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?
100 years ago, a WWI German artillery shell ended the life of T. E. Hulme, the man sparked off what we now know as modern English poetry. I was going to say “invented,” but that’s a dodgy word in art as much a science. Hulme borrowed ideas from several places, and adapted poetic tactics the French and some Americans had already made use of. But we can still say he started things off because he collected the tinder and cordwood in the Poet’s Club in London in the first years of the 20th Century, and the spark was applied by suggesting that everything he thought poets were doing since, well, just about the Renaissance, was wrongheaded. Too flowery. Too ornamented. Too “romantic,” an error he believed made them think of mankind as exalted and godlike.
Hulme, interested in visual art as much he was in literature, thought the new literary direction should be visual. Cold hard images, direct and vivid, not abstract, were to be the new order, but these images could even be homey and simple (as long as they retained that vividness), not the sort of thing that signaled high culture in the British poems of the past couple of centuries. He was very certain of this, and he either made a convincing case or provided the theoretical underpinnings through first or second order influence on the soon to mighty modernists: Pound, Eliot, Yeats, H.D., and Frost.
Hulme illustrated his ideas with short poems. I not altogether sure how seriously he took these writings, but I find they have three attractive attributes. First, for all the bluster and pugnaciousness that he propounded his theories, the poems are very unassuming. In subject, they often seem to follow one of the principles I try to follow in the Parlando Project: “Other people’s stories.” Second, they are short, and I am attracted to the variety of expression that can succeed in short poetry. And lastly, they are the first. They have that charm, the same charm I might apprehend looking at a Chuck Statler music video, an Apple I or MITS Altair personal computer, an early horseless carriage, or the pictograms on a cave wall. The other beginners looked at this, and said “why not?” Ezra Pound related to Hulme’s ideas in formulating “Imagism.” T. S. Eliot either saw or was reinforced in his ideas for a new classicism in poetry in Hulme’s work.
What would be striking about today's piece, Hulme’s “Autumn,” in 1908 when it was published?
It’s “free verse.” No rhyme, no regular metrical scheme. Americans Walt Whitman and Hart Crane had done this, but this was still rare, and rarer still in England. I find the last part of Hulme’s “Autumn” quite musical however, essentially iambic, and sound echoes, if not rhyme, are present in “wistful stars with white faces.”
Hulme’s two substantial images are extraordinarily unpretentious, particularly the first one: “the ruddy moon” at sunset leaning “over a hedge/Like a red-faced farmer.” Compare this to Shelley’s “To the Moon” where the moon is “of climbing heaven” and is addressed as “Thou chosen sister of the Spirit” or Wordsworth’s “With How Sad Steps, O Moon” which is “running among the clouds a Wood-nymph’s race”—and these are examples from good poems of the 19th Century, not the more forgettable lot.
Over at the Interesting Literature blog, where I discovered Hulme, it is pointed out that Hulme, who was from a rural district, also had a ruddy complexion. Perhaps Hulme is looking at himself when he sees the ruddy moon, or his hometown in the moon, but we don’t need to know this subtext to sense the nostalgic comfort in this scene. Except for “cold” near the beginning, which is a sensation as well as an emotion, the only other emotion that is “told” rather than “shown” in the poem is the adjective “wistful” applied to the stars.
Did Hulme toss this off, just to say “Look! You can write a poem like this.” I don’t know, but that’s beside the point. As a person myself who has emigrated from a small rural town, Hulme’s “Autumn” works as well or better than a grander poem in a more florid manner.
What would Hulme have done if he hadn’t insisted in serving his country in WWI or if the shell had landed on some other poor soul? That, no one can tell.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson may have exaggerated a bit, speaking of “dred.” It was 1891, and he had taken on the editing the surprisingly vast literary legacy of Emily Dickinson for its first substantial publication. In this task, he was a lucky find, for though he had engaged in a lengthy correspondence with Dickinson when she was still alive—the real rarity was that he was a thoroughgoing radical, a Transcendentalist comfortable with heterodoxy, an uncompromising abolitionist who raised and lead a company of Afro-American soldiers in the Civil War; and rarer yet in his time, a stalwart feminist who knew and worked with pioneering American feminists Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony.
So, fear of controversy was not in Higginson’s nature. Still “dread” was the word he used:
“One poem only I dread a little to print—that wonderful 'Wild Nights,'—lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there. Has Miss Lavinia (Emily Dickinson’s surviving sister, and the one who found the large cache of poems at Emily’s death) any shrinking about it? You will understand & pardon my solicitude. Yet what a loss to omit it! Indeed it is not to be omitted.”
What dread could a little 12-line poem cause? Dickinson's “Wild Nights Wild Nights” appears to be a poem about unembarrassed female desire. Even with suggested subtext supplied for for lines like “Rowing in Eden,” it may seem less shocking today. Let’s give Higginson some credit. He not only didn’t want to censor it, he maintained it needed to be included for publication.
Perhaps today we’re not shocked—but let’s not forget, it’s an Emily Dickinson poem. It’s terribly concise. It sings off the page, yet with such short lines, just three to five syllables long. It’s memorable. When I mentioned it to my wife as the next piece I was working on, she nearly knew it by heart.
But most strangely, though it starts like an ardent valentine, it finishes either in the pleasant, muddled thoughts of lust or with something altogether less conventional. Setting humptastic subtext aside, why would one row in Eden? You’re in paradise! Where do you want to go? Do you need to stock your ship up with the fruit of knowledge? And you’ve made it to port in the last stanza. Again, let’s leave the “made it past third base” metaphors behind for a moment. Why are you exclaiming the sea when you’re in port? I even wonder if Dickinson is slipping in a pun here: “Ah! the sea!” sounds like "Odyssey.” Is Emily’s wild-nighter an Odysseus looking to getting back on the boat and back to sea?
I don’t know exactly what Dickinson is getting at there. Her level of concision: pretty, but sharp pieces of glass, leaves lots of slant light to refract.
Today was the Autumn Equinox, which some use to mark the beginning Fall. Where I live it was very hot and muggy, hardly autumn-like at all, and even the reasonable breeze could not budge the heat. I went bicycling with my son, promising him ice-cream, which he accepted as adequate exchange, and picked up cold sandwiches for our supper, but in-between I worked on the setting for this piece, yet another by Christina Rossetti.
I wasn’t intending to return to Rossetti so soon, and I’m not sure how I ran into this poem, but it meshes so well with some others I featured here this month about summer and attitudes to love. I just couldn’t deny it.
Going beyond the last Rossetti poem of longing we featured here, or William Carlos Williams with his observation of nature’s dispassionate summer, or Edna St. Vincent Millay' notice of a missing summer muse of comfort in herself, this one is more distressed. The speaker is depressed and is showing her friends away—it’s a fairly pure piece of Victorian melancholia. Will her friends notice she’s not keeping her garden up and bring her round some tea and biscuits? One hopes so.
I know little of Christina Rossetti’s life, and if she suffered from depression, but even if she did, in this case she fashioned another finely crafted lyric to present the experience. I find this sort of thing often in English poetry, sadness that none-the-less sings in a lovely way. Here is America we grew up some Blues, and we tend more to bargain with despair, or call it names and begin to insult its absurdity.
The title is a bit of puzzle to me, though. “From Sunset to Star Rise” has something of a “It’ll get better” connotation. Was she trying to remind herself of some wisdom that could come from this, or some mystery yet to work out?
Edna St Vincent Millay is another poet who offered little to the “New Criticism” critics who largely set the canon for the 20th Century, even though her career, which covered the first half of the 20th Century, ran almost exactly through the same time as Eliot, Frost, Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens, and even though she achieved significant readership and a level of awards and accolades while living.
What’s their problem with Edna St. Vincent Millay? Well her popularity would be a negative in some lights. In this regard, critics are often no different than the record store clerks of my own day, whose estimation of any indie band would inevitably drop as soon as they achieved a widely played record. And there’s the “her” and “she” problem. The level of disbelief of the idea of a woman artist probably varied among these critics, but literature was still a very male world at that time, and unconscious prejudices are a given. But even if we skip those two, frankly illegitimate, factors, there is the issue of Millay’s plainspokenness.
Odd isn’t that? This value that you might rate highly in friend was held as low regard by the New Critics, who likely thought it common and unremarkable. A Millay poem typically says exactly what it means, right out. There may be images, but they might not pass Imagist muster. They aren’t stark omens whose meaning is felt and then deciphered, they may be more like the illustrative images the Imagists wanted to leave behind. Millay’s all tell and too little show for them.
And Millay’s language often seems stuck in the 19th Century too. Some lyrical poets like Yeats and Frost adopted Modernist tropes and were able to make their rhymed and metrical poems sound more like contemporary speech. Millay sometimes seemed to be reading from a somewhat musty library book when composing her poems.
The most extended image in "Sonnet 43" is a bare winter tree, which could be a borrowed image, or a homage, and I choose to manifest the later in this performance.
Can our modern (post-modern?) age free up some respect for Edna St. Vincent Millay? I think so. With contemporary poets, we now sometimes value plainspokenness. And the cluster of things that Millay spoke plainly and honestly about include love, sex, and desire.
This sonnet was published in 1920, it’s nearing a century old. If we slide over some of the 19th Century “poetic diction” (something I found easy enough to do when performing this) it’s as honest and as nuanced report on the state of a heart as anything written then or now.
And if one must have ambiguities for art’s sake, honesty can contain that too. Some read this poem as bitter, or a lonely-hearts club statement, or as regret for a life that Millay’s time would’ve called promiscuous. That’s not how I understood it to perform it. I think the speaker is recalling an active love life they rather enjoyed. They reveal themselves (honestly) as something of a sensualist. As the Petrarchan sonnet wraps up its octet, the speaker allows a touch of regret about those lovers who turned to the speaker at midnight “with a cry.” What did the speaker offer them? I think the closing lines say some “summer,” a summer that “sang in me”—that is, that summer is not something the speaker intentionally gave or offered, and the speaker doubts that the muses of that summer offering will still speak through her. William Carlos Williams—unlike Millay, following all the Imagist rules—touches also on the caprices of summer and fulfilled desires in “It Is a Small Plant,” but some are more accustomed to a male author speaking ambiguously about the honest incursions and boundaries of desire.
Perhaps this poem benefits with some listeners in being heard performed in a male voice? I can’t say for sure on that.
Among the 20th Century admirers of Millay’s verse were my father (who grew up on the 19th Century Longfellow and the like, so Millay’s 19th Century diction was no bar) and a distant cousinoid of mine, the modern American theater pioneer Susan Glaspell.
Today’s piece uses my own words to present some images regarding American musician and songwriter Jimi Hendrix. Just like William Carlos Williams meditation on a small plant last time, I pretty much follow the famous Imagist rules: direct treatment of the thing, no unnecessary words, and musical phrasing instead of mechanical metrical feet.
Each one of the images opens up what I hope is a rich question. It’s my hope that the resulting poem and audio piece assists you in remembering these questions that I see as posed in Hendrix’s life. Here is the poem I wrote and used with today’s music:
And then he laid the guitar down, and set it afire
Which seems silly or sacred, depending on the art
He had only to keep himself alive, which would kill him.
He took every stop on the three 21 fret train tracks,
Slid between the rails, rode them underwater,
Understood the train-whistle called his ancestors
Living in the amplifiers, that he could not shake out,
That he could not know, that were here,
Before European words, that were here,
Brought in shackles, that were here,
Building in electricity, that were here
Now, for children who did not know they were children.
Voluntary orphans, immigrants discovering new worlds,
Walking on squatters’ land, not forgetting to bring their chains.
In the first stanza, I remind us that Jimi Hendrix was a consummate showman, and that he used showmanship to wrest attention for his art, specifically when he appeared at his first significant concert as a bandleader at the famous Monterey Pop Festival and burned a guitar at the conclusion of a flamboyant act. I present this performance as being consistent to Hendrix’s commitment to his art, as a rock’n’roll musician, an itinerant life with associated dangers, which in his case lead to short life and career. Worth it? Necessary for success?
The next stanza acclaims Hendrix for expanding the vocabulary of the electric guitar, using an image of the six-string guitar fretboard, which he transcended with notes beyond the temperament of the frets and though the use of feedback where the notes from the amplifier speaker reflect back to the guitar in the musician’s hands producing sustaining overtones that can be difficult to control but produce extraordinary effects. The question here: these sounds can be harsh, discordant, even painful, but do they too have a necessity?
Next stanza: this feedback is presented as Hendrix’s ancestry, part indigenous, native-American, part Afro-American, a descendent of slaves. This makes Hendrix the point where two arcs of American heritage cross: those that were brought to American against their will, like as to livestock; and those that that were already here and were supplanted by brutal or conniving invaders. The questions here should ask themselves, don’t you think?
The final lines move from Hendrix, to his audience while he was alive and performing: largely white, largely young, many taking a hippie bohemian voyage I liken to America’s famous immigrants, choosing to leave the world of their homes for some promised new world that cannot, and will not, be exactly as promised.
Whatever generation you reside in, you cannot get on a boat or plane to visit another generation's time; but when you look at a picture or video of a crowd watching Hendrix play, consider those faces. They may be distracted by the day, transfixed or stunned, ignorant and seeking, intoxicated but intent, pleased and puzzled—they may not look like Hendrix, many will seem by their faces to not share his heritage, and none can know the depth of that heritage—and yet, they are dealing with the experience of his art. I ask you not to feel superior or inferior to them from the position of your age or the accident of your generation, but to instead to look to your own heart and ask if there you find some blindness or power, and then to ask, as the concluding words of “For the American Hendrix” does: in coming to your new land did you carry with you chains?
47 years ago today, Jimi Hendrix died, perhaps alone, perhaps ignored by his companion of itinerant convenience, trying to continue his art, ignorant of the strength of European sleeping pills.
September 17th is the birthday of the American Modernist poet and physician William Carlos Williams, and today’s piece uses the words from one of his poems “It Is a Small Plant,” the best known selection from a sequence of poems Williams called “The Flowers of August.”
Unlike some other American Modernists—including two poets he met and befriended while a student at the University of Pennsylvania, H.D. and Ezra Pound—Williams spent most of his formative writing years in the United States, much of it in his native state of New Jersey where he practiced as a pediatrician. Like his fellow stay-at-home Modernist Carl Sandburg, Williams wrote poems the followed the new Imagist rules, at least at the start, finding them useful in breaking away from the old poetic styles.
One of those Imagist rules, the first one in fact, was “direct treatment of the ‘thing.” That doesn’t mean that you just directly state the message from your heart. Rather, it means that you honor and hone the image(s) that represent your meaning as palpable things, not as mere poetic decorations for your words. “It Is a Small Plant” demonstrates that by spending nearly the entire poem presenting a description of a flowering plant.
In the series “The Flowers of August,” each of Williams’ other poems are titled with the name of a particular meadow or pasture flower, but not this one. So, I suspect this is meaningful. The description of the flower here sounds a bit to me like the common bluebell, but it’s possible that he diverged from botonny in service of one of the poem’s images, or that the omission of the flower name in this poem made a point for him.
The other, more important, mystery is who the “her” that is inspecting the flower with the poet is, the her who regards the subject flower as “a little plant without leaves.” At first. I wondered if it was perhaps a young girl looking at the flowers, but I now believe that it’s the “her” featured at the poem’s close: summer. And if that’s so, that is the reason the flower has no name, as the human name doesn’t exist for nature and nature’s incarnation as summer. And in the course of the poem, summer then too cannot care about the anthropomorphic desires presented in Williams’ presentation of the flower.
I’m not a quick understander of poetry. In working on this piece, I read Williams’ poem, enjoying some lines in themselves. The ostensible subject seemed to fit with the season and coincidentally with some other pieces I’m working on—but I wasn’t sure what it meant. In the course of fitting it with music, recording the vocal, and then tweaking and mixing the music, I lived with this poem for a good part of the last couple of days, reading or hearing the words over and over.
If I had been too concerned with its meaning, I might have stuck with my initial supposition, that it was child apprehending the flower. I was pre-disposed to that on first reading, having briefly re-meet Margot Kriel earlier this week, a poet who wrote an excellent poem called “Weeds” which featured just such an image. But I was more concerned with getting the drums right, playing the bass, setting up delay divisions for the guitar lines, and marshalling my limited keyboard skills for the soft keyboard parts, and then making that all fit together.
Through you don’t have to go through those composition and production steps, this points out again one of the things that music can do to change the context of words when it’s combined with them. While music can emphasize some mood or presentation of the words, in the same way that suspense music makes a film clip of a character walking down an unremarkable hallway scary, it can also offer its art as a distraction from worrying about meaning too soon with a poem.
Today’s audio piece is another by Christina Rossetti, connected through family with the Victorian art and literary movement that called itself the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In their painting and artwork, the Pre-Raphaelites often appeal to me. The paintings sometimes have a stunning, oversaturated palette; and they are fond of symbolic and esoteric subjects which fill the paintings with interesting details.
Many associated with the PRB wrote poetry as well, but when I’ve gone looking for pieces I can present as part of the Parlando Project, the brothers in the brotherhood just didn’t do much for me. Surprisingly, the poet who did was Christina Rossetti. I don’t recall if she was even included in any English literature anthologies of my youth. She isn’t a poet with a lot of flash and filigree, and a poem like today’s has not a single arresting image, and language is simple too. Using the criteria of the Modernists who came to dominate the assessment of poetry in the 20th Century, this poem should have nothing to recommend it.
So, what does it have or do, why did I bother to write some music for it and perform it for you? Well, first it has a refreshing modesty of expression. This is a song of longing from first to last, a universal human experience. And the subject of the longing, is it for an earthly partner, the age-old “when will the right one come along” wish? Or is it for an otherworldly, completing partner, a presence beyond the moon and stars? Despite Rossetti’s homey words, it could be either, and the alteration of “near or far” with “far or near” in the 2nd and 3rd verses encourages us to see it both ways.
If one must choose which supposition, I lean to the spiritual object, and if so, the image, such as it is, if off-screen here: earthly love may stand for the longing for religious meaning and connection. The last couplet, the dying leaves falling on “turf grown green” is strangely incoherent, and it reminds me of some of images or rebirth and salvation in British folklore, leading me that way.
But if could also be a song of simple earthly longing for a suitable partner. Adding music to Rossetti’s “Something or Other” both adds decoration to the simple words and allows the listener to relax in that ambiguity without a need for an immediate conclusion.
A while back here there were several episodes where we discussed songwriters as literary figures, using the springboard of Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan was the third songwriter to receive this award, preceded by William Butler Yeats and Rabindranath Tagore. But the Nobel prize is not really all that old, and the idea of the singer-songwriter is older. We know little about how the ancient Greeks performed their poetry, but accounts consistently say that it was accompanied by music, and in the case of at least Sappho of Lesbos, it’s specified that the lyricist played the lyre as well. Similarly in ancient Hebrew, David and his harp, or the west African griots and their Koras, and so on.
So, despite the idea that lyrics sung to music mark an inferior art, or that performing poetry to music is an affectation hardly to be endured, history says this was not always so. Of course, the way it’s done can please or not please, and it’s still possible that such performances are an obsolete form that we’ve now superseded with hugely popular and culturally significant poetry chapbooks and small press poetry collections—I kid! I kid!
Today’s piece is by just such a singer-songwriter, an Englishman born in 1567, Thomas Campion. He wrote his lyrics, wrote his music for them, and was an accomplished lutenist, so the chances are that he was discovered by John Hammond and played the authentic Elizabethan blues music he misheard from 78 r.p.m. discs of Catullus. Well no, doubting Thomas, once more I Kidd.
He did write lovely songs, in a style I can’t come up with a way to present. “Let Us Live and Love” was one. You can hear it sung beautifully to his tune here. So instead of exploring my counter-tenor range, I’m going to go with a sort of loose skiffley blues in my performance.
I’m going to lean on my blues audacity hard here, because the poem is addressed to the singer’s lover, Lesbia. Beavis and Butthead style giggles are breaking out in the back, I can hear you. Turns out Campion took the lover’s name and the idea for his first verse of his lyric from a Latin poem by classic Roman poet Catullus, before taking off on his own thoughts on the matter. Classics scholars explain this by saying the Sappho of Lesbos’ association in classical times was more at a widely experienced lover, not necessarily a lesbian one.
Another category “Let Me Live and Love” could be put in would be a “Carpe Diem” poem, which is not the Department of Natural Resources limit on the number of bullheads you can catch, but is more Latin meaning: “seize the day,” which in the case of poems usually doesn’t mean seize the day for fishing. Instead, Carpe Diem poems usually offer this proposition: “We’re all going to die, so you might as well have sex with me.” Seriously. Poets have actually made that seem like a smooth line.
The twist Campion puts on Carpe Diem is to bend it around a bit. His song has it that you already love me, and that makes the idea that we’re all going to die bearable. That’s at least a little more flattering.
There’s two things that attracted me to T. E. Hulme, the lesser-known Modernist poet and theoretician that I’ve featured a few times this summer. The first is the sense in his poetry and critical writings of the limits of humankind. The other is his poetry's surprising modesty and restraint, something embodied in the very brevity of his poetic expression as well as his images linking the mundane and the cosmic.
This was a man who wanted to overthrow hundreds of years of poetic tradition, and a person whose stubbornness kept him in trouble with authority figures throughout his youth, and yet Hulme expresses himself in these spare lines, as if the first lesson he’s teaching himself is to know his own limits. This seems to be Hulme’s problem with romanticism as he saw and opposed it: humankind is not limitless, though our imagination says otherwise.
Today’s piece, William Butler Yeats’ “The Heart of the Woman” moves in opposition to that outlook, but not in opposition to that expression.
Here in North America, many in the southern region are spending this week either cleaning up from a massive hurricane or clenching their jaws in anticipation of an even larger one due to strike this weekend. Peaceful, Rousseauean nature this ain’t. Hobbes is is a weatherman.
Yeats’ poem is as measured and modest as one of Hulme’s, though it is rhymed and metrical. When one is a good as Yeats is at that, one hardly notices the form. 12 lines, not even a sonnet in length. Like Hulme, this is no great ode of endless argument. On the face of it, it’s a love song, a basic trope of Romanticism, the reason we talk about human attraction and pairing as “romantic.” Its images are centered on a couple embracing.
But look closely in those dozen lines. The woman who’s singing it, has left religion (“prayer and rest”) and family, and has followed a lover’s invitation into what is introduced as “gloom”. Merely the dark of night?
No, in the lovely line darkness is found inside the “Shadowy blossom” of her hair which will hide the lovers from the “bitter storm.” Now we are fully in the Romantic world, where our own darkness may be willful, wishful, blissful, ignorance of the “hiding hair and dewy (blurry) eyes.”
Are there any more Romantic and romantic three lines as Yeats’ final three here? If there are, I can’t recall any at the moment. That the murmurs of human breath can seem to equal a hurricane's—is that glorious or folly or both?
In the spirit of defying human limits, this is the first time you’re going to hear me sing a Parlando Project piece acapella. And though Yeats’ poem doesn’t rule out the same romantic faith on the part of the “he” in this poem, I’m somewhat troubled by the idea that romantic devotion is presented here as female, from the poem's title onward, so I’ll undercut it by singing this.
I was talking with my wife this weekend. She’s reading a memoir about current military deployments (and redeployments) and she said a Wilfred Owen poem was mentioned in it.
“Well, World War I was the last war to be covered by poets.” I replied. Which is not strictly true of course. World War II generated a number of poems I’d love to share here, but I have no time to try to track down the rights issues to use words that still may be under copyright. And I suspect other wars have generated other poems since then, even if I don’t know many of them. But that’s not what I meant.
What I meant was that WWI was the last war in which a considerable portion of the English-speaking public looked to poetry for meaning and consolation regarding the battles and their losses. I’m not sure if they looked to poetry more than journalism or political oratory, but I believe that poetry then still operated somewhat in the same theater as these other words when addressing current events. Longer forms of literature, such as novels, tend to lag events substantially, changing or fixing our view of things afterwards, instead of framing it while the picture is still moving. I think of two epithets, for journalism and then for poetry: “The first draft of history” and “The news that stays news.”
My son wanted to show me this brilliantly parsed cartoon summary of the Iliad this morning. The narrator there has a lot of fun with the meandering and seemingly arbitrary plot of that Greek epic poem, but it struck me that it’s possible that the ur-version of the Iliad might have been written contemporaneously to the events, only to be shaped afterward like a collection of old news dispatches repurposed for later use.
So, this is a long tradition in Europe from Homer to the war poets of WWI, for the battles and the experience of the battles being reported in poetry.
Why has this use of poetry, to report current and crucial events, fallen away? The first explanation that occurs to me is we have other media to do this now. Film, radio, video, and now cell phones capture the moment without pretending to rely on subjective art. The Imagists who forged their poetic theory in the years around WWI, would seem to have lost their territory as their theory won the war. A cell phone or nose-cam video of the bomb exploding follows two out of the three famous Imagist rules: The “thing” is treated directly, there are no unnecessarily words (indeed there may be no discernable words at all), while more or less ignoring the less-noticed third rule (the one we at the Parlando Project keep pointing to and speaking about), the one that asks for musical phrasing.
Poetry, like painting, is no longer necessary for reportage. Modernists often chose to respond to this by a movement into abstraction, conveying thoughts in motion and novel conceptions, seeking to demonstrate what can be meaningful without meaning.
Today’s piece is attributed to T. E. Hulme, a man who helped form this Modernist revolution and died before he could live in it. I say “attributed” because, like Homer, he did not write it down. The exact attribution is “Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr TEH” when it was published by Ezra Pound, and it may have been Pound who chose what to transcribe or how to lay out the transcription. My guess is that some of the language sounds like Hulme (the unusual, but so perfect word choice of “pottering,” the homey image of trench soldiers strolling compared to the shoppers on the busy London street of Piccadilly), but the overall arrangement sounds like Pound to me.
We know pretty much the where and when that is being talked about, more than we know of the actual history of Troy. Hulme got a chance to relate these details while in an English hospital after being wounded in the spring of 1915 in trench warfare in St. Eloi. He recovered, returned to the war, and to his eventual meeting with a German artillery shell that ended his life.
I describe the Parlando Project as various words (mostly poetry) combined with various music. The limits on the music portion are largely the limits of my own musical abilities and those of the LYL Band, but I try to stretch those limits as much as I can. The words we’ve used have been poetry more than 90% of the time, but I like to mix up eras and writing approaches there too. Today’s piece uses words that weren’t published as poetry, but they are instead taken from an interview with Laurie Anderson published in The Believer magazine about 5 years ago. The interviewer (a couple of whose interjections I’ve included) was Amanda Stern.
Just before the small section I used from the interview, Anderson was relating that artists do not necessarily need to invent something new themselves, rather they can use art to just call attention to things that already exist. That’s an idea that we honor here with the Parlando Project. Instead of endless creating and featuring new sets of words that Dave or I write, we instead largely seek to pay attention to the work of others. That thought, attention versus creation, led Laurie Anderson to her meditation on the sky that I have now combined with my music for today’s piece, “Sky.”
Part of what attracted me to this was her attribution of her sky meditation to growing up in the American Midwest, in a town without big mountains or large bodies of water. In such matters I could easily resonate with her feelings, having been similarly enraptured myself by the sky blue and clouds or the black with serious stars in my youth in Iowa. The book of nature has few words and a lot of blank spaces, but it reads deeply if you look at it.
While I write this, I’m still reading more about the last episode’s author, pioneering English modernist T. E. Hulme, finding out that he felt the need to change his art after spending time on the Canadian Great Plains. Certainly, there was sky where he grew up in England, but the sky of great open places, with its null, yet present reflection on the earth, is the whole garment, after which having seen it, one can be reminded of it, even if all one currently has is a tattered swatch.
I cannot describe Laurie Anderson fairly in the space I take for these things here. There are no other better-known artists like her, and so resorting to record store clerk shorthand such as: “She’s like Garrison Keillor combined with Yoko Ono and Andy Kaufman and…” is so strained it doesn’t really get the point across. I can see the lineage from Dada though the developments of 20th Century art in her work, but after all, everyone has influences and comes upon things they resonate with, just as Laurie Anderson’s way of combining spoken word with music is an influence on me.
Anderson’s spoken voice phrasing and speaking style is one of the distinctive things about her audio art. Some describe it as a monotone, but I’d say that’s incorrect. Yes, there’s a compression of affect, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t considerable impression of mood and attitude in it. Perhaps she’d ascribe that to Midwesterness as well. Even her non-pitched performance speaking has in intensely lulling cadence and music to it, not just hypnotic in metaphor, but very much in the mode of the spell-casting of a stage hypnotist.
That shouldn’t work—and as much as I love her work, in larger doses I sometimes find it hard to retain even sub-conscious attention throughout the whole work—but with the right amount of attention, it’s extraordinarily powerful stuff.
As she has developed her audio style over the years, she’s added singing and a strong use of electronic voice modifications. As far as I know, she’s one of the pioneers in the use of that electronic voice manipulation. I even considered using some of that in “Sky,” but opted instead for a more straightforward presentation.
I return today to the work of pioneering English modernist poet T. E. Hulme, he of the entire compass of work comprising 260 lines. “The Embankment” is 7 to 9 lines, 63 words, of that.
What can a writer put in such a small container? Hulme was in some ways the founding theorist of Imagism. In that small circle in England where Imagism emerged, the pioneers looked to various models in poetic concision. Pound to the Tang Dynasty Chinese poets. H.D. to Sappho and the early Greek lyric poets. Hulme probably considered the classic Latin poets—a form of writing I’m largely ignorant of—but in his writing about what modern poetry should be, he spoke more about what his ideal of poetry was in opposition towards.
He called everything he didn’t want in the new poetry “Romanticism,” and he was having none of that. Lofty, fulsomely expressed sentiment? Away with it. Elaborate conceits where everything would be compared to something Olympian and mighty? Nope. Mankind, and mankind’s artists, the heroic part of the world? No! Fallen, humbled, limited…
Instead he propounded a new classicism, a “dry hardness” he called it. Imagism, presenting things directly without extraneous comment, and the concision of Hulme’s poetical works, follow from this thought. The epic, the soaring ode, the dramatic statement many acts long—even if it reflects those same convictions in its content—defies its argument with its elaboration. Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, two writers influenced by Hulme, tried to disprove this, but with Eliot’s "The Wasteland" or Pound’s Cantos, they often used small, fragmented sections collaged into a larger thing, trying to make this contradiction work.
I’m now halfway through Dr. Oliver Tearle’s book-length consideration of Hulme’s poetry (T. E. Hulme and Modernism, available wherever books are sold), but besides introducing me to Hulme’s work, Tearle’s book points out that Hulme, so sure and combative in his critical writing, was not so pure in his expression of those ideas in his poetry. The poetry’s radical simplicity can achieve a humility that no theory written in disputive counter-punches can express.
“The Embankment” demonstrates this. Following the theory, its sole character is that of a homeless man, his history shortened to a former gentleman’s status, once accustomed to finesse, joy, and fine clothes, currently sleeping outside on the banks of the Thames. Then, for three lines, theory breaks in: “Now see I/That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy./Oh, God, make small”—that last line ending, we will find, in an enjambment, but we do not know that yet as we listen or read.
Hulme has called for a “dry hardness” in his critical theory, and the bum in his poem certainly has the hardness in the pavement he’s sleeping on, and we can only hope he also has the dryness to go along with that. Is the warmth that the bum desires, that he—suddenly an aesthetic philosopher—states is essential to poetry, part of his fallen state? Or is it, as we the reader might empathize, a universal human want that none of us can escape?
And then that wonderful, short line, Hulme’s own “Beauty is truth, truth is Beauty” — “Oh God, make small.”
And as the enjambment on the embankment falls to the next line, we learn that what the bum wants small is the sky, presented in a perfect Hulme reverse-Olympian image, as a star-pierced, moth-eaten blanket, full of holes.
Is there comfort in those lines of prayer that conclude “The Embankment?” If there is, it’s in the strange—and unstated in the poem—comfort of empathy, that sometimes painful human emotion of warm connectedness that possibly transcends our imperfections.
Today’s selection was also recorded a few years back, and is more conventionally in that “poet reading beat poetry while a band backs the poet up” school of performance. While that’s one of the influences that has led to the Parlando Project, I didn’t want to confine myself to that style, and if you’ve been following along here with what we’ve done over the past year, you can hear some of the other approaches we’ve taken.
As I’m in a busy end of August, I don’t have time for much commentary on this piece, but I don’t think it needs it either, which is part of why it’s here today. This is a story set distinctly in South Minneapolis and the early 21st Century, and it talks obliquely about the time of falling in love with my wife. The Riverview Theater mentioned in the poem is still a going concern, a neighborhood single-screen movie house that shows movies near the end of their theatrical release without concentrating on any one cinema genre, leading to marquee billings like the one the poem mentions, a series of titles that often seem like little Dada poems to me.
Outside of the localism of the poem, the main obscurity in it is the title: “Like John A Dreams.” That’s a reference to one of my favorite speeches in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the play’s Act II, the hero Hamlet is asking why he cannot take action on the death of his father, and he rebukes himself as “Like John A Dreams, unpregnant of my cause, and I can say nothing…” John A Dreams was apparently a stock folk character in Shakespeare’s time, a foolish character who lived in his imagination and ignored more pressing reality—a character flaw all writers should be able to appreciate.
So, if you’re a writer or other artist, Hamlet’s speech is for you. Your life is quite possibly bifurcated between that artistic thing you do and the life you press aside to do it. Art is often about making “and” choices. Life is often about making “or” choices.
My own lunar eclipse piece is set in our century, and in my Midwestern place. I start off by musing on the same planetary shadow play that Hardy wrote of, but wondering if we were our planet if we might make sport of our standing between the sun and moon, as we did as children when the film strip broke in class, or the slide tray of vacation photos needed to be changed, by making hand shadow puppets in the light. Then, as the blood moon eclipse neared totality, and the dark was dark, save for the streetlight at the end of the block and a houselight here and there left on, every hand up and down the street raised itself to the heavens, holding their lit smartphones, as they took pictures of the sky and the moon blocked by ourselves on our planet.
What did I mean by the last line? Well, as I sometimes do, I wanted to mean several things. I wanted to say we thought we could capture this cosmic event that had stopped our routine in with the birthday pictures on our smartphone camera roll. I wanted to say, as Hardy did, that we are seeing the whole of our planet, the lives of all our neighborhoods, yet it is only one disk in the wide sky. I wanted to say that our present, particular lives: all our details, our family, our neighborhoods, our homes—the only way we can experience living—are but one transit of life. Maybe I wanted to say something else that even I wasn’t sure how to say? If so, I wouldn’t know. Sometimes that happens in poems.
We seem to be in a month of sky omens in the Midwest, with the Perseids meteor shower and a solar eclipse following one after the other. Perhaps because solar eclipses are rare, poems about them are rare too. I’m going to cheat then, and present two pieces about lunar eclipses, a slightly more common event that occurs when the Earth comes between the Moon and the Sun, blocking the moon‘s reflected shine.
I’ll lead off with one written sometime in the 19th Century, Thomas Hardy’s sonnet “At the Lunar Eclipse.” I remember the moon-trip photos, taken near the middle of the 20th Century, looking back at Earth, where for the first time, we could see our planet whole. Hardy reminds us, a hundred years before that, that we could see our whole Earth in a shadow play during the lunar eclipse.
Optimists at the end of the 1960s thought these whole Earth pictures would help us understand our solitary yet majestic unity and common cause. Hardy, though he had only the Earth’s shadow during an eclipse to work with, is not so sure.
The LYL Band’s performance of this Hardy poem is a live recording from a few years back and it strains to reach “bootleg tape” recording quality, but still I hope it retains some vitality. And since this Hardy poem is referenced in the next piece, I thought it wise to give this rougher recording an airing.
Though neither I or the Parlando Project had anything to do with it, if you’d like to hear a restrained and lovely simple solo voice and piano sung setting of the same Hardy poem, you can view it here.
There’s a long tradition of “the answer record” in pop music, where another artist responds to a hit record with an opposing viewpoint. Christopher Marlowe’s 1593 “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (our last episode) received a similar diss from Sir Walter Raleigh with his “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” which is today’s. Who will rock the mic harder? Feel free to re-listen to Marlowe’s inning before considering Raleigh's reply.
As I mentioned last time, these poems with their shepherds and lovers, called Pastorals, were proudly artificial, and set in a completely stylized and relaxed world of affection and sufficiency. You may find any desire to dwell in this unreal world strange and old-fashioned, but perhaps we imagine now another kind of locus amoenus/“pleasant place” to dream of going to, to escape the world.
Raleigh’s “The Lie” has already demonstrated here that Raleigh had no patience with romanticism. So, he’s already primed to take on “The Passionate Shepherd,” but he also notices another weakness in Marlowe’s argument: the Shepherd promises pleasures, presumably mutual pleasures to his lover, but he isn’t stopping there. He’s going to demonstrate his commitment by throwing an entire Etsy shop at her: beds of roses, caps, vests and belts made from woven wildflowers, wool dresses and wool lined slippers. And bling! Gold buckles, coral and amber buttons.
So, Raleigh composing the nymph’s reply has three arguments to make. All those hand-made crafts on offer? Doesn’t move me Shep. Outdoor animal husbandry? Not as romantic as you make it out to be in May, and those wool slippers better be warm if I’m going to be traipsing after some sheep come January. Lastly Shep, you’re all hot and bothered about me now, but just how lasting is all that? I appreciate the offer, but let’s just say I’m keeping the wool lined slippers and you can go try your line on some other nymph?
Let us leave the Modernists for a moment, for a trip to an imaginary land, a locus amoenus, a pleasant place, within whose bounds certain things hold true: love brings simple riches and complex pleasures ignorant of inconstant affection, and the cares and complexities of cosmopolitan life, brutal prejudice, and other social constructions fade away.
Such a place can have many names. To the Surrealists it was the unfettered confusion of certain dreams. To the west coast optimists of the Sixties and their cross-Atlantic vibrationalists, it was a new Eden of decorated affection and open-mindedness. To a resident of fetid Elizabethan London, it was the pastoral, a demi-countryside where love was free and the rent non-existent. Shepherds, Pan and Panopticon, willed willing partners to their bowers. It seems like a nice place to visit—and in the mind, even more so.
Christopher Marlowe must have written this pastoral love poem sometime before he died in 1593 (baring any occult forces of the Twilight variety, or the posthumous inspirations that allow Oxfordians to confound Shakespeare’s later plays) but it wasn’t published until a few years after his death. It’s a full-throated exhortation in the pastoral style—with a slippery set of gold-buckled feat at the bottom of its argument as we’ll soon see, though that may not matter. Not only is it lovely sounding, even read flat on the page, the whole point of the imaginary pastoral world and the locus amoenus is that it isn’t real, that it’s the place we want to lie in and be lied to sweetly, within.
In the spirit of all this, today’s audio piece is one of the few Parlando Project selections where I sing, as you can’t really declaim “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” Musically, I chose to use some of the production techniques popular among dreaming optimists in the Sixties, where John Peel’s Perfumed Garden would be another locus amoenus, another imaginary place, where in our fetid times we might want to go. This week, 50 years ago, John Peel performed his final broadcast of this accidental and influential radio show.
Today’s piece uses a very short poem about a famous doomed adventurer written by a too-little known early modernist soldier-poet.
The words’ author, T. E. Hulme, is a name I kept running into as I read about the connections between modernist American and Irish writers in England at the beginning of the 20th Century. Many of those connections can be traced to a group of writers and artists, led by Hulme, who congregated in London beginning around 1908. It’s there that Ezra Pound, soon to be literary modernism’s greatest promoter, met Hulme who many view as modernism’s originator. The argument for preeminence comes down to classic one: who thought of it first vs. who practically introduced it.
So far here I’ve concentrated on Pound’s role, but as I began to look at this circle, I must consider Hulme’s impact as well. And then a few weeks ago, through the wonderful blog "Interesting Literature," and its founder Oliver Tearle, I finally read some of Hulme’s poetry, his own practical application of his ideas.
If there’s a reason I hadn’t read Hulme yet, it may be that his poetry isn’t as well known, and there is very little of it—and what there is, is little twice: about 25 poems totaling about 260 lines. That’s right, as disciples of Bill James will quickly recognize, the average for a Hulme poem is shorter than a sonnet, just a bit more than 10 lines. His short poems, as much or more than other famous short Imagist poems like Pound’s “In A Station on the Metro”, Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” or Sandburg’s “Fog” challenge the reader to find worth and significance in a few words and a putatively mundane subject. Today’s piece uses the words of Hulme’s “Raleigh In the Dark Tower,” and is something of an outlier in Hulme’s poems, as it’s subject is not so ordinary.
I used Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Lie” earlier this month, and in writing about this extraordinary condemnation of human failings, I told you what every English schoolkid of certain generations would have learned or known about Raleigh: that he was an Elizabethan English hero, and yet he was executed by the English government.
Once more I’m going to have compress Raleigh’s life into shortcuts, some of which are matters of dispute. He lived in a time of brutal Christian religious wars and is said to have witnessed both the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and to be captain of the troops ordered to perform the execution of prisoners after the Siege of Smerwick. He was lifetime soldier of fortune and entrepreneur, a cross between James Bond and Richard Branson. He popularized the potato and smoking tobacco, and so can be blamed for lung cancer and my spreading waistline. His expeditions pioneered European settlement of North Carolina, which means he is partially responsible for both Michael Jordon and insufferable Duke basketball fans. He twice led English expeditions into Guyana in South America, without which we would not have Davey Graham and acoustic guitars tuned to DADGAD. Oh, and he was a writer.
Even during his three separate confinements to the prison in the Tower of London, Raleigh wrote. Or perhaps he wrote because of his confinements? He wrote the first volume of a monumental attempt at a history of the world during one prison stay, but his release ended the chance of the series continuing.
To present Raleigh, Hulme in his conciseness, give us just these few lines:
Raleigh in the dark tower prisoned
Dreamed of the blue sea and beyond
Where in strange tropic paradise
More depends on Raleigh’s life than depends on a Red Wheelbarrow, but Hulme lets that be only understood. And Hulme’s Imagist philosophy, a “dry hardness”, would urge fewer romantic dreams and more direct observation, but even in his few words, he allows this prisoner the immediacy of his dreams and voyages.
Raleigh would be executed for serving the amoral interests of his country too well, and Hulme would die a soldier on a WWI battlefield believing to the end in the causes of a war that was soon portrayed as absurd.
Here’s a something of a bonus episode based on a sonnet I wrote a few years back. I’m tired tonight, and not feeling particularly useful, and I recalled that this is the time of year when one of the better regular meteor showers happens.
I recorded this piece tonight, to try to assuage that useless feeling. I started with the bass part, as the sound of the bass always seems to comfort me. I fit the drums to that bass part, did the vocal, and added a couple of guitar parts. It’s a short piece, and it was soon done.
Meteors are fabled to be meaningful from those times before our modern highly illuminated age erased them from the view of our cities, such as the city where I am stuck tonight. In the poem, I had played with the idea that making the trip to the countryside to see the Perseid meteor shower could indeed change someone’s life.
I did some extreme enjambment, breaking words in half, in a few lines in the poem to try to show how the sharp streaking line of a meteor trail might change us in an instant, because of course we are not changed in an instant, ever, though love and good fortune make us think at times that we have changed.
If change was instant, it would not be hard as it is, nor as easy to avoid.
I hope you are all having a good night tonight, with or without visible stars or knowable fates. And I thank you again for reading and listening over this chattering yet silent Internet.