By title this would be the perfect piece for today, though it does not describe the axis of these months this year in the upper Midwest, which is cold, gray, blustery, and threatening sleet or snow. So, this is not the day or night for sitting on arbor-seats in some garden, and the blazon leaves have already succumbed to a snow storm last week.
But never mind the weather, it’s an early enough poem from Hart Crane to have fallen into public domain, so that I can use it here. “October-November” shows only a little of Crane’s eventual poetic style, but that means it might be a good way to introduce him.
Crane’s just a bit younger than the other early 20th Century modernists, but you can see similarities to some of the branches of modernism we’ve already climbed out on. Like Tzara or the Surrealists he loves extravagant images; but though he is utterly romantic, there’s a certain classicism to many of the images he uses, just as H.D. or Eliot would. On the other hand, like the Futurists, he loves to touch on what was then modern technology. Like Edna St. Vincent Millay or Yeats his music can sound older than his subjects. Crane is a master of Elizabethan-style iambic meter and he doesn’t avoid the old habits of poetic diction. You can even see links in Crane to the original American Modernists: the ecstatic pronouncement of a new world and a new version of humanity like unto Walt Whitman and the concisely packed and puzzling lines of conclusion that Emily Dickinson could use.
But what you see most in Hart Crane, although it’s only hinted at in this early poem written when he was a teenager, is extraordinary, stunning, eloquence at the phrase level, lines with heart-stopping lyricism. Like Shakespeare, Dickinson or the writer of Ecclesiastes, a Crane poem may hold gnomic and gorgeous sounding lines, even if they are as inexplicable as what they sum up. One could write dozens of books or poems with titles taken from lines in Crane poems, though few have done so.
There’s more to say about Hart Crane, perhaps another post that tells about how the Modernists he lived and worked among never fully accepted him, but let me leave that for another day.
“October-November” is simpler than later Crane, just a pair of images of sun dappling a garden as if it’s still summer followed by a fully delirious autumn night. I sense a growing intensity as this short poem proceeds, and tried to reflect that in the music I composed and played for this one, extending that ecstatic line in the instrumental section at the end.
One last ironic Halloween tie-in: Crane’s father invented Life-Savers, a candy that is now a rainbow diversity of sugared flavors that one might find in a ghost’s or skeleton’s bag at the end of tonight; but when invented Life Savers was more of a breath mint line, successfully sold to cover up the vices of drink and tobacco on the breath. The thing that remains its essence? The round shape, the hole in the center, like the floating ring made to be tossed to a drowning person.
In 1932, a 32 year-old Hart Crane vaulted over the railing of the ocean liner carrying him back to New York City. One witness says they looked after and “saw Crane, swimming strongly, but never again.” Perhaps his leap was too far and his swimming direction away from them, but there is no account of a round, perforated life preserver being tossed in after him before he disappeared and died.
Let’s get one more Halloween appropriate piece in before the holiday.
We’ve featured a lot of words from Dave Moore this month, but not enough of his voice, so let’s get to that with a performance by Dave backed by the LYL Band. Dave’s a founding member of the LYL Band, singing and playing various keyboards with it. Beside his own band, Moore wrote lyrics for other bands back in the beginnings of the Twin Cities punk/new wave/indie rock scene. Around the same time, Dave worked with Kevin FitzPatrick on a well-loved literary magazine “The Lake Street Review.” Besides poetry and songs, Dave Moore has produced the comic “The Spirit of Phillips” for many years.
Besides Dave’s words, voice and keyboards that are often present here, you’ve also read me talking about Dave’s father, Les Moore (he of the Bauhaus name). That should be enough background from me.
I found Moore’s “Did You Miss It” mysterious, in a good way, so let’s let him tell us how it came to be:
“I could have called this ‘3 Moores Stew,’ where the ‘philosophies’ of Dave, Alan and Les collided in my head around the issue of predestination. It’s also an attempt to celebrate first-and-only-take songs.
For my birthday last year (10/17. #67), I got (my hero) Alan Moore’s 1200-pg. novel Jerusalem. Wonderful, literally. Took a while to read such an intricate structure, and parts of it started to show up in my dreams.
Concurrently, I was editing my dad Les Moore’s sermons, typing over 50 transcripts. I’d class him as liberal Methodist, the admirable socially involved 60s Christian. I heard him speak every week till I went off to college & expected that many of his words would bang something up from my subconscious.
The lyric starts in Alan-psychogeography-zone, where one of his characters is choking to death for hundreds of pages as reality is explicated.
The joke of the chorus is also from Jerusalem, shared by Sir Thomas More with another shade. How could you miss the free will you didn’t have?
2nd verse (‘more hairy’) extrapolates Alan’s simultaneous beauty & death across time.
3rd verse (‘Belief’) is Les’s gift of Heavenly beauty despite death.
4th verse (‘Lights go on’) Dave points out you make your own beauty & might as well enjoy it. If it’s yours, you can get the joke.
Unlike most of my mistakes, those in the concluding instrumental are intentional. If everything’s pre-destined, who would bother pre-scripting this? Or could they?”
Dave points out the contrast we get from having LYL Band performances mixed with the more composed stuff here, where I play all the parts. “Did You Miss It” is one of those “first and only takes songs” that we’ve done, were the arrangement and parts are happening just as the recording light is lit.
Obscurity in modernist poetry is a funny issue. What makes some writing hard to grasp, difficult to understand? Esoteric and little-known words like Wallace Stevens loved? Far-flung allusions to works in several languages like T. S. Eliot was prone to? Exploding normal written syntax and logical flow as Gertrude Stein did? Taking images into realms where direct one-to-one symbolic meaning is not only impossible, but more than likely, not the aim, as Tristan Tzara or Paul Eluard demonstrate? Presenting things “slant” in iconoclastic riddles as Emily Dickinson could? Writing works of epic length that few if any human minds can comprehend in their whole, like the Cantos of Ezra Pound?
And then there’s this poem, the basis of today’s piece, William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.”
From empirical evidence you could say that it’s the very peak of the canon of modern American poetry. Remember that compiled count of the poems that appeared most often in poetry anthologies, most of which were explicitly focused on modern American poetry? “The Red Wheelbarrow” is alone at the top of that list, included in over half of the anthologies counted.
Does that make it a “best loved poem”? Does it even assure that critics consider it great, much less the greatest? No, it does not. I think I first ran into it as a teenage student, in one of those anthologies used in some English literature class. Did my young teacher point it out as a poem of special merit? Did I view it as such? No. If I can trust my memory, if it was discussed at all, it was as if it was some kind of stunt, an intended provocation that so short and mundane a piece could be considered artful. “Now class, let’s get back to T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens.”
And how about critics? They largely part like the Red Sea on “The Red Wheelbarrow”. If we look to one side, in among the mollusks and manta rays now behind the water curtain of the divided sea, we find those who care little for it. There’s nothing there demanding to be written about. No virtuosity is demonstrated to be noted and admired. And what important point is it making, other than, well, no point at all?
So, we turn to the other side, those swimming with bemused dolphins who wonder if they could leap across the band of Israelites walking on damp seabed, those critics hoping to demonstrate their microscopic perception of the hidden art in this terribly short and compressed poem. Carol Rumens is concise and representative of this when she says of Williams’ poem “This is his manifesto, surely–a poem quietly declaring how modern poetry works.” And she also warns “A naive reading could take it as a comment about the great usefulness of wheelbarrows on small-holdings where chickens are kept.”
And then, here I am, now. No longer the teenage student, sure that someone has figured these things out, and I need to find them. I can’t see far enough ahead where Moses and Aaron are, nor can I see far enough back how close Pharaoh and those charioteers are getting. I’ve got my hasty bread and a few grabbed things in my little cart, pushing it across the mud. I think I must be naïve. Yes, Williams is a modernist, as committed to the new way of writing as clearly as possible, a proclaimer of “No ideas except in things,” which means in retrograde, the things must be the ideas. If he had wanted to write a manifesto, he could, and did in the other poem that stated that dictum.
The obscurity in this poem is that there is no obscurity other than what we bring to it externally. There is no allusive, secret meaning, other than the secrets of our tools and our companion responsibilities.
Yes, there is art in these 16 words. The line breaks that ask us to hold our gaze, even in the middle of words, the “so much depends” warning that bids us look. The choice to look at just these simple common things, is a choice, is an idea. I think the dolphin side of the parted sea has smarter companions than the mollusks side, but I am looking down at my wheelbarrow, and Williams,’ and saying, naively that it matters, even if I’m in the middle of the band, unable to see Pharaoh or Moses.
I’ve spent too long on the words again, but I feel I need to say a bit about the music I composed for my performance of “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I chose to use a twelve-tone row, a modernist musical idea from the same time as when Williams was writing the poem. It would be pretentious for me to say I got this from deep study of Schoenberg or Webern, though I’ve listened to a good deal of modernist music. However, “serialism” never stuck with me until I heard the prologue part of “This Town Is a Sealed Tuna Fish Sandwich” written by Frank Zappa. I’ve loved that piece from the first time I heard it.
Twelve-tone music subverts expectations of a tonal center or “important” scalar notes, so it can sound a little woozy or random, but, of course it has its pattern, by definition, which the mind’s ear can hear if you stop thinking in expectation of familiar patterns, which is the simple and profound thing it is asking you to do.
Once more we visit a song from the Dave Moore song-cycle looking at the innovative goth/horror persona created by Maila Nurmi in 1953-54. Today’s piece “Hollywood TV” continues Nurmi’s story as commerce finds a place for her Vampira character as it seeks to fill out the expanding television time slots.
In the 50s, the moving picture industry faced an existential crisis of its own: television was going to deliver its kind of entertainment right to people’s homes, no need to go to the theater, no need to pay admission, make your own popcorn, Philco Playhouse and chill.
One way the old entertainment empires sought to use the new TV medium was to sell rights to rebroadcast movies that had completed—sometimes, long-ago completed--their theatrical runs. One studio, Universal Pictures, wanted to monetize their classic horror pictures it had released back in the 20s, 30s, and 40s and so put together a package of these films for TV stations to buy and rebroadcast in 1956.
It’s hard to believe now, in an era when SciFi, Horror, and Fantasy are the dominant commercial film genres, that in the mid-50s these films were considered shoddy goods. Reflecting back to 19th Century characters and tropes even when they were made before WWII, they were not thought to the stuff that a forward-looking post-war world was looking for.
But wait, we’re in 1953-54. Even this is still in the future.
Nurmi had created the Vampira costume for a Hollywood Halloween costume party in 1953, and the story goes this novel combination of sex and death was noticed there by an entertainment figure, through which she was eventually connected with a TV station looking to broadcast old movies. The TV execs thought such old-fashioned and low-value fare needed something else to make it viable, a host to contextualize the old movies to be shown at night when such niche material could fill otherwise uncommercial air time.
So, in 1954, two years before the Universal “Shock Theater” package was offered, Vampira began hosting a show made up of old movies whose rights could be obtained on the cheap, with her character leavening the proceedings with quips and intentional perversity. This is an old show-business tactic, as even in vaudeville theater, a master of ceremonies might be called on to hype or explain the acts, or to fill time when a performer had dragged down the audience’s interest. And intentional perversity was decades old too, what with the Dada cabaret of the WWI years.
Even if this is recent history, in the lifetime of people still living, it’s hard to know how big the Vampira character’s impact was in her time. Her late-night show lasted about a year ending in 1955. A follow-up show with the character on another local station didn’t stick. During the years 1954-56, there was a substantial publicity push, a local Emmy nomination, a Life magazine profile, guest appearances in the Vampira persona on other TV shows; but there was the short run of the show, and a general tailing off of Nurmi’s celebrity and performance career afterward. How big were the waves in that ripple?
If we can’t see how big the first ripples are, we can see the waves that built off it, as they are substantial, and still rolling.
In 1956 came that Universal Pictures “Shock Theater” package, eventually followed by “Creature Feature” and others. Over the next decade, most major local TV markets gained a horror/SciFi host. The pattern was unmistakable. Costume. Macabre humor. Campy name. Maybe a little dry-ice fog, screeches and screams, and a haunted house décor. All parts of the Vampira scheme. What wasn’t copied? The Thanatos remained, however distanced by humor, but the Eros was toned way, way down, and the follow-on horror hosts were invariably male.
In pop music, the erotic and self-possessed element of Vampira saw a revival by the late 70s with Poison Ivy and the Cramps, and in the UK, bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees. Eventually a goth subculture and “look” developed often borrowing from first or second level influences of the Vampira character with various continental European influences.
It took a generation from the 50s before the female TV horror host was revived in 1981, back again in Los Angeles, with a character, Elvira, largely based on an updated Vampira. Nurmi had helped with the creation of the show, but had a falling out with the producers.
By the end of the 20th Century, the Vampira character was still being kept alive by a wordless cameo in a widely viewed “Worst Movie of All Time” “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” Irony wasn’t just a pose for the character, it was the way the character survived.
More irony: the mostly male 50s children who watched Vampira, Shock Theater, Creature Feature, and the other black and white movies rerun on TV at night past their bedtimes, had grown up and became the new Hollywood elite, making tens, and then hundreds of millions for a revived Hollywood, revising the tropes of the shoddy goods whose TV rights had been sold on the cheap.
If you take pre-Comics Code EC Comics attitude, the TV horror hosts and their old movies and modern descendants, add some bite-sized marketing from the candy merchants, and there you have modern American Halloween. If you walk by the rack of tacky vinyl and polyester costumes at the store, past the Star Wars characters in kid’s sizes, over to the adult-sized costumes, and there you see a “Sexy Vampire” hanging, black and low-cut, long, dark-haired wig included. A colored sheet suggests it worn by a thin young woman with red lipstick, white makeup and weaponized eyebrows. Think, then, of Maila Nurmi for Dave and me, won’t you.
Continuing our change of pace, temporarily stepping away from our usual spoken word and music combination, I’m going to dress-up once more for Halloween as a singer, which I fear is not a totally convincing costume. Today’s piece “Prevailing Winds” is the second cut from the song-cycle about ‘50s goth/horror innovator Vampira. Dave Moore, whose voice and words you may have heard here before, wrote the words for this piece, and I wrote the music and performed it. The first part, “Helen Heaven” was posted here Monday.
As I mentioned yesterday, the 1950s has, somewhat in retrospect, gained a reputation as a peaceful, relaxed, and satisfied time in the United States. When a political figure such as our current Presidential performer refers to “make America great again” it’s generally assumed that his clientele understands this as “like the 1950s” in hat-band shorthand.
But, as experienced, America in the 1950s was not so peaceful. The decade began with the Korean war, now commonly forgotten, but deadlier proportionately than the Vietnam war. Somewhat more so than the Vietnam war, and more like our current “war on terror,” the Korean War was viewed as only a small part of an open-ended global struggle against an evil multi-national enemy. And as the decade went on, there existed a widespread and increasing fear that the atomic weapons first unleased just prior to the decade, and held in a rough but uncertain balance by the central powers of the enemies, would return again, but in multi-fold form threatening worldwide destruction, threatening human survival.
On either side of Los Angeles, where Maila Nurmi was formulating her Vampira persona, these human-survival threatening weapons were being tested in deserts and on Pacific islands, right in the open air. Radioactive isotopes were measured in milk as Nurmi fashioned the dropping white décolletage of her costume.
As someone old enough to reminder those times, I’m often puzzled at the ebb and flow of nuclear worry in American minds. There have been times when it almost disappears, and times when it is so omnipresent that the topic is nearly as unavoidable in social and party conversation as the weather or sports teams. As this is being written, Korea and nuclear worries are on a slight upswing, and I have no way of knowing if this level is proportionate to the threat or not—but I do believe it’s still less amplified now than it was in 1953-1954 when the Vampira persona was being created.
The human condition is mortality, this does not change. Poets have spoken of this since before the time they could write their songs down. But the human condition in that time, the 1950s, was the first to consider humanity itself as mortal.
Let’s leave off those modernists of the era around WWI for a while, and move to a few songs about some midcentury mods. This is the time when popular culture mutated into something recognizable as ours, as it still is into this 21st Century.
Somewhere in this second decade of the 21st Century a new modernism is likely being born, but I do not know it yet. Back in the early 1950s people expected something new, perhaps as much or more than we expect change today in 2017. As it turns out, we may have not gotten all the change we thought we were due.
Today’s piece is the opening song in a song-cycle about one woman who had a moment in this moment of change in the early 1950s in Los Angeles/Hollywood. The woman was a second-generation Finnish-American, Malia Nurmi, who created a character that for a short time, just about a year, captivated TV audiences in Southern California with a strange take on sexuality and various horror tropes, blending in a beatnik/Dada critique of “normal” as a reaction to the unthinkable. The character was named “Vampira.”
Somewhere in the later 1960s it became a commonplace to view the 1950s as an era of calm, peace, satisfaction and complacency, and this characterization has only increased over time. But this was also the era just after a cataclysmic war ended with atom bombs, a horror that eventually moved from reality, to nightmares, to repressed acceptance, to forgetfulness and finally now again to present fears. This was the decade of a forgotten, brutal, war in Korea. This was an era when society tried to put back into the bottle the broadening social roles for women and Afro-Americans that WWII had allowed. This was the time that revealed the horrible efficiency of the extermination and slave labor camps, and the decade in which the utopian dream of Communism exposed its shames and shams. This was a deeply uneasy time when some feared everything “normal” was a dream and others saw clearly the waking hours outside the dream.
All of which makes this campy TV quipster host who created the makeup, costume and persona of Vampira seem inadequate to address this. Well, what is? As we move to celebrate Halloween, that strangest of holidays, where we make fun of our inability to escape fear, death, and too much candy, let’s reconsider her.
“Helen Heaven” has words written by Dave Moore, the alternate voice and writer/musician here at the Parlando Project, along with music written and performed by myself. This piece is the first song in the Vampira song-cycle, contrasting the LA-based white-dressed pop-religious phenomenon Aimee Semple McPherson with Nurmi/Vampira’s dark negative.
I’ve been a bit long-winded in the past few show notes, so a short-winded one about today’s piece. The words are another poem from Carl Sandburg, this time from his 1919 collection “Cornhuskers.” There’s not very many words to it, a warning that there are not many leaves left here in the upper Midwest.
I can compress talking about those words because I’ve already talked about Sandburg on the previous occasions when I’ve used his words here. In his poems of this era, he’s as perfect an imagist as any of the expatriates mixing up modernism in London and Paris around the same time.
Many of the Sandburg poems I’ve used previously have been from his landmark “Chicago Poems” collection, but Sandburg, a child of middle, rural Illinois, spent time across the Midwest in his youth, from urban centers to the farms and small towns. The poem I use today, “Autumn Movement,” is from that rural setting.
Images for autumn and fall foliage have been mined forever, which makes Sandburg’s key image here as unusual, even a century later, as T. E. Hulme’s red-faced farmer appearing as the harvest moon in his British autumn poem. Sandburg has the red and yellow of autumn leaves in a farm field vista as a yellow scarf with the copper color of a literally red-necked woman. So nearly has this skin color become an epithet, that few would think of using it today, as honest an image as it is.
Today’s audio piece is musically ars longa to the vita brevis of the words. I’ve been telling myself to allow space compositionally, and then going ahead anyway and filling things up like a compulsive cluttered room with only paths between piles of old newspapers. So, for this one, the drums (which are often quiet and spare) are the most dense element. I added a simple bass line played on my fretless bass, a theme played on a Telecaster, and a digital synthesizer part that is a mix of four different patches played together rather than filling up the space with multiple synth parts.
I was reminded of this poem, and Wallace Stevens in general, while writing about the 20 most anthologized modern American poems recently. It’s odd that I needed to be reminded of Stevens. His poems were always present in the anthologies of my school years, back in the last century, along with Frost (who I disliked when I was young), William Carlos Williams (who I didn’t understand), and Eliot (who I liked for his verbal music without much understanding). There must have been something about Stevens that attracted me, as when I recall the poems I wrote in my youth, they more often looked and sounded more like Stevens than those others. There’s a wit of a very contrarian kind that’s all over Stevens’ work, so I’m sure that was a big part of it, but I think it was also Stevens’ verbal music that pulled me in, and unlike Eliot’s, I (subconsciously) imitated Stevens.
I later read that Stevens walked to his famously conventional job as an insurance executive every day, and composed his poems in his head as his walked. This makes sense, as I did the same thing, with the two-footed meter of walking informing the rhythm from the soles of the feet up, rather than from the head down. Another thing about writing while walking: the music of that rhythm carries you into a more hypnotic and subconscious space were lines that sound good and fit to the beat are carried and held into memory more than carefully considered phrases that one would compose at the keyboard or with thoughtful pen in hand—and that same flow can knit together the unlike before thought can reject it.
If you take Stevens’ particular perverse wit, and meld it with composition of poems while walking, you have the recipe for a Wallace Stevens poem like this one.
The title of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” has that impish quality. It seems to be light-hearted. Who’s his consort, the Dairy Queen? Is his uncle the King of Burgers? Did he know Prince? Queen Be? Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Gelato. And the poem starts off as if we are in a variation of the nursery rhyme “Old King Cole, he was a merry old soul” by calling for the strongest man to crank the ice cream maker.
A digression: do 21st Century people even know what an ice-cream maker is? It’s a bucket, no larger than one used to mop the floor, filled with ice that surrounds a smaller metal canister with a hand-crank-driven paddle screwed into the top. Salt is poured onto the ice, melting it so that it can get the canister colder than zero centigrade, as the crank is turned to churn the mixture of sugar and cream. As the process continues, the contents of the cannister thickens and the force needed to turn the paddle increases. Even with a strong man cranking, the resulting ice cream will be softer than the concrete brick of modern ice cream, as that is a creature of modern refrigeration unknown in Stevens’ youth; but the cool, rich, sweet taste would also be all the rarer then too.
So back to the poem. We have the strong cigar-maker man churning, amidst young, common, unmarried women and boys bringing flowers. The resulting ice cream demonstrates Stevens comically expanded vocabulary, it’s “concupiscent,” lustfully good! Freud may have famously insisted that “a cigar is sometimes just a cigar,” but a multitude of Blues metaphors contemporary to Stevens would agree, this is a lusty scene.
And the title reappears. Pleasure, broadly drawn, is the ruler of all!
So far Stevens has only been perverse in the weird “Old King Cole” language of the revelry, capped off with the word that most of us can’t even pronounce, much less spell or define.
Bang! Into the next stanza. I had always thought “dresser of deal” was flowery poetic diction for “we need to deal with” the situation in this next scene, but it’s more of Stevens’ vocabulary quiz. “Deal” is an archaic term for cheap pine wood. The exquisite detail of the missing drawer pulls, so much like the shabby second-hand dressers of the bedrooms of my pre-IKEA youth, yields to the fullness of the scene: it’s a room with a dead body.
Digression again: my son bursts into the room where I am writing this. He has just heard a robocall barking “If you or your loved one is over 65, they have a 1 in 3 chance of falling. Don’t let that fall be their last. Press 1 to…” He’s laughing, and continues “…hear about our warning-thingy scam…”
I follow on with my additions “…and press 2 if you want him to die anyway since he’s not allowing you any screen time today….and 3 if you are hard-of-hearing and WOULD LIKE US TO REPEAT THIS MESSAGE LOUDER.”
Back to the solemn dead body, cold and dumb, being covered with a sheet from the dresser of deal that is poignantly too short to cover the feet. Stevens leaves the light on, we need to see this clearly. And the title returns, now a refrain, and in this new context, the ruler of all offers only fleeting pleasures that one strives for, passes through, and melts away.
Stevens arrives at the insurance company offices. He strolls in past the receptionist, arrives at his office. Warren G. Harding is President. He asks his secretary to take this dictation. Obedient to her accustomed role, she folds back the steno pad, pencil in hand. Did she care for his poetry that she transcribed? That would be immaterial, she has only to listen.
Two scenes. Two passing stations on a walk perhaps, or a flight of memories as lines emerge along steps. Only one more perversity to note, a puzzling line that looks like a typo: “Let be be finale of seem.” Let the steps the author is taking when he wrote this be our guide. One stride: “Let be”, then a double-time step: “be finale,” another step: “of seem.” I had never figured this line out, but someone on the Internet named Daniel E. Burke pointed me to this letter Stevens wrote in 1939. If Stevens had caught a crack in the sidewalk causing a hitch in his step, the line might have been more clearly composed as “Let being be the finale of seem,” but the Hartford sidewalks were too-well maintained, and Stevens never cared to be understood anyway, only listened to.
As long-time readers will know, I only write a small portion of the words used in the audio pieces here. That’s not because I couldn’t—Dave and I have written poetry for about as long we’ve written music—but because the Parlando Project is, in part, an exercise in how I react to and present “Other People’s Stories.” Trying to get inside the experience of other writers, trying to find a way to inhabit their words, this is one of the objects of what I do.
I’m not against self-expression exactly. If I was, I’d have fewer other writer’s selves to express after all, but the nature of what one artist draws out of someone else’s expression is interesting to me.
I wrote the words to today’s piece, “Old Michaelmas Day,” thanks to a blog post on another blog I follow. Earlier this month, I was struggling with a more complex musical part for Hardy’s “The Self-Unseen” when I took a break and read a new post over at the Daze and Weekes blog. It’s there that I read of a marvelous British Isles folk tradition having to do with Saint Michael’s Day (Michaelmas). Michael is one of the Archangels, the warrior among them who cast the rebellious Satan out of heaven. Since he’s an immortal angel, he has no birth or martyrdom day to celebrate, so his day on the old church calendar is supposed to be the very day he cast Satan down.
But here’s where the myth gets interesting for me. In the Northern Hemisphere his day (September 30th on the Julien calendar, and either October 10 or 11th, depending on who’s counting, on the modern calendar) comes in the harvest season. In the British Isles variation on this, falling Satan lands on a prickly blackberry bush, and so mad at the prickles, or whole casting-down thing, he spits and or pees on the blackberries. And so, after Michaelmas, blackberries are no longer fit to be eaten, on the grounds of folklore, and all this expectoration and micturition.
I just so happens that my friend, and the better poet, Kevin Fitzpatrick has a great poem about blackberry harvesting, and in that poem Kevin refers back to a poem by Seamus Heaney also about blackberry picking. So, from another blogger’s post, about another country’s folk-legend and the Devil happenstance landing, my memory of a friend’s poem, adding perhaps even a bit of Thomas Hardy or Seamus Heaney stuck in my ear, this piece was born.
“Other People’s Stories” gets honored, even in the breach.
The Thomas Hardy piece got done, though I decided to go with a simpler folkie musical accompaniment there. For “Old Michaelmas Day” the music is more complicated, as it uses my more modern orchestral/electronic instrument ideas. The music consists of a conventional drum set and a series of staccato violin notes, book-ended with some low, sustained piano notes in the left channel with higher register Rhodes electric piano on the right. And then, sweeping through it all, a close cluster of orchestra sounds, treated with constant and fast audio manipulation so that it sounds almost like a strange organ stop. As with many of my modern orchestra/electronic pieces it sounds like it uses “loops,” but also like many of my pieces, it doesn’t. Loops are easy to create and compose with using computers: import or create a few bars of a motif, and just tell the software to repeat as necessary. But in “Old Michaelmas Day” all the notes are played, with differences in timing, and with the notes themselves changing (albeit, there are only a small number of pitches used in the keyboard and violin parts).
Today’s piece is our first proper piece by English poet Thomas Hardy. In America Hardy may be better known as a novelist, though he considered himself a poet first and last. When Hardy began writing poetry in the 19th Century, William Wordsworth was but a decade dead, and at the end of his career in 1928, T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” was several years old. So, Hardy’s career starts at the tail-end of the English Romantic revolution, and proceeds though the Modernist Explosion of the early 20th Century.
In some particularities of locales and events, Hardy’s poetry can seem of the 19th Century; but his language, direct, colloquial, and unfusty, seems as modern as the 20th Century modernists. Indeed, modernists from Robert Frost to Phillip Larkin found much to admire in Hardy. Setting many of his poems in the rural areas of western England diffuses the placement of some Hardy poems on a timeline, as the more rapid pace of cosmopolitan change does not mark them as sharply.
Today’s Thomas Hardy piece is “The Self-Unseeing,” published in 1901, right in the turning of those centuries that Hardy spans. This is another poem brought to my attention by the Interesting Literature blog, and I cannot improve on the excellent analysis of the poem there.
In “The Self-Unseeing” there’s a visit, in a mix of memory and reality, to a long-ago childhood house, a mental voyage many of us can do, assuming we can ride out the emotional waves. Given the fires, floods, earthquakes and winds of the past couple of months across our continent, some will be being doing this visit now wholly in memory.
So, that’s it for analysis of the poem this time, but we’ll offer some music to go along with it: strummed acoustic guitars and bass, and a vocal that’s a bit more to the “sing” side of our usual talk-singing.
It’s been too long since we featured one of the looser live performances of the LYL Band here at the Parlando Project, and with the interval, it’s also been too long since alternate voice Dave Moore has been featured. Given that we’re running up to Halloween, and that Dave has a long-standing interest in fantasy and scifi, it’s time redress that.
Today’s piece is Dave’s adaptation of a short story by Anglo-Irish writer Lord Dunsay from Dunsay’s fantasy collection “The Book of Wonder”. The story is called “The Return of the Exiles.”
Lord Dunsay is one of those writers who had a long, successful career during the first half of the 20th Century, but who now gets mentioned more as an inspiration than read as a writer. His Wikipedia entry has one of the longest lists of writers who’ve acknowledge him as an influence that I’ve run across.
Besides writing, Dunsay appears to have served in three wars. One hopes that future soldier-writers will be able to avoid reaching that achievement.
Dave adapted the short story to make it more musical, but his telling is generally faithful to the original.
In 1899, as the 19th Century was leaving in Victorian London, a 13-year-old boy from a large poor family left school and went to work at whatever jobs that could be found. An unremarkable story.
After several years, and some job security as civil service typist, he could enroll at a workingman’s night school. This story too, unremarkable.
Men and women with stories like this often go on to form families, start small businesses; or slip into slightly better jobs, finding what opportunities are left unguarded or unattended by those who started further up the economic ladder or wall. Working diligently, they sometimes become the mothers and grandfathers of poets and scholars, preachers and social reformers. That’s not the way this story goes however.
This teenager quickly found out he had a talent for language, not only his own native English, but German, Spanish, Russian, Dutch, and French too—they all came under his control. He accelerated himself beyond the speed of night school, and in a matter of a couple of years, our young man became a poet and a leading proponent in his time for avant-garde French poetry. And then he began meeting with some other poets in the cafes of London.
This man was F. S. Flint. It would be easy to pair him with one of those artists he was making talk and friendship with, T. E. Hulme. Neither had privileged backgrounds, and both are too little known, read, and studied today. In 1909, ten years after this boy had left school at 13, the meetings in these cafes included not only Flint and Hulme, but Ezra Pound, H. D., Florence Farr, William Butler Yeats, and Robert Frost. What they were plotting was a poetic revolution—one that would succeed, and become the dominant strain of English poetry for the rest of their century.
Although all of them had avowed influences, often ancient ones—English and Celtic bards and Latin, classical Chinese and Greek poets—they were resolved to “make it new” in Pound’s famous motto. They all wanted to change the language and the sound of English poetry, and since words and music are what make up poetry, they wanted to change everything about it.
In terms of language, the thoughts centered around removing decades, even centuries, of encrusted, dead metaphors that no longer had any meaning. The imagery in the new poems would need to be fresh, different, vital and intrinsic to the poem, not mere decoration. Extensive, romantic effusions of feelings would be replaced with palpable images.
The “school of images” was coalescing. By some accounts it was Flint who suggested tacking the suffix “-ist”, (in French “-iste”) to “image” to brand the movement.
In terms of poetry’s music, there was less agreement. Yeats and Farr were trying to invent a new kind of chanted poetry to music. Frost and Yeats would write some of the most accomplished metrical poetry ever written in English, but with a naturalness that made it disappear into unfussy verbal music. Pound remained interested in combining music as in the days of the medieval troubadours. Hulme talked of “chords” harmonically struck in the mind when an image was right. Flint, along with Hulme, thought French vers libre, “free verse” without rhyme and strict meter, was the mode to use. Flint called his verbal music “unrhymed cadences.”
And that’s where today’s piece comes in. In these three loosely-linked and lovely London-based poems, Flint demonstrates what he means, and this sort of breath-based line has echoed in much English poetry since.
The three poems or sections that make up Flint’s "Poems in Unrhymed Cadence" seem connected to me, though the middle (swan) section had been published in a much more verbose version a few years before. I’ve only been a London visitor—Flint grew up there—but I personally associated the scenes throughout with Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens, with the silver birch trees, swans, lilies, and other flowers mentioned. However, the third section specifically mentions aspen trees, which I don’t believe are in Hyde Park or Kensington Gardens.
Following the three Imagist rules (which were first written down by Flint), the mages are direct and exactly presented, the words are spare and free of unnecessary elaboration, and the “To compose in the sequence of the musical phrase” rule is something of a restatement of Flint’s “cadence.” Like most imagist poems—and even though these poems unmistakably reflect a mood—there is less spelling out of emotions by their abstract names that would have been customary before. It’s only at the end of the second (swan) section that the first of these, “sorrow,” is spoken, and when the third, final section unleashes “afraid,” “anguish” and “pain,” the images have set this emotional summary in a real physical, sensory place first.
As I started doing some translations of Tristan Tzara, the man who was most famous for being one of the “Presidents of Dada,” I was surprised in a couple of ways.
Like some writers I’ve presented here, Tzara was known to me only by reputation, as a name, and that reputation was not only as a founder of Dada, but of being the theorist of its most nihilist and avant-garde wing. Dada as Tzara spoke of it seemed to say: let’s destroy everything, and see what remains. Sounds like a pretty fearsome guy, and from my generation’s punk rebellion in music, his reputation reminded me of the those just past the first wave of punk that bought into a first principle of denigrating everything that came before. That could be a useful corrective, a way to clear the creative mind from everything you feel has come to a dead end, whether it was “Tales of Topographic Oceans” or Tennyson; the horrors of WWI or the denigrations of Reagan and Thatcher. Such a stance, pure as it is, has dangers of discarding the baby with the bain-eau.
Tzara also provoked with ideas like his “How to Make a Dada Poem:”
Take a newspaper
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are--an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
One can read this and miss the satire in it (particularly that last line); or one can read this laughing, and miss the value in the practice, variations of which were carried out throughout the rest of the 20th Century by Surrealists and Beats and unclassifiable modernists like John Cage. I, myself, independently discovered an analogous method as a teenager, and composing pieces by randomly opening a dictionary and blindly pointing with a finger at word after word. And Tzara did publish pieces that seemed to be just such an assemblage of words and phrases, for example “Bilan.”
Not only is “Bilan” typographically incoherent, the phrases are such things as “the bloody revenge of the liberated two-step” or “satanic horoscope dilates under your vigor.”
I believe this sort of thing can work: as a corrective, as a breaker of writer’s-block, as a reminder of the random and irrational component in creation, and as an insight into the dead and cliched language which infests all societies. I think it works best in small doses when needed, and longer pieces based on it, or continued reliance on it, can be analogous to over-reliance on laxatives.
So that was the Tzara I assumed I would meet as looked for pieces to translate and use here with music: a man with little to say other than to point out with broken language that language is broken.
And to some degree that was reinforced as I looked at the few English translations available on the web of his work. Occasional beautiful lines, perhaps of accidental beauty, mixed with incoherent lines. Here is a link to an English translation of a Tzara poem “Vegetable Swallow,” though its translator is never credited on the several sites which have it with identical wording. This is the same poem which I use in today’s piece, but with my own translation from the original French.
I’ll talk more about what I found as I translated Tristan Tzara on frankhudson.org, but I’ll summarize by saying that I found problems in the translation I linked to, surprising problems that sometimes feel to me a bit like reading the “bad quarto” of Shakespeare. I could be wrong in my interpretation of Tzara’s “Vegetable Swallow (Hirondelle Végétale)”—I am neither a scholar of Dada nor anything even close to a fluent French speaker. I don’t even like the translation of the title, though I have kept it because it may be what an English speaker is likely to know the poem as. “Hirondelle” is French for the species of bird, the swallow. I might have my own inevitable and anachronistic “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” connection with the swallow, but in the title’s context along with the English word “vegetable,” one thinks of the scary and prescriptive phrase from childhood: “Eat your vegetables”—not how it’d be understood in French.
In my translation, Tristan Tzara is providing something more like a Surrealist’s Lover’s Rock lyric—more Paul Éluard than Dan Bern hilariously parodying Bob Dylan. Musically, I’m not attempting reggae though. I’m not even sure what genre to call my composition on this one, but it is, like Tzara proclaims, “Swimming in disparate arpeggios.”
I was ready to post this new piece, Carl Sandburg’s “At A Window” yesterday when I had one of those days that come to challenge artists. Artists less fortunate than I can perhaps point to a single thing that holds them back, but with myself it’s often several smaller things.
I’m a habitual early morning reader of the news, a rhythm that may have started in my earliest teens when I delivered newspapers before school and continued through night-shifts in hospitals where I’d read the papers as they came out in the predawn hours. Nowadays, it’s not the papers I turn to for news, but Internet newsfeeds, and the pre-dawn hour was filled with the reports of another mass shooting profaning music, this time in Las Vegas. These events hurt me because I often spend as spend as much of my day as I can carve out making the music here in combination with the words that combine with it. One of arts’ purposes in my mind is to allow us to set aside momentarily the real consequences and strictures of life. Not necessarily to escape them—in fact, many times art allows us to examine them so that we can treat them as the reality of what they really are, because those strictures, even things we fear most, have their limitations, just as we do. And art can be the “R&D Department” of the soul and the repair of the world.
Thus, the hurt when those borders are crossed. Thus, the feelings of one’s work in an inadequate field.
Of course, my feelings on this matter are a small and abstract hurt, compared to the suffering of those more directly impacted. Small things closer to my heart feel larger than great things farther away. This is one of the limitations of our perception. Then my day continued with unrelated hurt, closer yet to my heart, and I was reminded again of my limitations and imperfections.
Real hurt seems so large, art seems so small, and I feel like a poor worker in a field of playful trivia.
Which may be so, the limits of my perception may not be able to tell. However, I believe this is a common feeling for artists to have, and so if you create art, you may also have felt this. We try to do so much, and all we can see is so little. This is part of why the Parlando Project principle: “Other People’s Stories” has value. Speaking the words of others helps me by adding what their eyes and hearts have seen.
This morning, it turns out that Carl Sandburg, in the very piece I was working on this previous weekend, “At a Window,” was speaking to this very experience, though in my down-heartedness, I couldn’t hear him for a while. This short poem, appearing first in 1914 in Poetry magazine alongside his ubiquitous “Chicago, hog butcher for the world…” poem which will overshadow it, waited patiently to speak into my ear. What good could a more than a 100-year-old poem have for me?
“At a Window” says that even in shame and failure you must hunger for even more of the same. In the context of the sampling of Sandburg’s Chicago poems, which spoke so frankly about the situation of poor and working-class Americans a century ago, I think that window in the title means so many things. Yes, it means there is an imperative to look outside oneself as an artist. The dusk and shadows out the window lets one see little, but one must still look.
Will there be any consolation? Sandburg apparently had such consolation in his spouse, who championed his work, who he speaks of in the “Leave me a little love…” section. Perhaps you have such a champion in your life, perhaps you don’t. We are called in “At a Window’s” conclusion to look out the window anyway. Perhaps the one who comes out of the dusk is yourself, to champion someone else?