This guy was once famous. Not just writer-famous, but Beyoncé or Beatles famous. In England, and to a large degree in America, he was the face of, and center of, Victorian poetry. And poetry in Victorian times, the written-down and printed in books kind, was still a force in mass culture.
The town I grew up in was platted and settled around 1880, its success achieved by the industrious Swedish-American farmers around it and the railroad that went through it. The town was named Stratford, after Shakespeare’s birthplace, and the town’s main street with it’s block of stores was met crosswise just north of the shops by it’s central east-west cross street, Tennyson Avenue.
That’s a remarkable piece of trivia isn’t it? Think of how many suburbs and housing developments were similarly planned and platted in the centuries since in the United States. How many of them had the main streets named for contemporary poets? Milton and Byron had their streets along with Shakespeare in Strafford, but even Byron was 50 years dead; but here was Tennyson, a man still in his career across half a continent and one ocean, and here this proud avenue in a farming town was written down to bear his name.
The problem with being a big-thing Victorian, as Tennyson was, is that our Modernists came after them. Even though you can see the influences of the Victorians on the early work of the Modernists, you can also see the things they came to reject in search of an art for their own time. In those scattered small settlements where page poetry is still read or studied, we are many times more likely to be reading Hopkins or Hardy for the English, or Dickinson or Whitman for Americans or hinge figures like Yeats who spanned the eras than Tennyson.
Besides the street in my tiny town, Tennyson lives on in a handful of phrases from his poems that have become commonplace mottos such as “It’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all,” which is famous enough that many people think it must be Shakespeare’s.
Today’s words come from another section in the same long poem or collection that the “loved and lost” phrase was in, Tennyson’s broad meditation on loss and perseverance “In Memoriam A.H.H.” If we’ve forgotten Tennyson, this makes it possible for him to be new again, and this is a piece, that as I recast it, seems very appropriate for our age and even this year, which we know is ending. The New Year’s bells ring in a new year, but they also chase away the devils of the old one.
So Enjoy the music as you listen to "Ring Out, Wild Bells", but see if you can sing along with the words as 2017 ends.
Earlier this month I announced that my performance of Tristan Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire” was the most popular piece here last fall. Seeing this, it’s past time to present a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire himself.
If one was to draw a graphical map of the French Modernists of the early 20th Century, corresponding to the English-speaking ones we’ve been talking about a lot here, Apollinaire would be at a central place like Ezra Pound. Apollinaire knew everybody, he influenced everybody; as a critic, he wrote about everybody. Although, like Pound, he held strong opinions about what a more modern art needed, what little I know about how he was experienced as a living artist says that he was also loved by most everybody that he met as well.
Like Tristan Tzara he was an example of a European, though his work was centered in Paris and he wrote largely in French. His mother’s family was Polish or Belarussian, depending on where the borders were drawn at any one time. His father’s background was never definitively known. Born likely in Italy, he had traveled and spent time in several countries, and spoke several languages, before settling in Paris before he was 20.
In the visual arts, he invented the word Cubism, and he also was the first to call his work Surrealist. He knew modernists in music, like Satie. He knew the young artists, like Picasso, Chagall, Henri Roussseau. Dadaists considered him an influence and a co-conspirator.
In 1913 he published his best-known collection of poetry “Alcools” (Alcool is the French word for alcohol). In it, Apollinaire set out his direction in modern poetry, using various forms, often imbued with contemporary colloquial speech and connections to modern technology and urban life. One tic he adopted in “Alcools:” he dropped the punctuation from his poetry, emphasizing the flow of his words, an effect that could be seen as presaging a modern rapper’s unstoppable flow.
Am I guessing at that? It just so happens, I’m not. On Christmas Eve in 1913, Apollinaire was recorded reading one of the poems from “Alcools:” “Le Pont Mirabeau” (Mirabeau Bridge), and that recording, encrusted though it is with the scratch and noise of time, survives.
So, today’s piece, with my music and my English translation of his words, leads off with Apollinaire’s own reading of his poem in French.
Translating "Mirabeau Bridge" was a challenge. Having heard and been transfixed by Apollinaire’s intensely rhymed and recited version, I had to bend my usual translation approach, which skips any attempt to keep the original “music” (the rhyme and meter) of the poem. And as I look at the many attempts to translate this poem to English, I see most tried to at least rhyme it.
As I approached “Mirabeau Bridge,” I whined to my wife: “Richard F’ing Wilbur tried to translate this, and his version is awkward—and Wilbur’s a master of poetics!”
Why do I usually skip trying to rhyme-up translations? It adds a great deal of difficulty to conveying the poem adequately. It almost always leads to awkward English, particularly when you try to follow a rhyme scheme from the French, with many more words that rhyme, using English, whose poetic tradition did not grow out of rhyming. Having been influenced by French poetry at an early age, when trying for similar effects I often use a variety of imperfect and near-rhymes, something an audience may accept or find grating, depending on their tastes, and that’s what I did here, along with a free and not regular rhyming scheme.
Give a listen. Consider it a trip-hop battle between Apollinaire and myself. Respect to Apollinaire. Can’t bust his moves.
Tomorrow is Christmas, a holiday that in the English-speaking world owes a lot to the English Victorians in conception, which gives me an excuse to present once again the words of the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, this time in the guise of her popular and explicitly Christian-religious Christmas song “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
The song used for Rossetti’s words seems to be attributed to Gustav Holst, a composer who is best known to me for his orchestral suite “The Planets,” which has been admired or borrowed from by both Frank Zappa and King Crimson. In my rush to complete this today I can’t say that I’ve done as much justice to his tune, though I used a rough approximation of it.
The tune is quite pretty, and it makes it a fine solo for any good singer, which therefore makes it a challenge for me, so I’ve resorted to my usual parlando. On the other hand, a great many versions of this song in hymn books and elsewhere seem to have modified Christina Rossetti’s words, changing terms and phrases, even dropping some stanzas, where I’ve been faithful to them. I don’t have my usual time today to research why this would be. The meter of her original text is slightly irregular, and so it may have been modified for better singability or for audience reasons.
Rossetti’s approach makes use of her characteristic modesty in approaching religious subjects, with some lovely lines in the first verse picturing our northern Midwinter, and then going on to describe the stable setting and the supernatural surrounding sentimental maternity and spiritual imminence.
Musically, I tried to compensate for my speaking the words by unleashing my bass playing. Like some gifts you may get this Christmas, it may not be the right size or color—but it was given in a good spirit at least.
Today’s piece uses words from a more modern poem from Minnesota poet: Renée Robbins. I met Renée after this piece was written, but I recall going with her to a very nice soirée celebrating the publication of a collection of poems, including this one, by Minnesota poets 40 years ago.
This was the 1970s, and from our age or our ages, an optimistic time to be a poet in Minnesota. Running down a list of names, I’ll slight anyone I leave off out of concerns of length and focus, but locally it was still the age of Robert Bly, John Berryman, and James Wright. Minnesota literature, at that time, seemed to have placed poetry at least equal to the novel or memoir.
I had come recently from New York and had reconnected with Dave Moore who had finished college. I was writing furiously, filled with a Twenty-Something desire to set on the page all the patterns I could see in our still forming lives. Renée had taken a shorter trip, going to college first in Duluth and then in Marshall Minnesota where she studied with Phil Dacey.
There is a longer story here, full like most life stories, with twists that seem meaningful to us, even if not invested with the same importance by fate, but let’s return to poets, and the 1970s, and Minnesota.
Note that truncated list I gave of the exciting characters, the names of poets that would be in someway connected to Minnesota in that time. No women. I find that odd. No similar list of the most notable contemporary poets in the United States made the ‘70s would be so gender singular. Is this an accident, a side-effect of the stubborn impact of Robert Bly locally, a reflection of a lingering patriarchy, or just a reflection of my own framing as I look backwards? It could be all of them I suppose.
Renée and I fell in love. Eventually we married. Eventually she got sick and died shortly after the turn of the century. As I said, these twists in the stories we hold as ours seem meaningful to us. Perhaps it’s a meaning like a deep poem, one with a deep image, one that doesn’t stand for anything other than itself, one that can bend light around it, leaving the densest shadow as life still glitters around it with a strange margin where they meet.
Renée’s “My Feet” may not be that kind of deep poem, but as I tried to argue here recently, poetry is richer and less constrained when we feel we can use it for more than the deepest things. And Renée’s choices in “My Feet” implicitly make that argument I think. Ozymandias may have two great and trunkless legs of stone and that meaningful sandstorm mocking them, but the rest of us have only our tired dogs, like to those she can apprehend with her characteristic artistic focus on close looking. Her time on the farming plains of Southwest Minnesota may have given her a new landscape to appreciate those feet.
Today we offer a respite from my voice and the return of alternate Parlando Project presenter Dave Moore. And since it’s been a few days since the last new audio piece, today’s piece combines a lyric written by William Blake with one by Christina Rossetti. Two great poets in one piece! Ladies and gentlemen, there is no greater value you can find today in any poetic words mixed with music marketplace!
Both pieces are stated by their authors to be songs, either in the name of Blake’s collection where “The Garden of Love” first appeared, “Songs of Experience” or in the title itself for Rossetti’s piece, which she called just “Song.”
So of course, both pieces have been set to music and sung before this, but it was Dave Moore’s idea to combine the two pieces; and one can immediately see once he did this, how tightly they fit, with Blake sorrowfully reporting the graves in the garden, and Rossetti musing on the grave and its landscape.
Rossetti wrote her “Song” while still a teenager. Unlike Blake who was born in a religious dissenter family and grew increasingly distrustful of the corruptions of organized religion, Rossetti would become one of the most graceful and modest of the poets of the Victorian Christian revival. Strange, isn’t it, that the two poems mesh together.
Speaking from my poet/musician duality, the version of “The Garden of Love” that I most recall is the one recorded by Allen Ginsberg in December of 1969. Ginsberg’s recording is played, followed by a 20-minute discussion of the poem and performance here. The four speakers in this discussion mull on the country music waltz feel Ginsberg performed the Blake too. If I were in that room, I could have replied from the musician side of that duality, that in 1969 there was a bloomlet of counter-cultural figures essaying country-music tropes to the puzzlement from the hippie audience as to what level of irony was intended. Two musical figures close to Allen Ginsberg had taken part in that move earlier that same year: Bob Dylan with “Nashville Skyline” and Ed Sanders with “Sanders’ Truckstop.”
Our performance of this mixes Dave’s somewhat church-hymn organ (Ginsberg often used a hand-pumped harmonium organ in his live performances) with my country-ish Telecaster electric guitar, so perhaps Ginsberg’s country move was stuck in my memory as we performed this. Here’s what Dave Moore said about his performance:
“Wayback Machine time.
This song goes back to the early days of the Reagan years, which he ended up forgetting but we can't.
Probably this is my first attempt to put music to classic poetry, I just thought they fit together so well & expressed both despair and hope so well. This one is my favorite vocal of all attempts at this piece. My introductory verses for each poet are new & I wish I'd separated them from the two little poems better, but that's what you get with one-takes. Ah, sweet death, we can still sing.”
Dave points out a contrasting benefit of the pieces here performed as the LYL Band, which are not only “one-takes,” but are often pieces that only the composer-vocalist has any sense of the structure of, leaving the rest of us to follow and create parts on the fly. This leads to a certain roughness, and yes, at times, tentativeness too—but I believe there is a corresponding sense of the undiscovered and its discovery that may come across to the listener.
For some time, I’ve disliked the way the idea of “generations” has been treated by the culture at large. Not the nugget of thought that’s in it, that cohorts of people in a particular time and place will share certain experiences, some of which will shape their outlook—but the nutty, pseudo-scientific way it’s been used. The balderdash that’s been added to “generations” includes the nonsense that there are some sharp and agreed on borders to them and that everyone inside of these sharp lines in time not only shares the same experience but reacts to these things in the same way.
The crap labels we use like “Generation X” (Billy Idol and Richard Hell may have a lot to answer for, but let’s not hang this on them) or “Millennials,” (who could just as well be perennial grinders of grain for all the meaning I assign to that word) have become like unto the Sixties’ penchant for astrological signs. “Oh, you’re so Millennial” or “Members of Gen X think this way” have become the Moonchildren and Fire Signs of our age.
And of course, the borders of these deterministic generation containers are natural and inviolate—no, don’t look at them, as they will seem arbitrary and varied if you look too close. Are generations 12, 20, 30 years long? Don’t ask, as we don’t agree. And is someone born in 1946 exposed to the same set of experiences as someone born in 1963? Don’t look too close.
I bring this up, because this week I wrote a parody. And as humorists have been known to do, I went and used some generational stereotypes. I was pressed for time, those sorts of things are ready-mades, one or two people found it funny, if I use it humorously I’m making fun of it—Oh, I’m giving up. I’m ashamed.
Look, one of the good things about considering the experiences conveyed by writers whose words I use here, is that most have been dead for generations, no matter how long we define that term. Seems like they are each their own people, not clichés like “Victorians” or “the Lost Generation.”
New start. I had a serious thought as I started this. Earlier this month I revisited the well-known yet too-little-reconsidered Robert Frost poem “Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening.” As I thought about the experience Robert Frost was describing (if an actual country winter buggy ride, some think it occurred in 1909), I considered how different the night and the rural roadscape would have been then, compared to how we have informally remembered Frost’s poem. I thought the opening stanza of that poem, starting with Frost’s line that’s fallen into too-famous-to-think-about status: “Whose woods these are, I think I know,” could be describing a person who was lost in a darkening, rural pre-electric light, night—instead of a poet some of us remember as un-responsibly stopping to look at the Christmas-card pretty, well-lit, sight of a woods in snowfall.
I was thinking then: “Now I’d have not just the possibility of bright headlights, but a cellphone in my pocket that should tell me just where I am, no matter what poetic truth I’d be trying to express.”
And then I thought again about that phone. There are still areas, even in North America, without cellphone service. GPS satellite signals don’t penetrate everywhere. Those maps in our apps are not without errors.
So, today’s piece, which I call “Stopping by a Woods With Bad Cellphone Service” is actually a serious piece of winter travel safety advice, not a scurrilous piece of generational stereotyping, which I would never stoop to doing here.
Here’s another winter poem by Robert Frost to put to our uses. Writing about my last piece here, Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” I wondered about the actualities of the scene the poet was describing: a New England winter road in a dark snowy evening before the coming of rural electrification. Frost would know, of course, that it would be quite dark in those conditions. But did he use that knowledge when he wrote the poem? There I can’t say for sure. Did he, the author—like I did as a reader once (despite knowing too the darkness of rural night)—visualize a well-lit snowfall on trees, an alluring and beautiful sight that might tempt him to stay and watch for a while?
I can’t say for sure.
Frost’s “A Dust of Snow” is even shorter, and the accepted meaning of its images has been a settled thing for some time. Last time I wondered if “Stopping by Woods” was more a poem about a man who was lost in the dark in both levels of meaning rather than a man who was tempted by bright beauty. I could have been wrong, but I think it’s worth considering. With “A Dust of Snow” certain images have been determined by most academic readers to be, well, symbolic. What if we consider them as real, natural objects and not as handy metaphors?
We start right off with a crow. “A symbol of death” it is said. Perhaps it doesn’t hurt the poem to think that. I think it’s a crow. A dark bird, darker yet against the snow, and no crow would let the poet that near without a racket of loud caws. The poet doesn’t let us hear the caws though. Instead, like the uncanny sound of sifting snow in “Stopping by Woods,” Frost wants us to feel just a dusting of snow falling from the branch as the bird flaps off. He wants the main action in the poem to be almost microscopic. He could have written that the bird’s takeoff “dumped a pound of cold slush down my collar”—but that wouldn’t be the poem he wrote. Is the dust a symbol of death too? Or is it an image of a tiny action of little weight? I hold to the later.
Oh, and symbol alert! The tree the bird left is a hemlock tree. Or as the movie “Real Genius” reminds us, “As Socrates once said: ‘I drank WHAT!” How aware was Frost that the American Hemlock is a pine tree and the European poison is a completely different, smaller plant? If this were written by the avid amateur botanist Emily Dickinson, we’d know the poet would know this. Even William Carlos Williams M. D. might have need to know about the derivations of poison. Like the crow being “death” or a bird, “hemlock” could be a reference to death or suicide—but the evergreen is also a symbol of life in winter too, if it must be a symbol. Frankly I think either taken in a one-to-one direct simile way may overdetermine the poem. In the book of nature, having a black bird against white snow causing the small, light amount of snow to fall from an evergreen tree is sufficient.
And this snow falls on the narrator of the poem, and the small sprinkling of snow lifts the rueful mood. I think that’s the essence of the poem: the smallest action of nature, a flighting crystalline snow sprinkle that may not have weighed an ounce, can lift a human out of their dense internal fixations. I think that’s a more graceful poem than the leaden march of death-crows, grave-dust snow and poison trees. I could be wrong, but I like that poem better.
Musically, a much simpler arrangement than last time, just a bass and 12-string guitar. I’m trying to carve out time to prepare for some more recording with the LYL Band tomorrow.
Today I’m presenting a piece that is extraordinarily well-known, by an American poet whose work is still read and remembered outside of academic settings, Robert Frost.
In such cases it’s easy to think we know the poem, perhaps we’ve even memorized it in whole or in part, and we then say we know it in that special way. If we studied it in school, perhaps we learned or apprehended some deeper meanings for it. If this is so with you, I’ve had those experiences with “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” too.
Yet, sometimes, when we look at something with intended freshness, things step out from our remembered poem and introduce us to things we didn’t realize were always there. Let’s start with just how I (and perhaps you) have visualized the setting for this poem.
Is Frost in a woods, a bright high-contrast Currier and Ives scene of crisp white snow and colored accents? Not as he wrote it. The title and a line in the second stanza tells us he’s on (presumably) a road, and that he is between the woods and a frozen lake. Is there a full moon and clear sky? No clear sky, it’s snowing, so overcast. He says “the darkest evening of the year,” so the moon isn’t adding significant light. In the rural New England of Frost’s time, it’s probably dark and getting darker, in a way that few of us know darkness today. There are no street lights, no farm yard lights, likely no headlights. One might see villages spotted with oil-lamp-lit windows from the crest of a hill, but he’s told us no village is in sight.
When he says he only thinks he knows “Whose woods these are,” he probably means, “I could tell you if it were noon, but not in this dark.” In the rural area of my youth, even forty years after this poem was written, directions were still given by knowing who owned (or once owned) a piece of land. Is he lost? Possibly. At the least, he wants us to know that he’s not exactly sure where he is.
At the end of the first stanza he says he stopping to watch the woods fill up with snow. If he accomplishes this, he doesn’t tell us. There are hundreds of good lines to describe snow falling on trees visually, and Frost has written many of them, but he doesn’t do it here. Is he leaving us to visualize it ourselves, from our own rich storehouse of memories? That’s possible. And if you and I remember the poem as having images of falling snow drifting through tree boughs in moonlight, that worked. My current guess is that Frost’s narrator could “see” this too, but like us, only in their mind.
It’s a testament to how thoroughly we prioritize visual imagery in poetry that we think those images are there, even if we’ve memorized the poem. Frost was especially proud of the poem’s third stanza, and justly so. It’s all sound images. The dark and solitary nature of being in the middle of un-occupied rural space at night allows sounds to take the place of what our eyes would lord over otherwise. It starts with the horse sounding his harness bells, bells not merely a decorative pretext to sing “Jingle Bells,” but a useful method of letting other narrow-road users know someone’s coming around a curve or hill-crest, particularly in the dark. And the snow image that’s really there? It’s so quiet and he’s so focused in the darkness, that he can hear the sweep of the top layer of snow blowing across the surface of the rest.
The infinite depth and darkness of the woods in the final stanza is not just a metaphor. It’s dark out, and it will not get lighter until morning. Its loveliness, invisible in the dark, is conceptual art at this point for Frost.
In this view, the decision about staying or continuing the journey is not a temptation of a seductive external snowfall-on-the-woods scene, nor is it a thought of embracing death or a contemplation of suicide, though those elements may be there as subtext. The situation is “I’m not even sure where I am on this road in the falling dark. The momentary beauty I sought here is elusive and mostly in my head. Keep following the road, though I don’t have sure landmarks and don’t know for how many miles. Better the finite, even if not quantifiable, promises of the rotating wheel of my buggy than the depth of a forest I cannot see.”
And the sleep he ends the poem with? Frost always maintained it wasn’t death in metaphorical disguise, despite what professors in electrically lit rooms might think. The story is that he wrote “Stopping by the Woods” at end of a long night of work on another, longer poem. Any writer would recognize that it’s actual sleep he now desires, rest that we only allow after exhausting our attempts to see what is lovely, dark and deep despite the night.
It’s been awhile since a new episode, what with holidays and family occasions, but here’s another piece, “Rosemary,” using the words by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Millay was one of the most popular, most often read, poets of the first part of the 20th Century, but the later part of the century gave her less consideration. A contemporary of the Imagists and other poetic Modernists that we’ve featured a lot this year here, and while connected to their world, she didn’t sustain favor with the rise of the “New Criticism” that became the dominant academy in the English-speaking world after WWII.
Reasons? Well, there’s gender. One must assume that played a role. And popularity of the general-readership sort would not have been an asset either, as perhaps only Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson survived being read by a general readership in the mid-century without losing their high-art cred. Why couldn’t Millay have joined Frost and Dickinson in these critics’ esteem?
I think it’s largely a case of her poetry not seeming to have the subject of their criticism: fresh, complex, allusive and illusive, imagery. Frost and Dickinson may have used homey sounding language, but in the end those funerals in the brain and snow, roads and woods added up to something to talk about in critical prose.
The New Critics were an inflection point. Before them, poetry was largely considered musical speech, a container that could hold a variety of subjects, after the New Critics, poetry was about the imagery, how you portrayed things with it. And unless one aimed for satire, such complex rhetorical structures must be in service to serious matters.
And so, there’s subject matter too. Millay’s great subject was love and affection, it’s presence, absence and all the shades in-between. In doing so, she addresses much of life and its condition, but did she receive enough credit for that? Is a heartbroken man a tragic philosopher of fate, and a woman merely a spurned lover? Narrow-mindedness can’t be ruled out.
“Rosemary” allows us to examine these issues. This looks to be a poem about the death of a passionate love or the death of a dear one. I’m not sure which of those two possibilities is standing for the other, but for an audience, it does not matter as both events are common to our hearts.
I think there is an intent here to conjure a complex world of timeless folk magic. Though written in the 20th Century, it could have been written anywhere up to five centuries earlier. In the title we have rosemary, an herb associated with remembrance even in Shakespeare’s time (Ophelia’s mad speech in Hamlet for example), and in the first stanza we have rushes being scattered on a room’s floor, a custom from medieval times to hide the stink and mess of a less hygienic age, a strewing of reeds that may have included rosemary because it was thought to be something of an insecticide. Bergamot is another fragrant plant. Stink, rot and pestilence are all inferred subtly in this verse that on the face of it seems only a short catalog of flowers.
The second verse adds a rain barrel to catch rain, or is it tears? And what’s with that iron pot. Is it a cauldron? The poems last two lines are in quotes on the page. I was suspicious that the “An it please you, gentle sirs,” line was a quote, and finding out what it was from might be important, but I can’t place that line—if any reader knows, please clue me in.
And at the end of this timeless lament: “well-a-day,” which might sound to you or me like “have a nice day,” but is instead a word that harkens back to Old English, meaning woe-is-me.
What I think we have here is a poem, that read quickly, seems to be a trivial verse about some flowers with a bit of a kitchen scene, but it’s stated with deliberately archaic specifics so that the attentive modern reader might notice that time cannot heal this loss. And each thing in it is an image, though they don’t loudly announce themselves as such.
I’m reminded of my distant relative Susan Glaspell’s famous play “Trifles” where the domestic clues hide all the information the dense men seeking important information miss.