There are so many ways to introduce the words used in this piece. I could say it’s an OG rap written in prison by a two-time ex-con who was executed for violating his parole. I could say it’s a piece by the poet who did more in his career outside of writing poetry than any other poet besides than the teenager who wrote “Frances.” I could say it’s the testimony of a soldier who had seen enough of war to cause PTSD many times over. There will be occasion to talk more about its author’s life later, so I’m going to ask your indulgence, and tell instead of how I first came upon this poem.
At the beginning of the 20th Century a boy was born in the Ukraine, and as a child he emigrated to New York City. Like many immigrants, he changed his name to sound more “American,” becoming Oscar Williams. His career was originally made in marketing/advertising, but he was also a poet. Then shortly after WWII he began to publish poetry anthologies in inexpensive editions, including very cheap paperbacks. Did he know from his marketing work that these would strike a chord in the post-war world of soldiers who became the first in their families to go to college on funds provided by the “GI Bill?” Did he suspect that the experience of the greater than “The Great War” war, and the Korean, Cold, and Vietnam wars that followed would create an audience wanting some human writing more varied than propaganda? Was the spreading middle-class of the post-war years creating a new, broader audience for poetry, like it did for hi-fi symphonies and literary novels? Who knows? Perhaps it was only Williams’ personal passion for poetry that motived him, but his inexpensive anthologies sold in the millions, a much greater number than anyone expected.
In 1968, in a college bookstore, I purchased a chunky paperback of one of these Oscar Williams’ anthologies: “Master Poems of the English Language.” About a thousand pages, over a hundred poems, each introduced by an essay on the worth of the poem by another poet or critic, cover price $1.95. I purchased it because I was writing poetry and I wanted to know more about what it could do, and how it did it, and this seemed the best value on offer at the store. And it was. I don’t want to put-down teachers I’ve had, or other reading and face-to-face examples that have instructed me in those things, but that book, taken in at that time, gave me a firm starting point in writing poetry.
Written in 1618, today’s poem, “The Lie” by Sir Walter Raleigh was one of the poems in that anthology, and one of Williams’ selections that I liked the best. Unlike some other poems I’ve featured here, it’s not widely anthologized, and Raleigh himself seems to have nearly fallen from the common British pantheon over the years. In 2002 the BBC conducted a poll on the 100 greatest Britons ever, and Raleigh snuck in at 93, just behind intricate fantasist J.R.R. Tolkien and 50 places behind that other great anthologist, John Peel.
When I first read “The Lie” I was struck by how modern it felt. Yes, there are a few antique words and terms in there, but it’s remarkably plainspoken—and the speaking it’s plain about is the bane of hypocrisy, lack of principles, and double-dealing—all things Raleigh’s life taught him a lot about. After all, since Raleigh wrote this while in prison awaiting his execution, he did have the ultimate license to say what he really thinks.
Here’s an episode with a short story written and read by Dave Moore.
Just as I have my bicycle ride poems, Dave has his morning dog walk poems and stories, and this one is one of my favorites. Dave tells me that he thinks he may have messed up the ending in this performance of “I Was Not Yet Awake Yet,” but I think it works just fine.
I’ll let the story unfold as you listen to it without a lot of commentary from me this time. “I Was Not Yet Awake” is a story about neighborhoods, neighbors, and trust, distrust and need.
Dave is the alternative reader with the Parlando Project, and he also plays most of the keyboard parts you hear here on other pieces featuring the LYL Band. This story is much different from the last piece here, where I tried to mash up Capt. Beefheart and Gertrude Stein, and it will also be different from the next episode. That variety in music and words is part of what we do.
Imagine this for the background and education for a poet. The poet is committed from a young age to see things exactly, so much so that they become fascinated with the very neurological functions that are the foundations of perception. In college, they study with the foremost psychologist in America, but they don’t stop there. They go on to study medicine at Johns Hopkins, stopping just short of a medical degree. The poet then decamps to the hottest art scene in the world where they discuss art with the painters who are revolutionizing how we depict reality in a frame, and this poet sees right away who are the great visual artists in this scene, with legendary precision. The poet’s next task was to use the ideas of this visual art revolution, along with ideas about how human thought and perception really work, to create a new kind of poetry.
You’d expect this poet would produce extraordinary work. She did. You might also expect this work to be revolutionary in its technique. It was, and still is. You might expect that you will want to seek out and hear this work, to experience what this background and conviction could bring to poetry. You might expect this writing to share with you exciting new ways of seeing. Well…
Today’s piece uses the words of that poet, Gertrude Stein, from her 1918 collection “Tender Buttons.” Even within the Modernists of her time, it was controversial, and it remains so today. Stein didn’t shock with her imagery like some of the provocative work of Dada and Surrealism. The radically condensed poems of the Imagists sometimes raised concerns that anything so seemingly simple and without the decorative rigmarole of 18th and 19th Century poetry couldn’t really be worthwhile art, but the Stein of “Tender Buttons” was even more suspect. The imagists might withhold the complexity behind their shortest poems, but the words themselves were often plain-spoken, comprehendible on an immediate level—too quickly so, in some apprehensions, to be art. Here, the Imagists seemed to say, is the red wheelbarrow, the crowd at the Metro station, the stars above the Clark Street Bridge. I’m not giving you anything more, and you can take in these few words and shrug and say “so what?” for all I care.
Stein went further. In “Tender Buttons” she wanted to project the messiness of real thought, real glancing perception, sticking to one thing only as repeated words that chorus and then disappear, only to appear a few poems later in the collection, but mostly moving from one atom of perception to another.
It’s as if, rather than speech recognition on a modern smartphone, that Stein turned herself into a human “thought recognition” device, registering in words not only the stream of consciousness but a stream of unconsciousness as well.
This is a brave idea, but what emerges from this sounds at first (and for many, at second, and then for as many times as they care to try) like nonsense. The words are plain, at the phrase or sentence level they can even seem to be intelligible, but as a whole, they seem to add up to nothing. Our brains are hard-wired to make patterns out of information, and so confronted with a chunk of “Tender Buttons” this function may strive to make out coherence until one’s brain hurts, or it may just stop a few lines in and reject it as a failed experiment, perhaps even a fraud.
This is where I think that the Parlando Project’s secret weapon, music, can help. Music may have charms to soothe the savage beast of “I need to understand how these words fit together right now; and if I cannot, I will withhold my listening participation immediately.”
Musically I have put these two pieces from “Tender Buttons:” “Glazed Glitter” and “Suppose an Eyes,” against music from my memory of Capt. Beefheart, whose work helped me accept fractured non-narratives even while (perhaps because?) his were set against similarly fractured music. Alas, I lack the ability to emulate the timbre of Beefheart/Don Van Vliet’s voice as I declaim Stein’s words.
Last episode used my best effort at a faithful translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.” Now, as promised, my alternative translation.
As I discussed, I first heard Rilke’s “The Dark Interval” by hearing it. In the immediacy of that encounter, I heard it as a meditation on how our lives pass by while we do not speak up to them and use their singular moment, however imperfectly. Upon reflection, I now understand the poem was likely speaking of Rilke’s more impending death. The more literal translation I used for yesterday’s piece retains more of that focus.
Today’s version uses a freer translation, reflecting my original understanding of the piece. The original poem includes three or four images, which I sought to vivify in modern English. The first image, that of the “steep hour” (diese steile stunde) we know is a downhill slope, not a slow, steep incline one is ascending, because the next line includes a sense of rushing or hurrying (eilen). I have no idea if Rilke ever skied or otherwise could be thinking of skiing or sledding down a hill, but that was the concrete image that presented itself to me, and this choice helped me deal with most enigmatic image in the piece, the “I am a tree before my background” (Ich bin ein Baum vor meinem Hintergrunde). My choice in this translation is a risky one. I made the vaguest image in the German into the most immediate image in English, that not only am I sliding rapidly, but there is dangerous obstacle, a tree, to deal with. I now think my translation of “hintergrunde” to “my past” may be inaccurate. Given the poems concluding images, I think Rilke may been thinking of background more in the sense of “musical background”—but it was the choice I made then, and it works well in my first understanding of the poem’s intent.
The next image is also a bit obscure. “I am only one of many mouths, and the one that closes the soonest.” (Ich bin nur einer meiner vielen Munde/und jener, welcher sich am frühesten schliesst.”) I’m still unsure of which meanings Rilke meant to convey there. Is he saying, “I am only one of the multitude, and I’ll be dead (and silent) sooner than most.” Or is he saying “I could speak up in many ways (I can’t quite decide what is the right way to speak up), so instead I clam-up and never express myself. In this translation, I chose the latter. I now think Rilke likely meant the former.
The last image is the most developed one, and the most attractive to a poet and musician like myself, because it’s an image out of music itself. I read “the dark interval,” that I use as the title for this piece, as a reference to the tritone, a dissonant interval that was being exploited widely in musical works contemporary with Rilke. And of course, modern popular music based on blues and jazz forms makes use of the dissonant intervals too, so I chose to use the more modern “funky.” And in developing this musical image I chose to use another informal term to vivify the “death tone” (Ton Tod), translating it to “wolf-tone,” which is the howling feedback sound a string instrument makes when the sounded note is the same as the strongest natural resonant frequency of the instrument’s body.
Keeping with my initial understanding of “The Dark Interval” I was trying to say that we keep silent, and do not act, out of fear of “dissonance,” of fear of not fitting in with the expectations; or because we fear a “wolf-tone,” an unwanted strong response; but that when we do, if we do, as can be done within music, the dissonance can be resolved, that musical consonance sounds even sweeter when dissonance shows it in contrast.
So, there you go, that was once my understanding of Rilke’s “The Dark Interval” that I used in this second translation. As a piece, in English, it stands up, it has coherence, and I think it’s livelier than yesterday’s more literal translation—but I also think I got Rilke’s meaning wrong. How much does this matter?
To the listener, it may not matter. If they don’t know the original in German or from another translation, they experience this work as it is. To art also, it may not matter. A misunderstood work is still a work of art, another one of many mouths that isn’t shut. I often consider translations of poetry like a musician doing a cover song, where there is value in recreating the song differently. Still, I can’t shake off the thought that I was unfair to Rilke.
How faithful should a translation be? I can hear your first answer even over the silence of the Internet: “As faithful as it can be of course.”
And there are many times when I wish it could be so. One has to accept the translation loses when the devices of one language can’t make it over to the new one. Then, often there is the decay of time and the distances of cultures, and this can make meaning murky and less vibrant—but even between two people, of the same time and culture, native speakers of the same language, misunderstanding and misinterpretations of poetry occurs, as you can see with some pieces here where I perform words written by alternative reader and LYL Band keyboardist Dave Moore, which I didn’t fully grasp.
In the next two episodes of the Parlando Project, I’m going to demonstrate two different paths I’ve taken with the same poem, Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.” Today’s version is an attempt at a faithful translation.
Rilke, like Tristan Tzara or Apollinaire is another one of those WWI area European artists who exact nationality is hard to pin down. Is he Czech, Bohemian, Austrian, German, Swiss? It’s doesn’t help that the maps of Europe were being redrawn during his lifetime by the outcome of the WWI.
Nor does it help our translation task that he wrote “The Dark Interval” in German, the language that one set of my grandparents spoke in their youth, and that even my mother was somewhat fluent in as a child, because I know even less German than French.
And Rilke is philosophically dense. His poems are full of compressed thoughts about the inexplicable, and he has a strong spiritualist bent. The former makes it hard for anyone to marshal his thoughts into another language while impressing on you the need to do so; the later makes it harder for me in particular, as I have come to believe that a philosophical spirituality is (at least for me) an impediment to approaching the mysteries.
It may help that I first encountered Rilke’s “The Dark Interval” in a way deeply integrated into life. I, along with my friend John, was watching a band, The New Standards, perform in 2006, and during an interval in their show a man (who name I should remember, but can’t) read this poem. He did a good job of it, transmitting something of Rilke and himself in his reading. The translation he read was somewhat like the one I made later, and perform for today’s piece.
I heard the poem immediately then as a meditation on the hurried mid-lives that John, I, and perhaps many of the audience were living at that time. Perhaps he—or the band performers, largely composed of veterans of locally famous indie rock bands of the 1980s and ‘90s—selected it for just that reason.
That’s not the version I perform here today. I did not change the words of this first translation, which sought to be faithful as I could understand it to be to the original German words, but circumstances changed how I hear it. John died, unexpectedly, way too young, a short time after we attended that concert. I learned later that Rilke composed it as he began to suffer from his final fatal illness. I can now see this not as a work about the busyness of middle age, but a work about the busyness of living nearer to dying. Different poem.
This is an elegy, not a love poem, but then an elegy is a love poem that replaces the focus masking the complexity of love with the common mystery of death. Even the images and incidents can have an eerie similarity, as an absence may be at the center of either.
The author of today’s piece, Tristian Tzara, is as much as anyone the founder of Dada—if that absurdist movement can structurally support a founder. Like much of the early 20th Century modernist movement, the horrors and changes of WWI accelerated Dada’s development. Proudly anarchistic and rejecting the whole lot of social norms and artistic traditions, Dada was at turns playful and bitter about a European world order that that was itself disordering everything on the continent though modern warfare.
As we’ve learned in earlier episodes, a whole generation was mobilized as part of The Great War. The teenage Tzara, residing in neutral Switzerland, escaped this, but he apparently tried to gain funds from both sides’ propaganda arms to fund Dada activities—which would be just the kind of audacious prank that Dada loved.
The subject of today’s piece, Guillaume Apollinaire, was a slightly older member of that WWI generation who should have gone on to even greater things after the war. As I mentioned last time, he had invented the name for Surrealism, the modernist movement that was a post-war outgrowth of Dada. Before that, he had also invented the term Cubism. In France during this time, Apollinaire seemed to know, and was admired by, everyone: composers, writers, painters, theater artists, the whole lot of this vibrant cultural scene. Swept up into the military by the war, Apollinaire was seriously wounded at the front and weakened by his wounds, he died during the great flu outbreak of 1918.
His death then leads to Tzara’s elegy, today’s piece. Given Tzara and Dada’s reputation, I was worried as I started to translate this. Translation, particularly for someone like me who is not a fluent speaker of other languages, it already fraught with issues, but doubly so with writers who may use arbitrary absurdist phrases intentionally. When is something unclear, and when is it meant to be so? That’s a question you ask a lot with these writers. I have prejudice for vibrancy, and if I feel there’s a good image or English phrase hidden in an unfamiliar language’s idiom, I will generally seek to bring it out, but I also realize that I’m fully capable of misunderstanding the writer’s intent.
With Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire” I grew to believe that this was a sincere elegy for this much-loved artist among artists, and so, translated and performed it as such. Yes, it has its absurd images, but I chose to translate them with clarity in mind. Apollinaire died in November, and so I took the mourning images as a series of late autumn images, and presented them as such. I had the most puzzlement with the line “et les arbres pendaient avec leur couronne” which can be simply left as an unusual combination: a (shiny metal) crown hanging in a tree-top. As I looked at “couronne” it appears that it’s used for a laurel wreath crown, and for a funeral wreath too, and for a while thought “wreath” or “funeral wreath” would be the best translation. And then I considered the botanical meaning of “crown” applied to trees, and the follow up line “unique pleur” made me think of the last leaves falling in autumn, a rather conventional image—but a great deal of what makes that conventional in English is the popular song “Autumn Leaves” written originally in French by Surrealist Jacques Prévert! My translation: “And the trees, those still with hanging leaves” takes liberties with Tzara’s words, in hopes that I might have divined his image. I’m more confident in how I translated the last line, “un beau long voyage et la vacance illimitée de la chair des structures des os” which I proudly think is superior to other English translations.
I’m going to ask you to not read these notes yet. Listen to today’s audio piece first at least once. It’s short, two minutes long, it won’t take long.
OK, now you’re back and you’ve listened to the piece at least once. Do you think the words were written recently? Do think it’s a satire, some kind of sly Machiavellian comment on a particular modern politician? Do you think it’s Donald Trump’s first draft of his recent speech to the Boy Scouts? Or perhaps is a secret litany of personal affirmations? It does at times seem like a twisted take on self-help.
So what is it?
It’s my quick and dirty attempt at a version of a section of the "Surrealist Manifesto" written by André Breton in the early 1920s. The Manifesto is sort of a grab bag, part a sincere plea for a deeper and broader application of imagination in art, part a catalog of examples of how unleashed imagination has already been applied, and part is indeed a parody of a certain genre of self-help, the kind published by occult gurus of the time.
My piece is taken from that parody segment, and I’ve departed from conventional translations in two ways. First, to disguise it, I removed one phrase specifically mentioning Surrealism, and secondly, I’ve chosen my own idiosyncratic translation of the phrase “Peau de l'ours” in it. This is a condensed version an old and French saying, “Don’t sell the bear skin before you have it.” (a French version of “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”) Breton may have been using that cliché to contrast with the religious campaign-promise of heaven, but he also could have been refereeing to a hedge fund of his time which used that exact Peau de l'ours” name. And critically, what the investor group bought (and later sold for tremendous profit) was modern French art. “Hedge fund” gave me both ideas in a way that would be meaningful to a 21st Century English speaker.
So Breton, as he often does in his pronouncements, is mixing the absurd, with recognizable satire, with sincere advice. But briefly, before I go, I ask you to think about a bigger question. What does it say that some modern artistic principles sound like they could be descriptions of Donald Trump’s (or other similar politicians) philosophy? Is it that Trump doesn’t have a philosophy, that he finds excuses or rationalizations? For past politicians, we would say they lack a sense of irony, but Trump speaks ironically so often that one wonders if there’s a word for unconscious irony. Or does it mean that the sincere iconoclastic individualism and commitment to their own personal freedom that 20th Century artists thought they needed as a corrective to disasters like WWI and a restrictive society and its expectations, is now leaching upward to more powerful men in conventional professions?
I promise you, we will end up today very close to the love song of the last episode, though we will travel a ways before we get there.
I’ve not featured any French writers yet with the Parlando Project, but as this summer has used the words of many 20th Century English poets, we may be overdue for that, as the start of that century found some of them looking to the French for some new ways to write.
French poets started to go “modern” before the British poets, around the same time that Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were making their own breaks with past practice in America, so they had a head start, and their avant-garde was way past the supply lines of conventional narrative and sentiment by the time the 20th Century really got rolling. The absurd casualties of WWI, largely fought in France and its neighboring countries, and so deadly to some of the generation of men doomed to fight in it, only accelerated the modernist direction away from the kind of meaning you might find in a political speech or battle plans.
This summer, 50 years ago, the Polish-French writer Guillaume Apollinaire coined a new word to describe a new way to approach the world in words: “Surrealism.” A few years later, his term was taken up by a group of artists who went about trying to practice a new idea, presented in 1924 as if it was a political manifesto, to write and create from “…The actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”
The Surrealists went on from there, going in various directions, becoming less an idea and more of a brand—but stop and think for a moment, that original idea, isn’t it powerful? The idea that there is a reality that we agree not to apprehend, not to speak of, that we constantly reframe our thoughts to, isn’t that idea political as well as aesthetic?
You take the idea of Surrealism, add music to it, and later that century you get Bob Dylan. You take the idea of Surrealism, apply it to the current reality, and you are woke, not from the dream, but to the dream that should not be denied.
Today’s piece uses the words of one of the French Surrealists, Paul Éluard. Éluard, like many of the British poets of this era, was another veteran of WWI. One story of his war service was that, since he was a writer, his military superiors assigned him to the office tasked with writing the official letters to the relatives of the casualties, and such was the efficiency of modern war that he sometimes needed to write 150 of them a day. After a year of this, he asked to be sent to the frontline trenches.
I have exposed you several times this month to pieces about the horrors of war and slavery, but I also told you we must travel a ways to get to today’s piece. After the war, as a founding Surrealist, Éluard produced verse with strange images and seemingly arbitrary combinations—Surrealist tactics to break the conventions—but his great subject, against the night, pain, and suffering, was love. Perhaps after those 150-letters-a-day forced march, he too wanted to look to war’s opposite.
“L’Amoureuse” (The Beloved) is one of Éluard's most famous early works, and uses my English translation of his words. The LYL Band performance of it was recorded live several years ago.
I said I would change things up last time, and by stepping back a few years, today’s episode does that.
How much different is “She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night” from the last few episodes? First off, we’ve left off from war. This is a love poem. Death appears in it only briefly passing—so fast it passes, as it can in a poem, you might not even notice it. And rather than being a piece by another poet, the words here are mine. We live here at the Parlando Project with the idea of presenting “other people’s stories,” but I also want variety, so I’ll make the exception this time, and present part of my story.
One of the modernist/Imagist ideas that Ernest Hemmingway liked to use in his early stories was to leave an essential detail out of story, and then to strive to write it so well that the power of that detail would become present subliminally.
“She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night” is an aubade, a traditional form of love poetry. An aubade features lovers awaking at dawn, and the poet lamenting that their night is over, so they must now part for their un-enchanted days. What do I think is different in my aubade?
Sixteen years ago, my wife died after a short and painful illness, not yet 44 years old. I cannot tell you all that means, but one thing I experienced in my grieving process was the question of where one goes from that stopped thing. After all, you are definitively stopped, you have no momentum in any direction, unlike in the normal flow of life. You can stay stopped, or move off in any direction.
I moved, and was moved, in the direction of falling in love again. There are some difficulties in that direction, knowing of love’s inescapable impermanence. Like the lover in an aubade, I knew now, deep in my soul and body, that love means that parting is intensified.
In the end, “She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night” is a love poem that hardly mentions death. I was trying to do that modernist/Imagist thing. Is death still there?
Alas, the other thing that I left out, is that other person, lying beside the speaker, stuffed with dreams no doubt with all the richness, sadness and choices of their life. My love poem fails, as some do, in that respect. Can it remain unsaid my partner chose to move, and move me, as well?
Here is one more war poem from WWI, this one by another soldier poet, Wilfred Owen.
Beside living with the trauma of his war service, Owen was another poet caught in the revolution as English poetry moved from old modes to newer modernist verse. Like his friend Siegfried Sassoon, he was a decorated soldier who came to broadly distrust the case for war. Unlike Sassoon, Owen did not take the risky public stand against the war while it was being fought; but also unlike Sassoon, his fate was to die at the front of the war. Owen’s war poetry was largely published after his death, with Sassoon’s assistance and promotion.
If WWI was billed as the war to end all wars, the anti-war poetry Owen and Sassoon wrote also spoke to universal themes. At least to what I’ve read, their poetry is not an argument against specific issues of their war, rather it’s an angry argument against war itself, and the associated patriotic justifications for sacrifice. Owen and Sassoon both wanted to rub their readers faces in the bloodied mud of the trenches.
It’s sometimes said that artists, if only they would happen to suffer the real struggles of non-artistic life, would see that art is only a trivial sideshow, inessential entertainment and decoration. Men like Owen are an example of how this is not necessarily so.
Today’s episode, “Strange Meeting,” shows Owen’s anger, but because he’s a poet not yet fully in the 20th Century style, he expresses it sounding like a 19th Century poet, more like a Keats or early Yeats. As I came to grips with this piece, I felt the thought and subject matter was sometimes obscured by its march of rhymes and occasional poetic diction—and though a poem’s music is subjective, “Strange Meeting” doesn’t consistently sing to me like Yeats does, but then Yeats is a very high standard to meet, and Yeats never lived the brutal fighting the war poets like Owen went through.
Speaking of music, I’m finding myself repeating ideas (or finding a style?) with the settings lately. “Strange Meeting” starts with sustained piano chords, unsteady strings, and a plaintive wind instrument (in this case, an English horn). But I felt that carrying that all the way through would work against the grit and bitterness of the story here, just as Owen’s poetic diction does, so for much of the middle section I break it down to just drums and bass.
I hope I’m not overwhelming regular listeners with the war poetry from WWI this month. Perhaps I can find a change of pace soon, and some new variations in my musical arrangements too.
It’s now a commonplace to note how divided the United States is politically. The way the story is told, there are now two tribes, each sure the other side is largely wrong. We are said to know this, even if we are less than sure about everything “our side” may say, even if we are skeptical, even critical, of some in our faction. You may not believe that this is true about you, but this is what is widely said, and you may say something like this about others, even if you do not believe it about yourself.
I’m about to simplify a story, condensing its humanity so that you will only see moments in several people’s lives. That means you are going to need to pay attention, because the things it may lead you think about are only going to be there for moment.
On a summer day, 177 years ago, a sheriff bearing a writ from a judge knocked on the door of a house on the banks of Lake Harriet, which was then on the outskirts of Minneapolis Minnesota. If you live in Minneapolis, perhaps you know this lake. It just so happens that I’ve spent many mornings this summer reading poetry beside it, as panting joggers and conversing walkers surround it like clockwork.
The judge’s writ commanded the appearance in court of a piece of evidence. As he knocked, that piece of evidence was being told by the people inside to run out the back door and hide. The evidence did not obey. The evidence’s name was Eliza Winston, a 30-year-old woman held as property by the family inside. By her home state of Mississippi’s laws, her mother would have been property too, and her children, if she would have any, would be property as well, the same as livestock on a farm.
How did she happen to be in Minnesota? The man that owned her had traveled up the Mississippi river with his family to escape the heat of the south’s summer, taking a steamboat as far north as the great river was navigable. For his and his family’s comfort, he had taken one of his slaves, Eliza Winston, with him. The laws of the state he traveled to explicitly forbade slavery, but three years earlier the national Supreme Court had ruled that a slave named Dred Scott remained property when he had been brought to Minnesota.
Living in Minnesota then were people allied with a faction that sought to end the practice of slavery. They were looking for people claimed as property to contest those claims. How did they view the slave owners? Of course, as evil you may think. Wouldn’t anybody? Somehow, Eliza Winston had made contact with these slavery opponents. One of them, William Babbitt, would swear out a complaint that her slavery on Minnesota soil violated Minnesota law.
Imagine if you could own something as useful as another human being as property, to have complete control over them. Wouldn’t that be useful; and as a business venture, potentially profitable? The faction that owned other people certainly felt that way. How did they view that other faction, the ones who sought to end that practice? They viewed them as wrong certainly, but they also saw them as annoying self-righteous busybodies that needed to be taught a lesson, a view that was sometimes shared even those that weren’t sure that slavery was a good and necessary thing.
Since Eliza did not hide, she was taken to directly to a courtroom. Despite the rapidity of the actions, the courtroom was packed with those from both factions. Eliza’s owner was there with his lawyer, who pointed out Dred Scott. The lawyer for Babbitt had testimony from Eliza Winston that she was indeed a slave, that she’d been passed around like property between several owners, and the lawyer stipulated that Minnesota’s constitution clearly forbade slavery in the state.
The judge ruled, that based on Minnesota law, Eliza Winston was now free. As soon as he pronounced, a clergyman in the crowd jumped up and condemned the decision as “unrighteous,” pointing out that, regardless of the state or federal law, Christianity and its scriptures approved of slavery. I don’t know more of what he said, but he could have claimed that Babbitt and his faction were worse than thieves and rustlers, in that they not only stole, they were self-satisfied in their actions. The crowd stirred at this, and then there was moment of calm in the summer courtroom. Eliza Winston’s owner walked over to the woman that he had owned like a horse or a cow, and he calmly asked her if she wanted to come back with him and return to Mississippi. And Eliza, no longer property, answered that she wished to be free and remain in Minnesota. As Eliza Winston left the courtroom, the Minnesota clergyman was still orating on the wrong that had been done to the slaveowner.
That night, those angry at the decision went out around the town looking for Eliza Winston. What would they have done if they had found her? One can only guess. They surrounded Babbitt’s house and battered down the door seeking Winston or Babbitt, and crying for blood. They similarly broke into another house seeking Winston. Winston, however had been moved somewhere else, and may have fled as far as Canada. A year later the Civil War broke out, and Winston, no longer property, became as if a ghost. There are no pictures of her, no tales of great or even small things that she may have done. Some even say she went back to the south after the war. In Minneapolis there is an inconspicuous historical marker about her case, placed along the Mississippi river that brought her here, and not much else.
Then last year Dave Moore was told a version of Eliza Winston’s story by a friend. The friend, or perhaps Dave, got a couple of the details wrong, and I have left a lot of details out of the story as well—that may not matter. Dave was struck, mixing Eliza’s story and the tale of his friend choosing to tell him this story together, and then forming this lovely, vulnerable song.
Here’s what I ask you, now that you’ve heard my telling of Eliza Winston’s story. If you ever find yourself in a world of factions, and you find yourself in one of those factions, perhaps not sure of what you think, but sure that the other side is clearly more wrong. Ask yourself what Eliza’s story, and the story of slavery tells you.
If you would like to read more of the details of Eliza Winston's story, William Green has the most complete telling I've seen here.
Anyone remember those sentry questions that would be used in to determine if some straggler in the soldier’s darkness was an American or foreign foe? “Who plays first base for the New York Yankees?” they’d ask.
Native Iowans have a similar method to catch those from out of state. They might start right off with asking about the state capital. “Dezz Moynens.” Wrong! Not an Iowan. “Day Moyne.” Native. Poweshiek, that fine county with a Brooklyn no one knows. “Poe’s He Eck.” Nope. “Powa Sheek.” How about that nice small town founded by lost Swedes in Boone County, Madrid. “Ma Drid?” Outsider, it’s “Mad Rid!”
While overseas in France in the early 1920’s Stephen Vincent Benet wrote his own catalog of place names that I have adapted for today’s piece “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names.” In it, Benet contrasts American place names with European ones, perhaps to staunch a little homesickness on his part, but also as part of his claim to something he and Carl Sandburg helped to define in the first half of the 20th Century, something that’s now used to label a musical genre: “Americana.”
To briefly define Americana, it’s the featuring of things that are distinctive to our country, most often things that are in the past tense, things that we are asked to pay attention to as our heritage. If these things seem a little odd, old-fashioned or provincial to us, that’s the tang the artist wants us to taste.
I came upon Benet’s poem after reading a Phillip Roth memoir in the New Yorker last month, where Roth takes off from Benet’s poem to discuss how a literary sense of a greater America he did not yet know expanded his horizons westward from his childhood neighborhood in Newark New Jersey. Roth remembered how, in the 1940s, even though one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world was a river and a marsh away from his town, New York City was a world away, perhaps as far away as America seemed to Benet in Paris.
Roth doesn’t mention it, but as I read Roth’s piece, I thought of Benet’s story “By the Rivers of Babylon,” were a future neo-indigenous youth ventures across the same river into the ruins of New York on a vision quest.
In the nearly 100 years since it was written, Benet’s “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names” has not fallen to ruins, but it has gained some tarnish or patina. I’ve cut a stanza because the notables referenced are now obscure, and I modified another line in it, not out gentility, but because it frankly stuck in my craw. By chance, one of the obscure and colorfully named towns in Benet’s catalog, French Lick, now is slightly better known as the hometown of basketball great Larry Bird—but that’s the not the greatest resonance the poem has picked up over the years.
As the poem builds to its ending, Benet uses something like the thought used by Rupert Brooke in his famous war poem “The Soldier”, the idea where even if Brooke was to die and his body was buried overseas, that his Englishness would remain. Benet sets up a series of places he might be interred in England or Europe, and ends with a line that later became the title of a landmark book about the cruel and unjust treatment of indigenous Americans. Did Benet choose to end his poem with the evocative place name of Wounded Knee because of the massacre that occurred there a bit more than 30 years before he wrote his poem, or was it only something that caught his eye on the page of an atlas? I don’t know enough about Benet to say. His litany of American places does include “a Salem tree” which sounds to me like a reference to the Massachusetts witch trials and executions. If we are to remind ourselves of the greatness in our heritage, we are likewise obligated to remind ourselves of the sins there too.
In my performance, I made the choice that, author’s intention or not, modern audiences will hear it as intentional, so I should perform it that way. The American name of my home state, Iowa, comes somehow from it’s indigenous people, but over 400 years passing, we no longer know what it’s meaning is. How strange to say that I come from a place of no meaning, knowing the pass-word to tell the magic ghosts of native sentries, but knowing not what I’m saying.
In the notes to the past few episodes I’ve mentioned how Ezra Pound was more than an exemplary writer, theorist, and promoter for the early 20th Century modernist poetic movement that he called Imagism. He was also an excellent editor.
His most famous blue pencil job remains T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” but he also worked with H.D. and Ernest Hemingway, teaching with his editing how to pare away extra words, overused similes, and extraneous authorial sentiment. And once shown, those writers we able to use Pound’s insights to do the create their own pared down, modern styles.
In the last episode, I noted that Pound had been critical of some WWI poems written by Rupert Brooke. Here for example is the first part of Brooke’s most famous war poem “The Soldier:”
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
Written as England entered into WWI, and as Brooke himself rushed to enlist, this poem was embraced by a patriotic public almost immediately. If one shares it’s sentiments, the actual technique of the poetry probably admits no impediments to a reader, even today—but ask yourself, does it have a sense of actual immediacy? As you read, do you share with a fellow human, feeling, seeing, smelling, this experience? What I get as I read it is a thought, where a soldier thinks that if he dies in battle and his body rots overseas, that his body will homeopathically retain its English birth and experience, and that experience, it is inferred, is worth dying for. Why? Well because the poet says so, and he says it with rather polite poetical words. “Die” and “dust” are perfectly good, simple words, but as a description of death and decomposition, they are surrounded by forevers, flowers, air, rivers, and sun—all presumably sweet and genteel.
Rupert Brooke died at age 27 of an illness he contracted while on his way to the Gallipoli campaign in his war, but what if he, like Yeats, had continued to live and react to the developments of his young century? And what if Ezra Pound had gotten a hold of him and showed him how to punch up his verse?
Today’s piece shows what could have happened. One of the last things Brooke wrote was this fragment written on the troop ship in the month he died. Here’s the original:
I strayed about the deck, an hour, to-night
Under a cloudy moonless sky; and peeped
In at the windows, watched my friends at table,
Or playing cards, or standing in the doorway,
Or coming out into the darkness. Still
No one could see me.
I would have thought of them
--Heedless, within a week of battle--in pity,
Pride in their strength and in the weight and firmness
And link'd beauty of bodies, and pity that
This gay machine of splendour 'ld soon be broken,
Thought little of, pashed, scattered. . . .
I could but see them---against the lamplight--pass
Like coloured shadows, thinner than filmy glass,
Slight bubbles, fainter than the wave's faint light,
That broke to phosphorous out in the night,
Perishing things and strange ghosts--soon to die
To other ghosts--this one, or that, or I.
What can I, acting as Pound might have, do with this? Well first I can locate the charged images in it, hidden as they are inside Brooke’s extraneous comment. What are they? The soldier pacing at night on his troop ship. He’s staring back inside the ship, looking at his fellow recruits on the way to their first battle. If we have any empathy as readers, we don’t need to be told anything about what he’s feeling if it can be conveyed by what he’s seeing. What are our charged images? The troops are playing cards, games of soldier’s chances. They can’t see the poet, and he can see them only imperfectly, backlit by uneven lighting, “coloured shadows,” which is a great image obscured by all the muck about it. And he sees the faint light of a wave’s phosphorescence as bioluminescent plankton are sweep aside by the wake of the ship. The soldiers, and the poet himself, are already in the course of war, like ghosts, fleetingly seen, or only partially and incorporeally seen.
Have you tried the exercise where you make a poem by taking a marker and blacking out most of page of text, revealing a poem could be in what remains? That’s like what I did with Brooke’s fragment:
On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli
I strayed about the deck, an hour,
Under a cloudy moonless sky.
Peeped in at the windows,
Watched my friends
At table, playing cards,
Standing in the doorway,
Out into the darkness.
No one could see me.
I could but see them
Against the lamplight,
Thinner than glass.
A wave's faint light,
Broken to phosphorous.
Perishing things and strange ghosts
Steaming to other ghosts,
I removed over a hundred words that didn’t need to be there, which covered up what did need to be there. I don’t need to say that these things relate to each other, putting them in a short poem together makes that clear. I added only one word, choosing to add “steaming” instead of just “to other ghosts” because it’s an action word, and because “steam,” though active and industrious, is another thing that dissipates and disappears.
I have two unfair advantages over Rupert Brooke as I transformed his words. First, he died in service to his country shortly after writing this, so he didn’t have the chance to revise his fragment. Secondly, the place he was going, Gallipoli, and the outcome for so many British and Commonwealth soldiers who were deployed there is now infamous for poor tactics and horrendous casualties. I can simply use “Gallipoli” in the title and magnify the dread of soldiers on their way to battle.
Today’s episode is dedicated to Julie Shapiro, who introduced me to Eric Bogle’s “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” This is a song about Australian troops at Gallipoli, and though I can link to one of my favorite singers, June Tabor’s, version of it, there is nothing but my memory to testify to the devastating version Julie used to perform.
Long post again, no time to talk much about the music for this performance. Perhaps I don’t need to tell, you just need to hear.
Here’s one more piece from Ezra Pound’s 1915 breakthrough collection “Cathay,” a war story he called “South Folk in Cold Country.”
At the time Pound was working from Ernest Fenollosa’s, and Fenollosa’s Japanese teachers,’ notes to translate classic Chinese poetry, World War I had broken out, and England, where Pound was living, had mobilized to fight this war. Like William Butler Yeats (with whom Pound was staying for part of this time) Pound did not want to take a side in the war. Not only skeptical of the war’s patriotic rationales, Pound also wanted to continue to focus on his modernist artistic revolution.
Earlier in the Parlando Project, we've seen how Yeats responded at the beginning of the war. His “On Being Asked For a War Poem” cloaked his disdain for statesmen’s’ rhetoric while seeming to take a aesthete’s stance of artistic superiority and inferiority.
Pound felt similarly. He may not have been sure, at first, of the what he would eventually call lies by the politicians by the end of the war, but his poetic BS meter was immediately sure that the patriotic verse being produced to ennoble the war was false ethically and artistically. But Pound also recognized that any poetry he would write in such a charged environment would be inescapable seen in the context of the war.
Still, he was wary of writing about war as a civilian who had never fought in battle. At one point, he reported he had tried to enlist, but was turned down due to his (then neutral) American citizenship. At another point, he wrote a review critical of Rupert Brooke’s war poetry, only to have Brooke, who was serving in the British armed forces, die while in service, leading Pound to qualify that he was only criticizing the poetry, not the citizenship.
So as Pound created and promoted Imagism, his vision of new modernist poetry by recreating classical Chinese poetry in English, he came upon a solution. He would use the Chinese poets, both as the model for his new kind of verse and as a way to comment on the war.
Today’s episode is an example of how Pound went about those two things, once again translating and transforming the work of 8th Century Chinese poet Li Bai.
“South Folk in Cold Country” is an account by Li Bai of a military campaign in the north of China that had occurred almost a thousand years before he wrote. Pound, taking this for his modernism, has the soldiers who speak of their war experience say nothing of what they are feeling. There is not a word of them saying they are tired, confused, frustrated, or suffering, but their world is described by them as the image of all these things. While Li Bai/Pound’s “River Merchant’s Wife” reads musically off the page, despite being “free verse” in English, “South Folk in a Cold Country” has a more abrupt and doubtful music. Pound was trusting Li Bai and his own artistic sensibilities so that he might get some of the war experience right.
When I first read “South Folk in Cold Country” this year I thought: this sounds like a bag of fortune cookies mixed in with Ernest Hemingway. Either or both of those comparisons may sound dismissive to you, but I suspect the best fortune cookie aphorisms have some relationship, however strained, to the concision of classic Chinese poetry, and Hemingway, however familiar he may seem to us now, was using Pound’s ideas as part of what was to be Hemingway's revolution in prose. Thanks to Hemingway, and in turn, to Pound who directly influenced and taught him, we now are not surprised by representations of war, violence, and death that assume concise description and charged observation can be truer than superfluous remarks by the author.
I did wonder about the General Rishogu mentioned at the end the piece. His Chinese name (remember, Pound was working from notes of Japanese scholars, not Chinese ones) was Li Guang, and his story is here. I like this as an ending. I’m not sure if Li Bai’s soldiers who speak in this piece are using Rishogu/Guang as an example of the hard fate of soldiers; or if they are saying, after what we’ve been through, making all those rapid marches to make Rishogu/Guang’s name, who among them will care about the general’s death. On the odds, I’ll take the later.
Just after the start of the 20th Century two teenagers met at the University of Pennsylvania. One was 16 years old, a smart and cocky boy without much in the way of money, who had somehow managed admission to the University at such a young age. The other was 15 and the only daughter of an astronomer and professor at the college. So devoted was the girl’s father to his astronomy, that it’s told that his wife needed to come by during the colder months with a kettle of hot water to unfreeze his eyelashes from the eyepiece of his telescope. This professor was the enlightened sort of early 20th century father who believed in women’s intellectual equality. He dreamed that his daughter would become another Marie Curie.
However, the two teenagers soon fell in with each other, and science was not in their bond. Poetry and the arts were. A year or so later, a new freshman arrived at the University to study medicine. That freshman was William Carlos Williams, and he would complete his studies and become a pediatrician and family doctor who practiced for decades in Patterson New Jersey while writing purely modern poetry. The boy and the girl fell in love, and were secretly engaged, knowing that the boy’s lack of money and established career would prevent the girl’s father from giving permission of them to marry.
The girl grew up and was sent to Bryn Mawr, a woman’s college that was known for having a tough “men’s curriculum,” following her father’s hope that she would become a scientist. There she met Marianne Moore, who also became a noted modernist American poet, but at Bryn Mawr she failed in her studies. The American oracle Barbie would later proclaim: “Math is hard!” and a career in science was out.
But wait. What of that cocky boy? Oh no, he’s gone to England! And double oh no, he now engaged to another woman there. After all this, we can now begin our story again.
This now young woman who had already met and befriended William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, went to England to meet back up with the young man she had fallen in love with as a teenager. The young man was Ezra Pound, and the young woman was Hilda Doolittle—but she wouldn’t be much longer.
Pound was in England trying to stir up a poetic revolution, something that would forge past the reformation of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites and give poetry a fully modern cast. Hilda showed Ezra some of her new poems, and Ezra did three things that he would do repeatedly for other poets in the next couple of decades.
He immediately recognized that Hilda was writing the kind of fresh, spare, honest poetry that he thought necessary to break the grip of the past. He would see to it being published.
After admiring it, it took his pencil too it, and slashed out parts of the already concise poems. I can hear some of you drawing a breath on that, considering the sexual politics, ready to cry “Asshat!”—but that’s Pound, even with poets of genius: cut it, pare it down, make it new, not one extra word. A few years later he’d do the same thing to T.S. Eliot, and the surviving variorum manuscripts show why Eliot called Pound “The Better Maker” of “The Wasteland.” Pound’s editing pencil seemed to teach like the sensei’s stick, and once shown, poets like Hilda Doolittle and Eliot understood how to do the same thing themselves.
And then he took that editing pencil and signed Hilda’s poems “H.D. Imagisite.”
That last move was another part of Pound’s talents. He was probably more successful in launching other poet’s careers than he was his own. He had a shrewd promoter’s eye. “Imagiste” or “Imagist” was the name Pound would give to the modernist poetic movement that would during the years of WWI as radically reshape English poetry as the war would reshape the maps of the world, and here he was saying, rightly, that H.D.’s poems would be the ne plus ultra of that movement. As a name, H.D. was as pared down as the new poetry would be. If he’d lived long enough to see video screens with 1024 lines, he would have said calling them HD for “High Definition” a prophetic tribute to his call for seeing things truly. And H.D. masked Hilda’s gender, still important in a world where women were widely thought to be incapable of great art. The former Hilda Doolittle didn’t object. She’d never liked the family name (“Do-Little” she thought it scanned) and besides, her sexual identity and friendship affinities were at least HD.
Let me admit that this post is unfair to H.D., the writer of the words of today’s piece. We’ve gone past my customary length limits and we’ve only barely touched on H.D.’s talents and extraordinary life. I’ll need to revisit her work soon and give H.D. her due.
What can I can about today’s piece “Heat?” Well it’s an appropriate July poem, and the titular heat, in true Imagist fashion is both a closely observed thing: actual summer heat, and an image that, without simile or extra framing, is imbued with complexity. Last episode we had Pound/Li Bai, two men, showing desire and longing in the “River Merchant’s Wife” with only a few actual named emotions or feelings. H.D., the better Imagist, shows female desire with not a single named emotion. The final phrase “that presses up and blunts/the points of pears/and rounds the grapes.” is sensuous beyond words—it’s only 13 words to be beyond after all—and with four p and s sounds it holds four kisses.
Today’s episode “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” has a very complicated history. I can’t even say “Ezra Pound’s ‘The River Merchant’s Wife”—though he’s often listed as the author.
Let’s begin, as a river or a journey might, at the beginning. Back in the 9th Century in China there were two great poets. One of them we’ve already met there: Du Fu. He was known for his wisdom and level-headedness. The other was Li Bai (his name is also written in western letters a Li Po and Li Bo, and in Japan as Rihaku) who was known for his more excessive existence. In China both have been continually revered, but in early 20th Century Europe or America, they were nearly unknown. Only scholars interested in off-beat subjects knew of these men’s work.
One such scholar was an American, Ernest Fenollosa, who had traveled to Japan and become deeply immersed in Japanese culture, and as a sidelight to that, he also was exposed to Chinese culture., but early in the 20th Century, Fenollosa was one of a group of Americans living in England. We’ve met others here who were part of this “reverse British Invasion” of Americans: Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot—and you’ll soon get to meet another, H.D. Fenollosa then died in 1908, still in London.
Here’s were something fateful happened. Fenollosa’s widow, for some reason, gave Ezra Pound a bunch of her late husband’s papers. Pound was a young man who was trying his damnedest to start some kind of artistic movement in London. In the papers were scholarly prose translations of Li Bai’s poems done by Fenollosa and two of his Japanese associates, Mori and Ariga.
Pound fell upon these scholar’s notes. He’d already sought out other old poetry for inspiration for his revolution (much as the Pre-Raphaelites had looked backwards for something fresh), but in this old Chinese poetry he found what he was looking for. It was concise. It was free of centuries of cruft that English poetry had accumulated. And Pound naïvely felt that the poems themselves grew out of the ideograms for their words, Chinese characters which had evolved from drawings of objects. He had found his poetic revolution. Poems should be constructed of little more than images. Not images in the sense of elaborate similes or strained allegories, images in the sense of a presentation of the direct observation of the poet, unadorned. Pound published what he created out of those scholars’ notes as a ground-breaking poetry collection “Cathay,” and he quickly began to compose his own modernist poems using his epiphany.
If Fenollosa hadn’t died in London, and if his widow hadn’t given this tranche of papers to an artistic provocateur such as Pound, it’s possible that Li Bai would be no better known in English today than he was in 1908, and it’s even more likely that poetry in English from that point on would have evolved differently.
Seems like a miracle when such things line up, doesn’t it? Well, here’s something as miraculous: though "The River Merchant’s Wife’s” source was written over 1200 years ago in a culture so far removed from America that the childhood legend was that one would need to dig a hole through the center of the Earth to get there, even though it comes to us filtered through non-Chinese scholars, and even though the particular words I’ll use today to express it were written by an avant-garde poet whose work remains little-read and understood today, many people have an immediate deep emotional response to this poem the first time they hear it.
Isn’t that odd? All that strangeness in customs, place-names, time, provenance—and yet more: it’s a poem of female desire written in the voice of young woman by a man, and translated and transformed by men. And yet, woman and men, young and old, hear it, and they feel the pangs of desire and separation just as much as any 9th Century resident of China—even though the poem, following the tenants of what Pound would call “Imagism,” barely mentions the speaker’s emotions (“bashful,” “desired,” and the only present-tense one, “hurt.”)
I know I felt those things when I first heard it, aged perhaps 21 on a sad journey with a young woman. I hear it now as an old man too, and think once again of my friend John, and of China. The place, Cho-fu-Sa, that the river merchant’s wife says she will go out to meet her husband is, I’m told, hundreds of miles from the named village in the poem. What is such distance to the heart?
With today’s episode, we’ve reached the 100th official episode of the Parlando Project, where we mix words from many sources (mainly poetry) with various kinds of music. For the 100th episode I’ve decided to feature an older recording of mine, almost 10 years old, of my performance of Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird,” because it marks some of the initial ideas that lead me to this ongoing Parlando Project.
Frost’s “The Oven Bird” is a devastatingly accomplished lyric poem written early in the 20th Century. The rhythm of the lines both grooves and varies itself, like the best music, and the rhyme scheme is elaborate, yet it never falls into forced rhyme. Frost’s language here is so plainspoken, ironically saving the fanciest and longest word for the poem’s last line. Frost is as rigorous a modernist as any of his contemporaries in the Imagist school. He’s as willing as any of them to hack away all the overused and overgrown 19th century “poetic language” and to use no word more than needed, but he does it here while writing a sonnet in rhymed metrical verse that sounds as natural as any free verse.
Allow me to indulge for minute my musical interests for a moment. What Frost does here (and elsewhere) is like what John Coltrane did shortly before changing his focus to what was to be called “free jazz,” where melodic freedom was stressed by radically simplifying the underlying harmonic structure. Coltrane wrote and recorded the most devilish difficult set of rapid chord changes constantly shifting the harmonic center, an obstacle-course of a composition called “Giant Steps”, and then proceeded to improvise over it as if it was no matter to him to make those changes. Like Coltrane, Frost could seem free, natural, and innovative, while writing inside a constraining form. This sort of kindred accomplishment speaks to what attracts me in the Parlando Project to equally privileging music and words.
“The Oven Bird” has a reputation as a downbeat poem, and while Frost will not sugar-coat the human condition, I did not, and still do not, find it so. In “The Oven Bird” Frost draws our attention to a bird that sings on, past the promising days of spring, and whose song is none-the-less, loud and insistent, even though he’s singing in a season where he might well feel out of place and out of time for song. Then in the closing section we’re first told that the future holds the fall season—and by extension, both the fallen state of man and the death cycle of nature—and “the highway dust is over all.” Some have read that line as Frost noting the coming of the 20th Century roads that will close out even more forest and bring some measure of end to the natural world. I think instead the “highway dust” is more at a statement of the death of all living things (dust implies in my reading “to dust”) and that dust is the dust of a set, laid out, road.
Finally, Frost hits us, and me specifically near 10 years ago, with his conclusion—one that says much for this project that seeks to find “The place where music and words meet.” He says those of us, also mid-summer and mid-wood who listen knowing these things, sharing the bird’s predicament, should know that the bird has these teachings to pass on to us, “He knows in singing not to sing” (a zen koan of a line) and that the present question is “what to make of a diminished thing.” What a progression to this, from the plainest language with simple words never more than three syllables long, singing us the oldest cycle known to self-conscious humans—and then Frost gives us a line suitable for meditative thought and a question.
This is where I break from those who see this as a despairing poem about death, failure and decline. The poem asks what to make of that, offering the example to loudly sing.
Today in the United States is Independence Day, a day celebrated with summer cookouts and fireworks explosions. Like many obligatory holidays in our modern age, what we are celebrating becomes obscure. Yes, Americans know it’s Independence Day, but what we think of as we celebrate is a mélange of things.
What makes up this celebratory mixture? We celebrate the warmth of summer, particularly here in the northern parts of the US where eating outside is a special season. Our children are celebrating what still seems like an endless summer away from school. Stores have banners of firecrackers and flags luring shoppers who have the day off from work. And we celebrate a diffuse patriotism affordable because America is a preeminent, powerful nation. Our modern patriotism is not short of convictions—far from it, our country is prominently divided by convictions—but that too is possible by the relative wealth and power of today’s America.
But the event we are celebrating is a sharp and definite thing. 241 years ago a group of Americans started an anti-colonial movement, and in the furtherance of that, they soon were to found the first modern republic. Those who did this many years ago perhaps did not know, or even think of themselves as anti-colonialists. Some merely had issues with particular colonial authorities and decisions. Some were indeed bound up in an immense evil of colonialism, human slavery exploiting yet other peoples and nations. Still, we should seek to understand them as their idea became understood through the Declaration of Independence they signed today: that the rights of kings and empires were not heaven’s design—rather, human rights were.
And as their rebellion against kings and empires evolved, it strikingly lead—not to the setup of a new king, or a new, locally-sourced strongman—but to a new form of government, a republic. Once again, these were not perfect men—their government “Of the people, for the people” was at first for white male men of property—but they were men of such devotion to the republican idea that they would not let even the worthiest of their lot become king. That was unprecedented, and even in all the time since, not one in ten or one in a hundred rebellions immediately ends in such a way.
I know not all who read this are Americans, but those are the two remarkable things that we celebrate here in my country today. And of these two things, the second is the most rare, and the thing we must take care to carry within us: that winners are not rightfully kings.
That reminds me, there was another Independence Day tradition, one that has fallen by the wayside: the patriotic speech in the town square. I guess I’ve just revived that. Today’s audio piece is based on another text by Dave Moore, but it’s my music and performance of it. When I asked Dave about “Implications of Fireworks” a few years back, he indicated it was more or less a diary of his impressions of a July 4th he had experienced. As filtered by Dave’s mind that day, those holiday explosions, cracks, and meat smoke brought different, less celebratory, feelings. If our independence was won with cannon and gun fire—if it’s maintained today by the same, and also with bombs made of seeds of sunfire—it is also must be maintained by, and be for, something more than that.
The end of the poem I feature today (“A New Colossus”) has become, slowly, over years, a sort of fourth American credo to go with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and yet it’s only its last lines that are widely known, thanks in part to a lovely musical setting of that part of the poem by popular songwriter Irving Berlin.
As a person who has edited other works for length to fit them into the focus of the Parlando Project, I can see why Berlin made his choice. The ending is the payoff of the poem, a charged and memorable statement. Most poets could only hope for as much as this: that many readers or listeners will remember at least a line or two of this ending, even after hearing it but once.
I am going to present the whole poem in my setting however. It’s only a sonnet, a 14 line poem after all, and there’s some good stuff in the setup. First off, it’s an independent American poem to its core, starting by dissing the glories of ancient European culture and one of the “7 Wonders of the Ancient World.” And its author, Emma Lazarus, also stands forthrightly for the power of women to express a controversial political opinion, though this poem was written in the 19th Century when women had no right to vote. And although this is not a modernist poem, such as those that would be written 40 or 50 years later, the lesser-known part of the poem contains one powerful compressed image, a flame of fiercely desired freedom that is “imprisoned lightning.”
Honoring that image, I’ve chosen to not present this piece as a musty patriotic homily, but as the impassioned cry that it was meant to be. And besides, the sentiments of this poem are likely now as controversial as ever. Irving Berlin presented the excerpted ending as a chorus of hope. I take the whole of it and pierce it with Telecasters, drums and bass.
Back when I was kid there was something we were taught to be concerned about, our “vocation.” This was somewhat like the perennial question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but with a religious and spiritual aspect.
As the word “vocation” suggests, we, while still children, were asked to consider our calling, what task God would ask us to do with our lives. Yes, there as an expectation inherent in that, that some of us would find that we had been called by God to become Christian clergy, but at least in my small town and church, this was not set out as the answer most of us were to find. It was assumed that each of us would obtain a distinct answer fitting to our talents and the universe’s needs.
The folks who provided religious instruction in my town were practical people, and I couldn’t picture any of them expecting us children to be visited by spirit birds, or hear mystic voices to lead our country into battle. Rather they expected a small inner voice to whisper to us that we should be family farmers, or mechanics, or nurses and so forth. In my family, I could look to a grandfather who I never knew, who was called to the Christian ministry, or to an uncle who followed his father’s path, or to the more complex stories of my parents, whose vocational path I’ll defer talking about for reasons of space now. It never occurred to me, but I could have asked my teachers or myself about my great-grandfather and namesake, who would have had to have been called to be a common laborer by this scheme. Somehow this talk of calling and vocation seemed a bit grand a process for that.
I never knew what to answer that question with until my late teens when I decided that I would be a poet. That’s certainly a grandiose enough answer for this religiously-infused process, but even in my naive youth I knew that meant I’d be doing something else besides with my lifetime. So, a calling, but no answer to what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Most decisions to become an artist of any kind expose a person to things that will mess up one’s life. First off, you are going to do something that is likely unlikeable—you are going to privilege your own interpretations of our common life as somehow more valuable than modest silence or undecorated space. Even successful artists most often have a majority of people judging what they produce as not worthy of their time, or generically replaceable by something similar but different from what you do. And these odds of rejection, combined with the concentration of effort needed for much artistic work, make many artists defend their self/center with self-centeredness.
So there, as so often here in the Parlando Project, I’ve violated one of the principles that I set out to follow: I’ve spent time here with my story, talking about myself. Alternate Parlando Project presenter Dave Moore avoided this in today’s episode “Wally Wood” which Dave gave the longer title “Wally Wood’s Co(s)mic Philosophy.”
Here’s what Dave had to say about the piece:
“Wallace Wood was one of the great comic book artists of the fifties and sixties. His detail work for EC Comics and Mad is still astounding to look at. Like many, he was also an alcoholic, and increasingly bitter as he aged. His words in the song are from a late interview in some fanzine.
I can't draw, so far be it from me to draw conclusions about success or happiness. Or the scope of a talented artist's frustrated Fifties ambitions. What strikes me most are the words ‘And yet’ after a pause. No matter what he says, no matter how things ‘work out,’ it was worth it for me and all the thousands of others who enjoyed his work. Go look him up, you won't forget him.”
What did Wally Wood add the “And yet” to? Listen and find out.
I sometimes like to ask musicians who sing folk songs “What is the oldest song you play?” As a person attracted to traditional English language folk music at an early age, I often marveled at the gloriously old traditional ballads collected by Thomas Percy and Francis Child. There’s something interesting to me about singing not only “other people’s stories,” but very old stories at that.
Turns out that they are likely not all that old. Most of them are no older than Shakespeare, and despite many antique words and usages, they are in more or less modern English. That’s old, but it’s not old like Homer, Sappho, some of the Chinese poems I’ve set to music here. Today’s piece, “Summer Is Icumen In” was nearly as old to the typical Child ballad author as Shakespeare is to us. You can say it’s words are written in English, but that’s only English within the broadest of meanings, as the words are even farther removed from the language we speak than Chaucer’s.
Unlike the now lost ancient Greeks’ music to accompany poetry, we even have the 13th Century music and a notated arrangement to present it sung as a canon or round.
One tradition in folk music is to not be overly traditional in re-using it, and I’ve done so here. My melody is only tenuously related to that old one. The original music is minor and mine is major key, and I don’t do it as round. Furthermore, I’ve taken liberties with the various modern English translations of the words. I have replaced a phrase with one that I like better, completely blowing a raspberry toward those who translate uerteþ in the original text as “fart”.
I’ve fattened up the arrangement with a goodly helping of a traditional English instrument of the antique 20th Century, the Mellotron. I told Dave Moore after I completed the mix with the new Mellotron parts that the singing wasn’t good enough for it to sound like the Beatles, and it wasn’t stately enough to remind anyone of King Crimson, and it didn’t have any undeniable smart pop music dynamics like the Moody Blues either—but what I may have gotten too was something in the 2000 light years neighborhood of the Rolling Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request”—which I will confess was one of the first trio of records I bought back when the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper” was threatening to reshape all pop music (a threat that was not carried forward for both good an ill).
Anyway, I’m using digital replicas of the original Mellotron’s cranky tapes in “Summer is Icumen In,” but even in that remove they add a certain character to the string parts. Dave’s original organ part, mixed in the right channel, now seems like a top line to the Mellotron parts, but it’s a good part, so listen for it.
It would seem odd to us, but when Emily Dickinson died, her most noted accomplishment was not her poems, but her plants. She was a serious gardener, known to her family, neighbors, and town for cultivating her plants even at night (which was also her customary writing time).
There’s a lot of comparisons to be made there, that her poems are like flowers, pretty at first sight, but with their own alien structures, but I’ll leave that for now so that I can move on to today’s episode “I Know a Place Where Summer Strives.”
This is a poem that fits well with the Parlando Project’s tactics of combining poems with music, because it’s a poem that uses puzzles to tell its story. When you combine a puzzling lyric with music you can let those words ride along without requiring them to be immediately meaningful, as otherwise poems that go out of their way to be puzzling can frustrate readers not in the mood for non-straightforward speech.
I enjoyed “I Know a Place Where Summer Strives” before I had solved its puzzles. As usual, Dickinson doesn’t belabor her subject, just three stanzas and 12 lines, a nice dosage for puzzlement. The poems internal music flows nicely, and Dickinson’s use of unusual word choices in the final stanza adds decoration to the mysteries. After reading it a few times, writing the music for it, performing it with the LYL Band, and then mixing the recording available here, I have finally gotten around to trying to solve the riddles.
The first verse/riddle is a particularly cold spring, with “practiced frost” taking casualties among early blooming flowers. The second verse/riddle is a description of a building storm, which turns out not to be destructive, it brings “soft (ref)rains.” The third verse/riddle is more obscure yet, but the rain falls onto the hardened, adamant, ground. The last two lines of this verse are lovely to read and hear, but I couldn’t make any sense from them. At first thought I, like blogger Susan Kornfeld, wondered if this was a late-fall time image, and the quartz was ice forming on amber leaves—but then I noticed that the third verse clearly appears to be carrying forward the sentence and thought from the second verse, so it can’t be winter’s arrival: south wind, rain—that doesn’t sound like winter arriving.
Blogger Linda Sue Grimes suggests a solution, that the amber is mud on the shoe. This makes sense, and it could logically follow the rain on adamant hard ground, which could even be light yellowish, amber-colored, clay and not good dark garden soil, but I still am puzzled by the quartz. The line here is especially lovely: “That stiffens quietly to quartz” resonating with the “qu” “zee” and at “t” sounds, but I don’t think Dickinson cheated just to get the sound. Quartz can be brown like mud, though that’s not how I think of it, but its name and the modifier “stiffens” indicates this is something crystalline; not gooey, caked mud.
In performance I decided, intuitively, to repeat the first verse, and in so doing, I bring back the cyclical end of summer to close things.
When I read that Dickinson’s gardening extended even to nighttime work, I recalled the song from REM’s first EP, “Gardening at Night.” Michael Stipe’s early lyrics, are far more abstract than riddles, reading to me like abbreviated captions to blurry photos. A set of lines like:
We ankled up the garbage sound,
but they were busy in the rows.
We fell up not to see the sun,
gardening at night just didn't grow.
Are as obscure as any poem, but I could, and still can, enjoy REM songs like that one. Stipe sincerely sang his own meanings, and he had a great band around him that supplied the music that lets the meaning ride.
There’s an old joke that goes like this:
Alarmed Customer: What’s a fly doing in my soup?
Waiter: I believe that’s the backstroke sir.
Part of the humor here derives from the order brought to the chaotic event of an insect in the diner’s food. The waiter is able to observe the fly and classify its actions from an altogether different perspective. And the rest of the humor comes from the waiter willfully, or otherwise, misunderstanding the customer’s complaint as a mooted question.
Rhythm, a primary component of music and poetry, shares that ability to reshape chaos. The day after I saw the Emily Dickinson film biography “A Quiet Passion” I returned to the same theater complex to see “Chasing the Trane,” a documentary about musician John Coltrane, a man whose work and exemplary life has carried me across many a low place. You could predict most of the talking heads (what director Warren Beatty once called, perceptively, "witnesses" in his John Reed biopic “Reds”) that appeared in the Coltrane film. Coltrane’s children talk about their parents. Winton Marsalis and Cornell West are obligatory we suppose. A pair of Coltrane biographers chip in their perspective. The surviving members of Coltrane’s great combos, Reggie Workman and McCoy Tyner, talk briefly. Benny Golson, a musician who first knew John Coltrane as a fellow teenager in Philadelphia, is especially insightful.
And then John Densmore, the drummer from the 60’s rock group The Doors speaks. OK, I can hear a few saying “What’s he doing in a John Coltrane biography?”
The answer is: swimming in the rhythm of Elvin Jones (the great drummer of Coltrane’s greatest hand). Like the original Homer who wrote our fly in the soup joke, Elvin Jones could converse with whatever new melody, whatever mistaken-for-mere-chaos invention, that John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy could invoke. Densmore watched him do that on the bandstand closely, and then applied what he learned when he later was called to add order to the Dionysian deconstructions of The Doors’ lead singer, Jim Morrison, a man who had the touch of a poet quickly smothered by drink, drugs, and uncharted celebrity.
Densmore’s part in the film is to add to the thought that John Coltrane lived as if he could converse with the universe and approach its Creator with what he had heard from it. Densmore’s addition: but it’s the drummer that is the witness that this is happening now, in the time we are all beating. Coltrane may swim out in the tide of the cosmos, but Elvin Jones knows what stroke he’s swimming.
I call today’s episode “Dream Big!” June is the month of graduations and their obligatory talking heads delivering commencement addresses, most of them deputizing themselves as present-day Ralph Waldo Emersons with mature advice for the audience. However, “Dream Big!” doesn’t present the tale from some sundry gray eminence—instead it has some words from a young man, the British musician Kiran Leonard, who asks us to look at the dream of Herman Sörgel.
Kiran Leonard’s music takes several forms and may still be forming, but his words that I adapted for use with my music in “Dream Big!” were taken not from a song, but from a short statement broadcast by the BBC. In it, Leonard uses Sörgel to encourage us to take on creative projects we think are beyond us. Good advice for young people, but I also took it as good advice for this old man as I started the Parlando Project in 2016, and needed to contact some hopeful audacity. And now, this week, as I readying this episode, I need John Coltrane and Herman Sörgel, Emerson,and Kiran Leonard levels of such hope as I mourn the needless death of a young man and our pretentions that we can do nothing about it.
To hear more of Kiran Leonard’s music you can see this live set from last year here, or view the promotional videos for songs from recent albums here and here, or read this interview/introduction/review.
I got to see the Emily Dickinson biopic “A Quiet Passion” this week. I can recommend it with a warning: this is not a work that intends to be friendly or easy to digest. It does present a reasonable estimation of what may have made up Dickinson’s life experience, showing it with enough detail to be (for me) very moving. However, it also tries to show the intellectual ferment of Dickinson’s time in a very strange way, by spending a fair amount of the movie's running time having people converse with each other in an extended series of Oscar Wildean epigrams.
Of course, I have no way of knowing how people spoke in 1860 Amherst Massachusetts, but I doubt they spoke like this: epigram after epigram, back and forth like a free-style 19th-Century rap battle. What I guess the director/screenwriter is trying to do is give us some sense of Dickinson’s mind and the mind of others she paid attention to—Dickinson’s poetry is full of epigrams and busted epigrams after all. What he does is artificial, but then having folks read Emerson or other Transcendentalists out loud would be artificial too.
Another part that is harrowing is the time spent on the routines of death and dying in her time. Given Dickinson’s own gothic tendencies, this is not only defensible, it may be indispensable in conveying her outlook. And Cynthia Nixon’s performance as Dickinson is very very good.
So go see "A Quiet Passion" if you would be interested in a portrayal of a what Dickinson may have been like as a person and what drove her as an artist. But do not go to see it if you want a friendly, straightforward introductory film biography that would introduce you a writer you have not yet committed your interest to.
For once I’m happy that this is a long preamble to today’s piece, Emily Dickinson’s “Her Final Summer Was It,” because I do not really want to talk much about the work itself, as I don’t think I can speak a well as Dickinson’s own sparse words. I found in it great resonance to my own experience, particularly a summer 16 years ago—but as with all things we present here, the intent is not to dwell on my own life, but to connect to and impact yours. I hope I do the work justice.
We’ve made it more than 90 episodes into the Parlando Project without doing any Shakespeare, which I believe may be some kind of record. It’s not an intentional slight, it’s just that we’ve been busy with other words.
I grew up in a little Iowa town named Stratford, the same name as Shakespeare’s birthplace, and this coincidence instituted by land speculators a hundred years or so before, impressed on me the importance of poetry. This was not the only misapprehension of my youth, but it was long lasting, as here I am countless decades later, delighting in words being costumed in music.
Today’s episode uses the words from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.” Like many Shakespeare pieces, there are lots of performances of it around, which is one the of the values of Shakespeare—you can contrast your performance against others. Many performers of Sonnet 18 like emphasize the wit in it, and wit there is, with it twisting around the idea of comparing one’s beloved with the beauties of nature, which is developed further as the idea that the inconstancies of nature necessarily include aging and death.
Others like to embody the sensual in the poem, the lush language. The third line ends with “the darling buds of May,” a phrase, good enough to be swiped for the name of a fine Welsh 90’s indie-rock band. I don’t think you can escape from that musical language. The entire second quatrain uses near and exact rhymes for each line, a sound that rubs and slides against the ear.
I made two choices in emphasis that differ from others. First, I wanted to bring out the brag in this. The speaker in this poem, who the author is at the least pretending to be, is claiming that he can make his beloved immortal by the power of his verse. No small claim—but in Shakespeare’s case, it’s not bragging if you can do it. And to add to the swagger, I stressed the beat a bit more than I might usually. I made the speaker a little less coy, a little less playful, and little more assured that he’s more than the “upstart crow” that he was seen as by some early in his career when he was writing his sonnets.
Musically I declined to use my main instrument, the guitar this time. Once I had the drums and bass down, I thought they were enough to support the words on their own, so I added only some scattered piano chords to help outline the harmony.