One joy of this project’s exploration has been coming upon poets I know nothing about and acquiring their words in my bloodless version of that conqueror on the “peak in Darien.” Writing about Frost, Pound, H.D. and Eliot in England early in the 20th Century lead me to T. E. Hulme, an Englishman of pugnacious artistic pronouncements and surprisingly modest and moving poetry. And T. E. Hulme led me to F. S. Flint, another writer and literary theorist in this circle in the years just before WWI.
Last month I introduced readers of this podcast's blog to Flint’s amazing rise from Victorian poverty. In the interim I’ve been reading more of his work, including his 1920 collection of poems (he called them “cadences”) titled “Otherworld.” Since Flint is not commonly studied or anthologized, each poem as I encountered in the collection was a fresh experience, no different than reading a new poet’s chapbook published this year. I could start a poem in “Otherworld” about a confused midnight awakening, and come to find it’s a first-hand account of a deadly London air-raid by a German Zeppelin.
Today’s piece, in the same collection, held another surprise. It tells you it’s a Love Song, but contradicts that before the end of the title. What it is instead is an unstinting examination of the corrosion class and gender inflict on the grail of love. The singer of this song lays bare a combination of disgust at how he’s judged as a poor man with an undisguised desire to own the things he cannot have, including this other human being, the woman of the title.
I can think of dozens of popular songs that deal in some variation of this, but it’s harder to come up with 100-year-old poems, much less ones as good as this one, that talk of this. Ignore a handful of references to the interior decorating trends of Flint’s time, and this poem could have been written yesterday, except few writers of any time would be as acute as Flint is in observing this.
What new poets of the Modernist movement do I get to discover and share with you in the upcoming year? I can’t be sure, but I noted that Flint’s “Otherworld” is dedicated to Herbert Read, and from what few poems of his I can find online, Read seems just as fresh and fascinating.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Musically I’ve been telling myself I want to utilize some of the methods of hip-hop records, and yet each time I set out to do this I get side-tracked by my own idiosyncratic musical muse. The melodic top line is my appreciation of early 1960s hard bop organ playing. The bass part is a combination of a left-hand organ part with electric bass. Two bass lines shouldn’t work, but I think it does here. That’s not the only duality in this: the drum machine beat is augmented by some percussion which keeps the drum machine from ruling the groove “correctly.” The hip-hop rhythm flow eludes me again, though maybe I recall some predecessors like Dr. John the Night Tripper?
Over the years I’ve developed a tough-enough way to be cheerful and productive, my own “grant heart” to myself. Though on the face of it, it sounds glum, I’ve learned it by reading about artists or from artists talking about their work, and it goes by this cheerful motto: “All artists fail.”
All artists fail more than they succeed. Every. One. No artist is so broadly popular that everyone likes their work. Even those that might gain a plurality of some kind, for some time, that likes their work, will find most of that group “ignoring” them most of their lives, because our attention is so precious and limited as audiences. One’s privilege as an artist is to get to fail again. If you don’t like how you’re failing, fail better, or fail differently, fail more often.
And even those artists we think of as succeeding sometimes, sometime find themselves succeeding in misunderstanding or misapprehension.
How can this knowledge help us, grant us heart, and not crush us? Anyone who makes things should carry in themselves the conviction that the world needs more of what they do, even if they or the world don’t know it yet. We are making more of what needs to exist, though that may fail when the world doesn’t know what to make of it. It may fail because we are wrong about its necessity. And it can fail because of how we choose to manifest our art.
Are we good enough to manifest our art so that it will not fail all the time? If our desire, our artistic conviction, is somewhere around helping heal the world and cleanse it’s perceptions, you may take that as beside the point. Decades ago, in the early days of the modern emergency medical system, I once helped receive a patient in cardiac arrest as they arrived at an ER, delivered by a volunteer ambulance corps. The man in the back of the rig, still in the human heat and confusion of the moment, said that he would have performed CPR, but that his certification for CPR had expired.
Well, you have to try, even though CPR then, as I suspect it does now, mostly fails. Art, even good art, usually changes our perceptions for only moments, leaving us nearly as deaf, blind and numb afterward. If art can heal the world, it’s a long course of treatment, and its healing is imperceptibly slow.
So, if you want to make art, want to write or make music, take heart and make sure your goal is to cleanse perception or heal the world. Add to your goals one more precept, to try to not bore the audience when it grants you it’s precious attention. If you want to create art because you want to succeed, consider a lottery ticket instead.
What a roundabout way to get to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Merry Autumn,” a piece that is appropriate for Thanksgiving. How did the poet Dunbar “fail?” The child of two enslaved African-Americans, raised by a mother who learned to read to help educate her son, Dunbar was able by the age of 21 to gather some appreciation for his poetry, which spoke in three voices. Voice one was that of an accomplished 19th century poet who spoke like the East Coast “Fireside Poets” such as Longfellow, using a middle-Atlantic diction that may sound slightly old fashioned to us, but was the established voice of poetry in America at the time. We in the 21st Century may hear the peculiarities of that voice from our vantage point in time, but it would probably have not seemed like a dialect at all to his contemporaries. He also wrote in two other American dialects, and dialects were a great American literary fad of the late 19th Century. We might rarely encounter the remnants of this fad in Mark Twain or some other regionalist writers nowadays, but the idea of using written English to represent the different pronunciation and syntax of a big country before broadcast media was an artistic and commercial success of the time. Dunbar’s poems, then, also “spoke” in an informal, less-educated Midwestern dialect, and in what was considered as the southern black dialect of the time.
It’s hard to say how accurate this black dialect was. Dunbar’s mother likely would have spoken in it. Even though we’re speaking about speaking of just a bit more than a century ago, it may come down the same informed guessing that allows actors to perform Shakespeare in “original pronunciation” productions. And Dunbar’s transcribed accuracy aside, how it would be read by fellow African-Americans and how it would be read by Americans of European extraction would likely have differed greatly. On the page, his Afro-American dialect poems can look/sound like the black-face makeup minstrel-show dialect performed by successful white entertainers who perfected cultural appropriation for laughing audiences. The humble-brag of the Afro-American dialect poems may be abstractly similar to the tropes of the his midwestern regionalist dialect language, but in the end, it was not “read” as similar by the predominate culture.
What did a young Dunbar think of all this as he wrote his poems in either of these languages? I do not know, but his dialect pieces were something he was praised for by the cultural critics of the time, and they no doubt aided his marketability. He eventually expressed despair at the concentration of the attention on the Afro-American dialect poems. Perhaps he had wanted to say that he’s all of these things: a black man, a Midwesterner, and man who could sing a middle-Atlantic song as sweet as Longfellow or Whittier, and instead he was seen as the man to represent only the borough of his race in the eyes of those who did not share his experience. He had to try. He “failed.” Today we may be grateful for his failure.
Today’s piece “Merry Autumn,” doesn’t show Dunbar’s later despair. It’s largely in the “Fireside Poets” mode, though he drops into informal Midwestern idiom once or twice. And following the precept to not bore the listener who lends their attention, he takes a contrarian stance toward the old poetic trope of Autumn symbolizing death and a fall to winter.
Today’s words are from William Carlos Williams. Unlike our last episode, I wouldn’t call this a love poem. Oh, I believe there’s an assignation between two people in the opening section of this poem, but affection seems missing and the desire, if present, seems to be questioned—no, that’s not quite right—the questioning of desire is silent, present in its absence.
This is another poem I came across at the Interesting Literature blog, where it was included in a round-up of seduction poems. We’ve visited a few of that type of poem here as well, with shepherds, nymphs, a merchant’s wife, and Williams’ fellow physician-poet Thomas Campion making invitations—but this isn’t really a proposition, any more than it’s a love poem.
Williams’ poem is not titled something like “Come Live with Me and Be My Love”, it’s titled “Arrival.” So yes, an assignation, but one with a schedule like a train or airplane flight, or as we’ll soon see, like a season. Is there desire in the unhooking of the dress? In modernist, Imagist style, that emotion is not stated, but the passive voice and sparsest of descriptions argues that it’s there and is not there.
After the poem finds itself, as many of us have or will find ourselves one day, in a “strange bedroom,” a sea change occurs. The woman in the dress has disappeared. In her place: an autumn tree, disrobing its leaves because the season is felt arriving. Again, desire is not mentioned—it wouldn’t be mentioned, this is an Imagist “show not tell” poem—but this image is also passive and rote.
I’ll let you feel and figure out the image of the final few lines yourself. The now naked woman as bare winter tree? Or is her presumably male companion’s body being synecdoched?
What of the music today? The instrument that sounds something like a mandolin is an Appalachian dulcimer, a simple American instrument, but one, like the sitar of last episode, that has drone strings. The music is modal too, based around D Dorian. On the percussion side I remain attracted lately to little instruments, so there are shakers, maracas, a cabasa, congas, a chime tree, even some finger snaps in this. I could say that this is a tribute to William Carlos Williams’ Puerto Rican heritage, but really, it’s something that is pleasing me musically this month.
Here’s another piece adopting words by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize winning songwriter and polymath. Tagore is a remarkable man about whom I know only a little more than that average Western musician or writer. His life as a writer is only a small part of his impact in South Asia, but that alone is enough to bring your attention to him. Knowing as little as I do about Bengali literature, I take it from others that he’s exquisite in that language, and that, at the beginning of the 20th Century, he accomplished the same task for his culture that the modernist poets writing in English did, bringing a fresher, more colloquial language to poetry.
Tagore wrote in many forms of literature, but when his Nobel Prize was awarded, the only work available in English was a book of his lyrics, which he had self-translated into English prose—which makes him the first songwriter to win the Nobel for Literature. Tagore’s own translations do not fully hide the musical nature of the works, but they often sound somewhat stilted to this English language reader. I’ve adopted his words somewhat in this case. It’s a love song.
Now for those that come here for talk about the words used, we’re going to diverge this time and talk about the music.
It’s likely that Tagore also wrote music for this, but I do not know his tune. My knowledge of South Indian music is limited as well, but like many Westerner’s my introduction was the Ravi Shankar records that were widely available in the Sixties. Ravi Shankar had become something of a cultural fad then via his association with A Beatle! and the sideways belief that this music was “psychedelic.” That word, a neologism of the times, was formed from the Greek words for “mind” and “manifesting,” meaning music that could produce altered states of consciousness, inferring that it was like mind-altering drugs and that it might be a suitable aural counterpart to the ingestion of same. Looking back, I find this a quaint sort of categorization, as much music—and even the mind itself—can change one’s appreciation of consciousness, perhaps not with as much of a whipsaw impact as the psychoactive drugs of the time, but powerfully enough.
Mark me down as a man who doesn’t know when to let go of a fad. Despite my listener-only naivete about South Asian music, three things attracted me upon hearing those recordings, or viewing the small portions appropriated to Shankar in the rock concert films of the era:
The drone. This is a complex music based not on a progression of chords, but instead where the color changed not from a new chord or key, but with timbre, melodic scale, rhythm, and expression against a static, home chord or tone. I might have grabbed this from something else eventually (listening to John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis were also there to tell me this about the same time) but Shankar and South Asian commonplaces like tampura and harmonium drones were where I first appreciated this.
The tabla. The rhythmic structure of South Asian music is as complex as any I know, and is its most “foreign” element. The rhythmic structures have extraordinarily long cycles, difficult to “count” in a mathematical toe-tapping sense. I have a fair to poor sense of rhythm myself, but I heard these complex rhythms “melodically,” not as marks on a grid, but as string of events with a compelling line of sound. As expressive hand drums capable of vibrato, the tabla encouraged this.
The sitar. To this day, the strum of a sitar is the go-to sound effect to say “hippie.” Which is a shame because it’s a remarkable instrument with many musical features exploited by its virtuosos. To my ear, and to many guitarists who wanted to approximate the impact of the sitar, the main things were the ability to provide its reinforcement of the drone with resonating strings, and the raised frets that allowed “notes” that were in fact a cluster of microtones sounded in close vibrato.
For “She Is as Near to My Heart” I approximated all these things with non-South Asian instruments. The song’s harmonic home point is a arpeggiated cluster consisting mainly of D, E, G, and A notes, giving a key center that is ambiguous, but that I thought of as A minor for my purposes. In place of the tabla, I used a syncopated 4/4 that is comfortable to our rhythmic toes, but to give that tabla sound I used congas and a drum machine with its own electronic approximation of the tabla’s pitch bend. For the sitar element I used a MIDI interface to play a digital instrument approximation of the real thing with a guitar. And over the top, well why not, some electric guitar where I mixed blues with some more sitar sounding licks like psychedelic guitarists liked to do back in the Sixties.
Hmm. I just noticed something. The Telecaster I played that lead part on was made in India. Maybe there was a South Asian instrument on this piece after all!
One of the harder things to do when performing a song or a poem—or in talking about what either means—is to tackle a well-known piece. As far as American poetry goes, Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” qualifies as such a case. It’s one of those “most anthologized” poems. I’m certain I ran into it in high school, and it is like a lot of great and popular poems: it can be about three-quarters understood by a schoolchild being introduced to poetry scholastically.
Is there anything new and fresh that can be brought to it? And what may still be there in that other quarter of the poem beyond what one first understood as a teenager?
When I write and play the music or perform the words here I need to make choices. One of the most important of those choices is what is the mood? What is the overall outlook of the poem’s speaker? You can use educated guesses to what the author intended, or you can just make a wild guess, even a perverse one. For example, you take most any song that was written as a party anthem, and then slow it down and sing it with some doubt in one’s voice, you will completely undercut the swagger and good times vibe (as Aztec Camera’s cover of Van Halen’s “Jump” proved years ago).
With “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” I decided the mode I would use is sardonic. This is a good ground choice for any Dickinson poem in my mind. This is a poem about death, sure, but it’s a poem mocking death, or rather our appreciation of that subject.
That starts from the start: like death is a social appointment we don’t have time to schedule, but then also, a slow passage of the entire trip of life at a fine and boring pace is appropriate too, as it’s a trip to the graveyard in the metaphor of the 3rd verse.
In the sublime 4th stanza, when the speaker has passed the days of her life (the slow carriage ride of life so stately that the sun transit of a day outraces it) she finds herself unprepared for the weather of death, dressed only in useless, ladylike garments that may reference a bridal dress, a burial shroud or a nightgown.
The afterlife presented in the last two stanzas is not any heaven, but an eternity of nothingness. As a final irony, the speaker says the centuries of eternity seem like less of an experience, than even a day of a slow life.
So, on one hand this is a mock solemn poem about death, spoken in a mode not that far from what Maila Nurmi/Vampira might have vamped on TV a century later. But it’s also a carpe diem poem, written this time by a woman, one whose artistic life is not giving her time to stop for death, nor the daily deaths of an unexamined, uncreative life. When Thomas Higginson was editing the first collection of Dickinson poems, he may have appreciated that aspect when he added the title “The Chariot” to it. “The Chariot” as in “Time's wingèd chariot” in Marvell’s poem.
At least that’s what I think is there. I could be wrong. You have to make choices.
Dickinson poems, which are largely written with her internalized Protestant hymn tune rhythms, can be set to music easily. And the basic track in my performance would have demonstrated that, as played on just a 12-string guitar, even though I undercut its simple three chord progression with some chord alterations. The piano part brings the strangeness in by playing simple arpeggiated chords, but in an insistent cross-rhythm.
Sometimes the things we present here come together quickly. For example, the LYL Band pieces are often first takes where the musicians are reacting to the words spontaneously the best we can. Other pieces ask to spend a little time underground to think like seeds think.
Today’s piece is one of those later ones. Nearly two months ago Grant Hart, a founding member of Hüsker Dü, a Minnesota indie rock group that achieved some fame before breaking up in the late 1980s, died. After Hüsker Dü broke up, Hart continued working in music and visual art, some of it quite striking, none of it as well-known as it should have been. We are used to stories of a young person whose indie band is on the rise, there is less notice for those artists whose work continues past middle-age. After all, even when there are new levels to the work, there may be no apparent market. While thinking of him, I noticed, strangely, for the first time, that Grant’s name was, in effect, a two-word prayer.
Around the same time, I was talking with Dave Moore (who you’ve heard here, vocally, keyboardely, and composerly) about his household’s garden bounty coming to an end.
These two thoughts combined into the words for today’s piece back in September. And early last month I wrote the music—so this piece has existed, on paper, for a month. I performed it on acoustic guitar for a handful of people in a living room in October. It seemed to work. So why haven’t you heard it yet?
I really wanted to get the performance right. And this month I attempted that, getting as close as this recording. I wanted it to be good, but I didn’t want it to be polished either.
The LYL Band began roughly the same time as Hüsker Dü. We even shared a producer of our first recordings back in the day (Colin Mansfield). But we were much different. We were a band of poets and artists, closer to the Fugs or Billy Bragg than the Who or the Jam. And I was then, as now, not a consistent and confident performer and a problematic singer. That was my problem as a band-member back then. As passionate as I could be in my writing, I couldn’t find the heart to focus that passion on stage, to the detriment of the band.
So, it didn’t take just the two months the song was in process, it took some decades to get close to what this song requires. When you listen to “Garden Elegy (for Grant Hart)” you’ll hear me going for it as best I can, trying to focus passion. About halfway through you’ll hear the body of the guitar slam into the amplifier.
And that’s my prayer for artists today, perhaps your prayer too: that we may be granted heart.
How did you spend your extra hour given to us by the Daylight Savings Time changeover? Some spent it snuggled with a loved one, or others for splendid dreams given time for extra chapters. I spent my night and hour wrestling with another poet’s poem and creating and performing music for it.
A few episodes back we presented William Carlos Williams “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a widely anthologized and very short Imagist poem. My current feeling, shared in the notes to that, was that Williams really was talking about a red wheelbarrow, a simple tool used for important tasks. Of course, he was also aware that the rain-glazed red paint of the wheelbarrow and the white chickens around it was a bold visual image, consistent with the modernist art he appreciated, and that he didn’t mind the provocation of calling attention to this without elaborate justification, any more than a classical painter or poet would think they would have been required to tell us why we should give a fig about Artemus.
Here's another short Imagist poem, this time by Hilda Doolittle, who wrote as H. D. H. D. knew William Carlos Williams from when Williams was a college student, but then H. D. knew or crossed paths with many of the principals of Modernism over her lifetime. Modernist poetry admitted more women creators than painting or music, or most other arts at the start of the 20th Century, but that’s a low bar to clear. H. D. cleared it however, and she continued to run her own race on her own course from the start of her career.
H. D.’s 26 word poem is much different from Williams’ 16 word one. It’s much stranger, and the internal state the external images present is more complex than even many longer poems reflect.
In some ways, the title “Oread”, the effective 27th word, helps us. For those not up on Greek mythology, we can look it up, it’s a mountain nymph or spirit. Like many Greek nature spirits, an Oread is female.
So, from the title of the poem, we can say that it’s an Oread that’s speaking—but even if we grant that, this ain’t Tinkerbell. The supposed nymph is commanding nature, as a full-fledge god or goddess or a magician would. And the Oread is not asking it for protection, or forbearance, or even for it to put the hex on someone else, it’s asking it to do it’s best to overcome her. “Whirl” “pointed” “splash”, and “hurl” are some of those 26 words.
One huge difference between Williams “Wheelbarrow” and H. D.’s “Oread:” the former is intensely visual, the later, just as intensely, tactile.
And who’s the Oread talking too? Three words in, it seems to make that clear: “sea.” Except the sea is described largely as a forest—a forest that can splash and form pools, but a forest at least as much as a sea. The sharpest readings of this is that the Oread is speaking of the sea with the images of the forested mountain (waves are like trees, water drops are like the needles of pines), but by saying it so, she is saying that the overcoming she commands is a merging of two like things.
I’m left with a conclusion that this is a spell of desire. Whether it is sensual, spiritual, or artistic desire makes no difference in the frenzied merger that is being called into being.
So, what did I do in writing music and performing “Oread?” I repeat most of the lines at least twice, to emphasize the incantational aspect. Despite my recently expressed desire to re-explore artificial drum machine sounds, the percussion has lots of little instruments for a ceremonial air: shakers, maracas, cymbals, tambourine, even a chiming triangle. The main musical motif is a four-note synthesizer phrase that seems to be looping, but once again isn’t, as permutations occur throughout. The bass part rarely plays the same note as the synth motif, a musical effect that can be likened to “rubbing,” an apt metaphor for this sensuous poem.
For reasons of copyrights, I’ve been focusing a fair amount here on using words from the most recent poems whose rights are in the public domain (pre-1924). One side-effect of that: during the run of this project we’ve presented a good number of poems about World War I, which I recently called “The last war covered by poets.”
So, we’ve had a poem from a man waiting to enter his battle: Rupert Brooke writing on the troopship carrying him overseas; and poems written from first-hand views in the trenches by Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and T. E. Hulme. We’ve had reactions to the war and its losses from Ezra Pound, Tristan Tzara and Carl Sandburg. William Butler Yeats, even in refusal, is writing a war poem of a sort, one I suspect has a hidden barb at the politicians’ war propaganda.
For the most part, the poems I’ve used so far would not pass as journalism. Owen and Sassoon use fantasy to illustrate the war’s folly. Pound, Tzara, and Sandburg tell of the subjective emotional impact of the war’s losses. But Brooke’s fragment has the power of a closely observed diary entry, and T. E. Hulme comes closest so far to a straightforward war dispatch with his compressed account of the front at St. Eloi.
Today’s piece, using words by F. S. Flint, comes closer yet. Flint, the man who urged the “School of Images” in pre-war London to hew to a cadenced free verse, felt that verse and prose existed on a smooth and unbroken continuum, that good writing was good writing, regardless of the label on the tin.
Besides being present at the birth of modern English poetry, Flint also was in the right place to witness another modernist invention: aerial bombardment of cities. It’s little remembered now, but nighttime terror bombing of London was not an invention of Hitler’s air force in WWII—it was, instead, first carried out by Zeppelin airships in World War I.
Flint’s report, though artfully framed with its first-person account of being awakened from sleep in medias res, and ending with a surprising and telling conclusion, includes enough exact detail to say that it describes the first of these London raids on May 31st, 1915.
It’s a gripping account, no less than if it had been filed this year in Syria or somewhere else were bombs fall on civilians in our time.
Does the element in Flint’s work of mere journalism detract from its “poetic” qualities? The romantic element would say yes perhaps, there is no other “realer, now revealed” world invoked, no intense yoking of disparate images or modes of perception (although I would maintain it does just that in a subtler way). More elaborate language, more elaborate metaphors could decorate this. Picasso’s “Guernica” is the same subject, painted decades later, but it’s also more worked out as a cubist statement.
In a sense this question is like a question I wrestle with here as I contemplate the Parlando Project which combines music with words. Does the addition of a substantial thing to something else: in the case of Flint’s “Zeppelins,” documentary, journalistic facts to modernist poetic imagism; or in the case of my Parlando Project pieces, music and performance’s addition to what is often canonical page-poetry—are those things additive, making a greater sum—or do they, paradoxically, detract, diffusing or de-fusing the impact of the uncombined thing.
Or are these questions of art a sideline here? Do Henry and Caroline Good, dead of flames and smoke in their bedroom in that night in 1915, or Leah Lehrman, age 16 killed by a Zeppelin-dropped bomb explosion care? Do we appreciate that we live now and ponder these questions?