, to escape the world.
Raleigh’s “The Lie” has already demonstrated here that Raleigh had no patience with romanticism. So, he’s already primed to take on “The Passionate Shepherd,” but he also notices another weakness in Marlowe’s argument: the Shepherd promises pleasures, presumably mutual pleasures to his lover, but he isn’t stopping there. He’s going to demonstrate his commitment by throwing an entire Etsy shop at her: beds of roses, caps, vests and belts made from woven wildflowers, wool dresses and wool lined slippers. And bling! Gold buckles, coral and amber buttons.
So, Raleigh composing the nymph’s reply has three arguments to make. All those hand-made crafts on offer? Doesn’t move me Shep. Outdoor animal husbandry? Not as romantic as you make it out to be in May, and those wool slippers better be warm if I’m going to be traipsing after some sheep come January. Lastly Shep, you’re all hot and bothered about me now, but just how lasting is all that? I appreciate the offer, but let’s just say I’m keeping the wool lined slippers and you can go try your line on some other nymph?
Let us leave the Modernists for a moment, for a trip to an imaginary land, a locus amoenus, a pleasant place, within whose bounds certain things hold true: love brings simple riches and complex pleasures ignorant of inconstant affection, and the cares and complexities of cosmopolitan life, brutal prejudice, and other social constructions fade away.
Such a place can have many names. To the Surrealists it was the unfettered confusion of certain dreams. To the west coast optimists of the Sixties and their cross-Atlantic vibrationalists, it was a new Eden of decorated affection and open-mindedness. To a resident of fetid Elizabethan London, it was the pastoral, a demi-countryside where love was free and the rent non-existent. Shepherds, Pan and Panopticon, willed willing partners to their bowers. It seems like a nice place to visit—and in the mind, even more so.
Christopher Marlowe must have written this pastoral love poem sometime before he died in 1593 (baring any occult forces of the Twilight variety, or the posthumous inspirations that allow Oxfordians to confound Shakespeare’s later plays) but it wasn’t published until a few years after his death. It’s a full-throated exhortation in the pastoral style—with a slippery set of gold-buckled feat at the bottom of its argument as we’ll soon see, though that may not matter. Not only is it lovely sounding, even read flat on the page, the whole point of the imaginary pastoral world and the locus amoenus is that it isn’t real, that it’s the place we want to lie in and be lied to sweetly, within.
In the spirit of all this, today’s audio piece is one of the few Parlando Project selections where I sing, as you can’t really declaim “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” Musically, I chose to use some of the production techniques popular among dreaming optimists in the Sixties, where John Peel’s Perfumed Garden would be another locus amoenus, another imaginary place, where in our fetid times we might want to go. This week, 50 years ago, John Peel performed his final broadcast of this accidental and influential radio show.
Today’s piece uses a very short poem about a famous doomed adventurer written by a too-little known early modernist soldier-poet.
The words’ author, T. E. Hulme, is a name I kept running into as I read about the connections between modernist American and Irish writers in England at the beginning of the 20th Century. Many of those connections can be traced to a group of writers and artists, led by Hulme, who congregated in London beginning around 1908. It’s there that Ezra Pound, soon to be literary modernism’s greatest promoter, met Hulme who many view as modernism’s originator. The argument for preeminence comes down to classic one: who thought of it first vs. who practically introduced it.
So far here I’ve concentrated on Pound’s role, but as I began to look at this circle, I must consider Hulme’s impact as well. And then a few weeks ago, through the wonderful blog "Interesting Literature," and its founder Oliver Tearle, I finally read some of Hulme’s poetry, his own practical application of his ideas.
If there’s a reason I hadn’t read Hulme yet, it may be that his poetry isn’t as well known, and there is very little of it—and what there is, is little twice: about 25 poems totaling about 260 lines. That’s right, as disciples of Bill James will quickly recognize, the average for a Hulme poem is shorter than a sonnet, just a bit more than 10 lines. His short poems, as much or more than other famous short Imagist poems like Pound’s “In A Station on the Metro”, Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” or Sandburg’s “Fog” challenge the reader to find worth and significance in a few words and a putatively mundane subject. Today’s piece uses the words of Hulme’s “Raleigh In the Dark Tower,” and is something of an outlier in Hulme’s poems, as it’s subject is not so ordinary.
I used Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Lie” earlier this month, and in writing about this extraordinary condemnation of human failings, I told you what every English schoolkid of certain generations would have learned or known about Raleigh: that he was an Elizabethan English hero, and yet he was executed by the English government.
Once more I’m going to have compress Raleigh’s life into shortcuts, some of which are matters of dispute. He lived in a time of brutal Christian religious wars and is said to have witnessed both the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and to be captain of the troops ordered to perform the execution of prisoners after the Siege of Smerwick. He was lifetime soldier of fortune and entrepreneur, a cross between James Bond and Richard Branson. He popularized the potato and smoking tobacco, and so can be blamed for lung cancer and my spreading waistline. His expeditions pioneered European settlement of North Carolina, which means he is partially responsible for both Michael Jordon and insufferable Duke basketball fans. He twice led English expeditions into Guyana in South America, without which we would not have Davey Graham and acoustic guitars tuned to DADGAD. Oh, and he was a writer.
Even during his three separate confinements to the prison in the Tower of London, Raleigh wrote. Or perhaps he wrote because of his confinements? He wrote the first volume of a monumental attempt at a history of the world during one prison stay, but his release ended the chance of the series continuing.
To present Raleigh, Hulme in his conciseness, give us just these few lines:
Raleigh in the dark tower prisoned
Dreamed of the blue sea and beyond
Where in strange tropic paradise
More depends on Raleigh’s life than depends on a Red Wheelbarrow, but Hulme lets that be only understood. And Hulme’s Imagist philosophy, a “dry hardness”, would urge fewer romantic dreams and more direct observation, but even in his few words, he allows this prisoner the immediacy of his dreams and voyages.
Raleigh would be executed for serving the amoral interests of his country too well, and Hulme would die a soldier on a WWI battlefield believing to the end in the causes of a war that was soon portrayed as absurd.
Here’s a something of a bonus episode based on a sonnet I wrote a few years back. I’m tired tonight, and not feeling particularly useful, and I recalled that this is the time of year when one of the better regular meteor showers happens.
I recorded this piece tonight, to try to assuage that useless feeling. I started with the bass part, as the sound of the bass always seems to comfort me. I fit the drums to that bass part, did the vocal, and added a couple of guitar parts. It’s a short piece, and it was soon done.
Meteors are fabled to be meaningful from those times before our modern highly illuminated age erased them from the view of our cities, such as the city where I am stuck tonight. In the poem, I had played with the idea that making the trip to the countryside to see the Perseid meteor shower could indeed change someone’s life.
I did some extreme enjambment, breaking words in half, in a few lines in the poem to try to show how the sharp streaking line of a meteor trail might change us in an instant, because of course we are not changed in an instant, ever, though love and good fortune make us think at times that we have changed.
If change was instant, it would not be hard as it is, nor as easy to avoid.
I hope you are all having a good night tonight, with or without visible stars or knowable fates. And I thank you again for reading and listening over this chattering yet silent Internet.
There are so many ways to introduce the words used in this piece. I could say it’s an OG rap written in prison by a two-time ex-con who was executed for violating his parole. I could say it’s a piece by the poet who did more in his career outside of writing poetry than any other poet besides than the teenager who wrote “Frances.” I could say it’s the testimony of a soldier who had seen enough of war to cause PTSD many times over. There will be occasion to talk more about its author’s life later, so I’m going to ask your indulgence, and tell instead of how I first came upon this poem.
At the beginning of the 20th Century a boy was born in the Ukraine, and as a child he emigrated to New York City. Like many immigrants, he changed his name to sound more “American,” becoming Oscar Williams. His career was originally made in marketing/advertising, but he was also a poet. Then shortly after WWII he began to publish poetry anthologies in inexpensive editions, including very cheap paperbacks. Did he know from his marketing work that these would strike a chord in the post-war world of soldiers who became the first in their families to go to college on funds provided by the “GI Bill?” Did he suspect that the experience of the greater than “The Great War” war, and the Korean, Cold, and Vietnam wars that followed would create an audience wanting some human writing more varied than propaganda? Was the spreading middle-class of the post-war years creating a new, broader audience for poetry, like it did for hi-fi symphonies and literary novels? Who knows? Perhaps it was only Williams’ personal passion for poetry that motived him, but his inexpensive anthologies sold in the millions, a much greater number than anyone expected.
In 1968, in a college bookstore, I purchased a chunky paperback of one of these Oscar Williams’ anthologies: “Master Poems of the English Language.” About a thousand pages, over a hundred poems, each introduced by an essay on the worth of the poem by another poet or critic, cover price $1.95. I purchased it because I was writing poetry and I wanted to know more about what it could do, and how it did it, and this seemed the best value on offer at the store. And it was. I don’t want to put-down teachers I’ve had, or other reading and face-to-face examples that have instructed me in those things, but that book, taken in at that time, gave me a firm starting point in writing poetry.
Written in 1618, today’s poem, “The Lie” by Sir Walter Raleigh was one of the poems in that anthology, and one of Williams’ selections that I liked the best. Unlike some other poems I’ve featured here, it’s not widely anthologized, and Raleigh himself seems to have nearly fallen from the common British pantheon over the years. In 2002 the BBC conducted a poll on the 100 greatest Britons ever, and Raleigh snuck in at 93, just behind intricate fantasist J.R.R. Tolkien and 50 places behind that other great anthologist, John Peel.
When I first read “The Lie” I was struck by how modern it felt. Yes, there are a few antique words and terms in there, but it’s remarkably plainspoken—and the speaking it’s plain about is the bane of hypocrisy, lack of principles, and double-dealing—all things Raleigh’s life taught him a lot about. After all, since Raleigh wrote this while in prison awaiting his execution, he did have the ultimate license to say what he really thinks.
Here’s an episode with a short story written and read by Dave Moore.
Just as I have my bicycle ride poems, Dave has his morning dog walk poems and stories, and this one is one of my favorites. Dave tells me that he thinks he may have messed up the ending in this performance of “I Was Not Yet Awake Yet,” but I think it works just fine.
I’ll let the story unfold as you listen to it without a lot of commentary from me this time. “I Was Not Yet Awake” is a story about neighborhoods, neighbors, and trust, distrust and need.
Dave is the alternative reader with the Parlando Project, and he also plays most of the keyboard parts you hear here on other pieces featuring the LYL Band. This story is much different from the last piece here, where I tried to mash up Capt. Beefheart and Gertrude Stein, and it will also be different from the next episode. That variety in music and words is part of what we do.
Imagine this for the background and education for a poet. The poet is committed from a young age to see things exactly, so much so that they become fascinated with the very neurological functions that are the foundations of perception. In college, they study with the foremost psychologist in America, but they don’t stop there. They go on to study medicine at Johns Hopkins, stopping just short of a medical degree. The poet then decamps to the hottest art scene in the world where they discuss art with the painters who are revolutionizing how we depict reality in a frame, and this poet sees right away who are the great visual artists in this scene, with legendary precision. The poet’s next task was to use the ideas of this visual art revolution, along with ideas about how human thought and perception really work, to create a new kind of poetry.
You’d expect this poet would produce extraordinary work. She did. You might also expect this work to be revolutionary in its technique. It was, and still is. You might expect that you will want to seek out and hear this work, to experience what this background and conviction could bring to poetry. You might expect this writing to share with you exciting new ways of seeing. Well…
Today’s piece uses the words of that poet, Gertrude Stein, from her 1918 collection “Tender Buttons.” Even within the Modernists of her time, it was controversial, and it remains so today. Stein didn’t shock with her imagery like some of the provocative work of Dada and Surrealism. The radically condensed poems of the Imagists sometimes raised concerns that anything so seemingly simple and without the decorative rigmarole of 18th and 19th Century poetry couldn’t really be worthwhile art, but the Stein of “Tender Buttons” was even more suspect. The imagists might withhold the complexity behind their shortest poems, but the words themselves were often plain-spoken, comprehendible on an immediate level—too quickly so, in some apprehensions, to be art. Here, the Imagists seemed to say, is the red wheelbarrow, the crowd at the Metro station, the stars above the Clark Street Bridge. I’m not giving you anything more, and you can take in these few words and shrug and say “so what?” for all I care.
Stein went further. In “Tender Buttons” she wanted to project the messiness of real thought, real glancing perception, sticking to one thing only as repeated words that chorus and then disappear, only to appear a few poems later in the collection, but mostly moving from one atom of perception to another.
It’s as if, rather than speech recognition on a modern smartphone, that Stein turned herself into a human “thought recognition” device, registering in words not only the stream of consciousness but a stream of unconsciousness as well.
This is a brave idea, but what emerges from this sounds at first (and for many, at second, and then for as many times as they care to try) like nonsense. The words are plain, at the phrase or sentence level they can even seem to be intelligible, but as a whole, they seem to add up to nothing. Our brains are hard-wired to make patterns out of information, and so confronted with a chunk of “Tender Buttons” this function may strive to make out coherence until one’s brain hurts, or it may just stop a few lines in and reject it as a failed experiment, perhaps even a fraud.
This is where I think that the Parlando Project’s secret weapon, music, can help. Music may have charms to soothe the savage beast of “I need to understand how these words fit together right now; and if I cannot, I will withhold my listening participation immediately.”
Musically I have put these two pieces from “Tender Buttons:” “Glazed Glitter” and “Suppose an Eyes,” against music from my memory of Capt. Beefheart, whose work helped me accept fractured non-narratives even while (perhaps because?) his were set against similarly fractured music. Alas, I lack the ability to emulate the timbre of Beefheart/Don Van Vliet’s voice as I declaim Stein’s words.
Last episode used my best effort at a faithful translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.” Now, as promised, my alternative translation.
As I discussed, I first heard Rilke’s “The Dark Interval” by hearing it. In the immediacy of that encounter, I heard it as a meditation on how our lives pass by while we do not speak up to them and use their singular moment, however imperfectly. Upon reflection, I now understand the poem was likely speaking of Rilke’s more impending death. The more literal translation I used for yesterday’s piece retains more of that focus.
Today’s version uses a freer translation, reflecting my original understanding of the piece. The original poem includes three or four images, which I sought to vivify in modern English. The first image, that of the “steep hour” (diese steile stunde) we know is a downhill slope, not a slow, steep incline one is ascending, because the next line includes a sense of rushing or hurrying (eilen). I have no idea if Rilke ever skied or otherwise could be thinking of skiing or sledding down a hill, but that was the concrete image that presented itself to me, and this choice helped me deal with most enigmatic image in the piece, the “I am a tree before my background” (Ich bin ein Baum vor meinem Hintergrunde). My choice in this translation is a risky one. I made the vaguest image in the German into the most immediate image in English, that not only am I sliding rapidly, but there is dangerous obstacle, a tree, to deal with. I now think my translation of “hintergrunde” to “my past” may be inaccurate. Given the poems concluding images, I think Rilke may been thinking of background more in the sense of “musical background”—but it was the choice I made then, and it works well in my first understanding of the poem’s intent.
The next image is also a bit obscure. “I am only one of many mouths, and the one that closes the soonest.” (Ich bin nur einer meiner vielen Munde/und jener, welcher sich am frühesten schliesst.”) I’m still unsure of which meanings Rilke meant to convey there. Is he saying, “I am only one of the multitude, and I’ll be dead (and silent) sooner than most.” Or is he saying “I could speak up in many ways (I can’t quite decide what is the right way to speak up), so instead I clam-up and never express myself. In this translation, I chose the latter. I now think Rilke likely meant the former.
The last image is the most developed one, and the most attractive to a poet and musician like myself, because it’s an image out of music itself. I read “the dark interval,” that I use as the title for this piece, as a reference to the tritone, a dissonant interval that was being exploited widely in musical works contemporary with Rilke. And of course, modern popular music based on blues and jazz forms makes use of the dissonant intervals too, so I chose to use the more modern “funky.” And in developing this musical image I chose to use another informal term to vivify the “death tone” (Ton Tod), translating it to “wolf-tone,” which is the howling feedback sound a string instrument makes when the sounded note is the same as the strongest natural resonant frequency of the instrument’s body.
Keeping with my initial understanding of “The Dark Interval” I was trying to say that we keep silent, and do not act, out of fear of “dissonance,” of fear of not fitting in with the expectations; or because we fear a “wolf-tone,” an unwanted strong response; but that when we do, if we do, as can be done within music, the dissonance can be resolved, that musical consonance sounds even sweeter when dissonance shows it in contrast.
So, there you go, that was once my understanding of Rilke’s “The Dark Interval” that I used in this second translation. As a piece, in English, it stands up, it has coherence, and I think it’s livelier than yesterday’s more literal translation—but I also think I got Rilke’s meaning wrong. How much does this matter?
To the listener, it may not matter. If they don’t know the original in German or from another translation, they experience this work as it is. To art also, it may not matter. A misunderstood work is still a work of art, another one of many mouths that isn’t shut. I often consider translations of poetry like a musician doing a cover song, where there is value in recreating the song differently. Still, I can’t shake off the thought that I was unfair to Rilke.
How faithful should a translation be? I can hear your first answer even over the silence of the Internet: “As faithful as it can be of course.”
And there are many times when I wish it could be so. One has to accept the translation loses when the devices of one language can’t make it over to the new one. Then, often there is the decay of time and the distances of cultures, and this can make meaning murky and less vibrant—but even between two people, of the same time and culture, native speakers of the same language, misunderstanding and misinterpretations of poetry occurs, as you can see with some pieces here where I perform words written by alternative reader and LYL Band keyboardist Dave Moore, which I didn’t fully grasp.
In the next two episodes of the Parlando Project, I’m going to demonstrate two different paths I’ve taken with the same poem, Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.” Today’s version is an attempt at a faithful translation.
Rilke, like Tristan Tzara or Apollinaire is another one of those WWI area European artists who exact nationality is hard to pin down. Is he Czech, Bohemian, Austrian, German, Swiss? It’s doesn’t help that the maps of Europe were being redrawn during his lifetime by the outcome of the WWI.
Nor does it help our translation task that he wrote “The Dark Interval” in German, the language that one set of my grandparents spoke in their youth, and that even my mother was somewhat fluent in as a child, because I know even less German than French.
And Rilke is philosophically dense. His poems are full of compressed thoughts about the inexplicable, and he has a strong spiritualist bent. The former makes it hard for anyone to marshal his thoughts into another language while impressing on you the need to do so; the later makes it harder for me in particular, as I have come to believe that a philosophical spirituality is (at least for me) an impediment to approaching the mysteries.
It may help that I first encountered Rilke’s “The Dark Interval” in a way deeply integrated into life. I, along with my friend John, was watching a band, The New Standards, perform in 2006, and during an interval in their show a man (who name I should remember, but can’t) read this poem. He did a good job of it, transmitting something of Rilke and himself in his reading. The translation he read was somewhat like the one I made later, and perform for today’s piece.
I heard the poem immediately then as a meditation on the hurried mid-lives that John, I, and perhaps many of the audience were living at that time. Perhaps he—or the band performers, largely composed of veterans of locally famous indie rock bands of the 1980s and ‘90s—selected it for just that reason.
That’s not the version I perform here today. I did not change the words of this first translation, which sought to be faithful as I could understand it to be to the original German words, but circumstances changed how I hear it. John died, unexpectedly, way too young, a short time after we attended that concert. I learned later that Rilke composed it as he began to suffer from his final fatal illness. I can now see this not as a work about the busyness of middle age, but a work about the busyness of living nearer to dying. Different poem.
This is an elegy, not a love poem, but then an elegy is a love poem that replaces the focus masking the complexity of love with the common mystery of death. Even the images and incidents can have an eerie similarity, as an absence may be at the center of either.
The author of today’s piece, Tristian Tzara, is as much as anyone the founder of Dada—if that absurdist movement can structurally support a founder. Like much of the early 20th Century modernist movement, the horrors and changes of WWI accelerated Dada’s development. Proudly anarchistic and rejecting the whole lot of social norms and artistic traditions, Dada was at turns playful and bitter about a European world order that that was itself disordering everything on the continent though modern warfare.
As we’ve learned in earlier episodes, a whole generation was mobilized as part of The Great War. The teenage Tzara, residing in neutral Switzerland, escaped this, but he apparently tried to gain funds from both sides’ propaganda arms to fund Dada activities—which would be just the kind of audacious prank that Dada loved.
The subject of today’s piece, Guillaume Apollinaire, was a slightly older member of that WWI generation who should have gone on to even greater things after the war. As I mentioned last time, he had invented the name for Surrealism, the modernist movement that was a post-war outgrowth of Dada. Before that, he had also invented the term Cubism. In France during this time, Apollinaire seemed to know, and was admired by, everyone: composers, writers, painters, theater artists, the whole lot of this vibrant cultural scene. Swept up into the military by the war, Apollinaire was seriously wounded at the front and weakened by his wounds, he died during the great flu outbreak of 1918.
His death then leads to Tzara’s elegy, today’s piece. Given Tzara and Dada’s reputation, I was worried as I started to translate this. Translation, particularly for someone like me who is not a fluent speaker of other languages, it already fraught with issues, but doubly so with writers who may use arbitrary absurdist phrases intentionally. When is something unclear, and when is it meant to be so? That’s a question you ask a lot with these writers. I have prejudice for vibrancy, and if I feel there’s a good image or English phrase hidden in an unfamiliar language’s idiom, I will generally seek to bring it out, but I also realize that I’m fully capable of misunderstanding the writer’s intent.
With Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire” I grew to believe that this was a sincere elegy for this much-loved artist among artists, and so, translated and performed it as such. Yes, it has its absurd images, but I chose to translate them with clarity in mind. Apollinaire died in November, and so I took the mourning images as a series of late autumn images, and presented them as such. I had the most puzzlement with the line “et les arbres pendaient avec leur couronne” which can be simply left as an unusual combination: a (shiny metal) crown hanging in a tree-top. As I looked at “couronne” it appears that it’s used for a laurel wreath crown, and for a funeral wreath too, and for a while thought “wreath” or “funeral wreath” would be the best translation. And then I considered the botanical meaning of “crown” applied to trees, and the follow up line “unique pleur” made me think of the last leaves falling in autumn, a rather conventional image—but a great deal of what makes that conventional in English is the popular song “Autumn Leaves” written originally in French by Surrealist Jacques Prévert! My translation: “And the trees, those still with hanging leaves” takes liberties with Tzara’s words, in hopes that I might have divined his image. I’m more confident in how I translated the last line, “un beau long voyage et la vacance illimitée de la chair des structures des os” which I proudly think is superior to other English translations.