William Butler Yeats, when he spoke admiringly about the ubiquity that songwriters like Rabindranath Tagore could achieve, had already made his forays into setting his poems to music. As a sometime playwright, and a founder of the Abbey Theater in Ireland, he was already familiar with the dimensions performers can bring to words. Around the turn to the 20th Century he began to forthrightly seek to combine his poetry with music. Working in collaboration with musicologist and luthier Arnold Dolmetsch and performer Florence Farr he had a psaltery (a stringed instrument like a lyre or small harp) constructed, and Farr (a fascinating figure in her own right) then performed Yeats poems with it.
Yeats and Farr’s performance style was not a conventional art song setting of the poet’s words sung to a melody. Yeats explicitly rejected that (even though his words have often been set to melodies in the years since). Rather he thought the words were best chanted or intoned in a rhythmic and somewhat elongated speech. Such performances are controversial then, and I would suppose they would be controversial now as well. George Bernard Shaw called Farr’s chanting “A nerve-destroying crooning,” but Ezra Pound and other early 20th century modernists took note, and they were influenced by these performances to add a more incantatory and musical element to their poetry.
Now let us break in our story for about half a century.
In the late 1950s an actor and folk singer Burl Ives recorded an album of Irish songs, and one of them was “The Wondering of Old Angus”, a Yeats poem sung to melody that Ives claimed he learned from Sara Allgood, another actor who had performed with the Abbey Theater group and would have likely known of the Farr performances. Around the same time, another folk singer, Will Holt began singing the Yeats poem to a very similar melody, using Yeats’ title “The Song of the Wandering Aengus.” Then in 1962, Judy Collins, having learned the song from Holt, made it the title song of her album “Golden Apples of the Sun,” which is where I first heard it.
No one seemed to know where the tune Ives, Holt, and Collins used came from. Those knowledgeable in traditional Irish tunes do not recognize it. Some credited Holt for it. However, early in the 21st Century a man named Bill Kennedy writing in the folk-song forum mudcat.org linked the tune to a transcription made by Dolmetsch accompanying a Yeats essay “Speaking to the Psaltery” re-published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1907. The tune there of course was not meant to be sung, as Yeats discussed in this essay, but it is recognizably the one used by Ives, Holt, and Collins in their singing renditions.
So the tune may well be Yeats’ own, or perhaps it was composed by Farr or even Dolmetsch. Since the words are Yeats’, I’m going to call it, and make him the composer; and if so, that makes Yeats yet another singer-songwriter (along with Tagore and Dylan) to have won the Nobel prize.
But he didn’t sing it, nor did he intend the words to be sung. Since we at the Parlando project are working in something like the same vein, here’s a version, using more or less that tune, but chanted not sung.
When it was announced that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature there was a substantial reaction asking if songs could be literature—no, that’s not right, I’m mischaracterizing much of the reaction I read as if it was an honest inquiry into this question. No, the reaction I read was more of a conclusion that songs could not be literature, and so this Nobel award to Bob Dylan was a break with tradition, a loosening of standards.
This is complex subject, one I’ll probably return to, as I have much to say on this; but missed in the hoopla and questioning was this fact: Bob Dylan was the second singer/songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 1913 Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize, the committee citing:
"Because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West."
In 1913 when the prize was given, Tagore had only one such work they could be talking about: “Gitanjali,” a 1912 collection of his song lyrics that Tagore had translated himself from Bengali into English prose poems.
Tagore is a fascinating man and artist, with achievements in so many fields that you might think I’m making him up. He wrote every kind of literature, started a university, seriously pursued modern painting, and gave Gandhi the title “Mahatma.” But he was no dabbler at songwriting, having written over 2000 songs. He’s even the only composer to score a hat trick for national anthems, having written the national anthems of India, Bangladesh and Siri Lanka. His songs are so pervasive in Bengali culture that his thousands of songs have become their own genre.
Poet William Butler Yeats wrote enviously in his introduction to Tagore’s “Gitanjali” of the power of songs:
“These verses will not lie in little well-printed books upon ladies' tables, who turn the pages with indolent hands that they may sigh over a life without meaning, which is yet all they can know of life, or be carried by students at the university to be laid aside when the work of life begins, but, as the generations pass, travelers will hum them on the highway and men rowing upon the rivers.”
This spring as I read Tagore’s “Gitanjali,” I hoped to find there on the page what is promised in Yeats’ introduction and what would normally be guaranteed by such acclaim. I failed at this. I couldn’t find it. The English of the prose translations seemed so archaic, the expression stilted, the voice vague. From accounts I’ve now read, this seems to be an acknowledged problem; and it appears that, for whatever reasons, Tagore purposely framed his translated work in an incomplete way. In the longer term, I will seek some of the newer translations. In the short term, I stood back and remembered something.
Song. These are songs.
Not only are they missing their music, but songs, like plays, are works for individual voices and talents to embody. Their creators are not claiming the real, complete thing exists on the page, that they are performing them mutely with ink on the white page. No, they expect, demand, that someone step in them, surmise their meaning, fill the blank white space with emotions, and speak them.
All art is like this really. Songs admit it. Songwriters generously say: I need you to fill these things, your humanity is better than any of my approximations.
So, today’s episode is the second of my attempts to bring something to a piece from Tagore’s “Gitanjali” using his original prose translations, as that’s all I have for now. With the last episode’s “Light” I tried to meet Bengali music partway, but this time I’m staying firmly in the Western side, maybe even a bit on the Country and Western side. As I read this piece on the page I heard it as sounding like one of those weird Lee Hazelwood arrangements from a few decades ago, but since I was producing this myself, I had to sing the Nancy Sinatra part as well.
If you wonder about the floating lights ceremony mentioned in the song I call “Maiden with a Lamp,” it may be this one.
What is lost when poetry is translated? Robert Frost thought it outright: “Poetry is what is lost in translation.” Those who’ve read my notes here on the Parlando project know that I hold that poetry is words that want to sing. Those sound effects of the flowing sound of words, the call and response of rhyme, the beats of the dancing syllables—all that music can hardly be asked to make it past the visa-check at the translation station on languages’ borders.
In recent episodes I translated two poems from classical Chinese. As a non-Chinese speaker, I could not even hope to convey what musical effects the originals had. To better see this as English speakers, let us look the other direction, and think about what Emily Dickinson’s “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” would lose if we were to translate it to classical Chinese?
Would Dickinson’s easy music carry over? In English we have the movement of the common meter/ballad meter in her poem, a beat that is ingrained in those who sing common Christian hymns or know secular songs using this meter in the folk and popular music fields. Since this is a common form in our culture, we are primed to move to this meter, and rich associations may arise from other times we have felt the same beat. And that is most likely lost in translation.
There’s a pun in the first line. The sun “rose” and is pink. Puns won’t likely make it across the border.
Dickinson rhymed her poem. Translators sometimes choose to create rhyming poems in their destination language, but adding this degree of difficulty to the task may cause other defects in translation as the rhyme is sought.
English sometimes has an advantage when one translates to and from it, because it is the language of a much-invaded island, which was then taken up by a polyglot country across the ocean. English as we know it today is full of words with Latin and Germanic origin, echoes of French, Spanish, German, even Dutch. Occasionally, puns or even rhymes can be saved when the foreign language has these connections. And metric rules for accents and syllables can be somewhat portable across the European range.
But what if we were to translate from English to classical Chinese? I’ll take an audacious shot at Dickinson's first verse, the English gloss from the ideograms resulting might go like this:
Tell Sun Rise
Towers Wet Purple-Quartz
Hills Unpinned Hats
Soft Talk Inside
Well, there’s something still there isn’t there, even if we as English speakers see the losses. What remains is Dickinson’s attention to an ordinary event with extraordinary details. And there’s some musical structure remaining: parallelism, theme and variation that doesn’t rely on beats or syllables that can still peak through.
Today’s episode is an English translation from the original Bengali by its own author, Rabindranath Tagore. Despite having attended school in England, despite familiarity with English as a resident of a then colonial province of the British Empire, despite some rumored editorial assistance from renowned English language poet William Butler Yeats, and despite Tagore’s well-attested to genius, “Light” was published in English in 1912 as a prose translation.
Paradoxically this may be due to the original’s musicality. I’ll have more to say on Tagore next time, but for now just know that Tagore was a composer and songwriter, and that his songs are widely known and appreciated by millions of Bengali speakers.
So, to try to restore some of the impact originally present in this piece, I composed and played a rather dense musical accompaniment for Tagore’s translated words. I did this in ignorance of if Tagore had his own melody for this poem in Bengali. Besides animation and illumination of his English prose, I aimed to combine some of my appreciation his native region’s music and Western electric guitar based music.
This LYL Band performance of “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” is a bit imperfect. Alternative Parlando Project reader Dave Moore takes the lead here, but he and I are singing instead of our usual recitative, and we’re caught at the top of our range as well. So, yes this leads to some imperfection—but this lyric is so perfect that perhaps it can carry us along anyway.
I suggest you listen to this piece now and then read my discussion of what I see in it afterward. Dickinson, like a good melody, doesn’t require understanding before enjoyment.
“I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” begins with a homespun 19th century village dawn, and the singer starts right off almost bragging that they can tell us how the sun comes up. As proof, Dickinson unleashes a string of lovely, singing metaphors for sunrise, looking down from the dawn only once to let us see the squirrels running about as if with the news of the day. She concludes this section with finest simplicity: “That must have been the sun!”
Isn’t that a strange way to sum up dawn? It comes up and it’s already past tense, like Meng Haoran’s morning in the last episode, and Dickinson comments on this common splendor as if she’s a surprised alien from another planet who has never seen the sun. Her boast that she can tell us “how the sun rose”—something she and all of us should already know, set in nothing more special than a prosaic town—becomes instead a small, whispered, apprehended wonder.
In the second section, Dickinson shifts gears so smoothly that no matter how many times you read or hear this poem you will never notice. There is a little engagement of the gears as she says of sunset “I know not,” unlike our first gear’s “I’ll tell you;” but we’re soon on to a rural scene with the sun rays like children climbing up and then down a stairway over a hedge or fence row (a stile). At that point, there’s a bustle in your hedgerow as the dusk becomes a grey robed “dominie,” a strange and archaic word perhaps even in Dickinson’s 19th century, and a sure stumper for any modern English speaker.
A dominie is a Latin word meaning the leader of a congregation, a minister, a pastor—and ‘pastor” is derived from the word for shepherd—and that’s just what our grey dusk becomes as it leads the children of the dawn, now dusk, away like a flock, closing the bars, closing the gate, so that they cannot return.
Some readers are so charmed by Dickinson’s first section that they feel it is pedantic to think that this sunset section is describing a passage to death, “The undiscovered country from whose bourn, no traveler returns,” so no wonder that Dickinson moved from “I’ll tell you” to “I know not.”
That dominie seems so removed from the pleasant village of the first section, so foreign. Another subtle word choice contrasts the two sections. There’s only 88 words in this piece, and five of them are colors. “Rose” puns for dawn pink in the first line and then dawn is “amethyst,” a word for both purple and a semi-precious stone. The sun ray children are “yellow”, and our strange dominie is dusky “gray.” The stile sunset stairway that the sun ray children are climbing is “purple.” So out of our five colors, one of them is roughly the same color. In the first section, it’s semi-precious and wondrous, but in the second it’s just purple—a ruling, royal color perhaps—but those sunset ray children’s steps are ruled over not ruling, not shining like the amethyst steeples of the dawn.
Imagine a world where what you thought was poetry was entirely different. A world where short poems could be as celebrated as longer literary works. A world where the most admired poems could be clear as can be about what is happening in the poem (the poem’s plot) with no elaborate obfuscation in the language; and yet the meaning, the thought and feelings the author means to convey, may remain allusive enough that the poem’s meaning seems to change over time as your experience grows. Imagine a world where poems can seem to have no metaphors at all, poems that don’t so much interpret the book of nature, but seem to be a page from that book itself.
That’s what Chinese poetry seems like to me.
It’s a refreshing change from the Western canon. I can see why a grumpy modernist like Ezra Pound, who wanted to sweep away the rot of his culture, would find it influential. Or why the forefathers of the “beat generation” in the western United States looked further west than California for a way to apprehend reality on the page.
I’m no scholar of Chinese poetry. These are the feelings of someone who likes what he reads and finds lessons in translating it.
For today’s episode, I’m going to go over how I work on these translations with the aim of stripping away the mystery. I’ll use a short poem by Tang Dynasty poetry Meng Haoran “A Spring Morning.” It seems to be a good first task for Chinese translation, and the original poem is apparently known almost to the level of a nursery rhyme in Chinese.
I do not read Chinese, however, it’s now possible to find glosses of many poems literally translated from the original ideograms. Here’s what “A Spring Morning” looks like when each of its lines five characters is translated into an English word:
Spring sleep not wake dawn
Everywhere hear cry bird
Night come wind rain sound
Flower fall know how many
The first problem is there is no punctuation, nor anything like English syntax. Still that’s an interesting way to approach a poem, where in English we are often trying to find the word to fit our flow of thoughts and music, but in working from this gloss we have the words, or at least “a word,” but need to find the flow instead.
I decided to render the first line as: “I slept late this spring morning, awaking just after dawn.” keeping the season (spring) and the more specific time of past the daybreak moment. I added late, which is not in the glosses’ words, because I thought the poem needed some reason why past the dawn was significant when I connect it with the third line.
The second line required less thought: “From everywhere I hear birds calling out.” The main choice here was the word I’d use for the sound of the birds. “Cry” used in the gloss has connotations of sorrow in English (not always, for example “war cry”) and I didn’t want to tip my hand toward sorrow in this line. And in Spring I know these bird calls, they are in fact just that: birds calling out for potential mates, birds setting up their territories, birds that want to say something to other birds.
The third line I write as: “Last night I tossed and turned in the sound of the wind and the rain.” This gives a reason for why the poet slept late, adds a note of drama and, in a particularly personal choice I made, alludes to a traditional English song refrain “Oh no, the wind and the rain.”
Now the final line: “Who knows how many petals have fallen?” Here seeing other people’s English translations helped, as it otherwise might not be clear that this is a question. In a vacuum one might render this as “I know how many flowers fell.” And that ending has validity, essentially saying “(in such a storm as last night) I know for sure how much my lovely spring blooms are going to be damaged.” Others who know more about Chinese idiom have chosen to make this a question, so I’ll trust that, and this makes the concluding thought more like “(I’m worried about the damage of Spring storms. but it was night and I was asleep) and no one can change the way Spring does this, blooming and storming, so it’s a mystery to you and me.”
Overall, notice how this modest four-line poem, suitable for children, encapsulates a sophisticated thought, one that young children wouldn’t need to understand yet. It shows us Spring, as a sleeper sleeps past the now earlier dawn, through a rain storm that grows and destroys (compare our nursery rhyme “April showers bring may flowers” meaning “you might get wet, but it’s good for flowers” vs. this Chinese storm), alludes subtlety to the love and war of birds, and concludes with a wise line that says our ability to comprehend this cycle of growth and destruction, change and renewal, is limited. To a child, that last line may mean no more than the thrust vectors that allow that “a cow jumped over the moon;” but to an older adult, it reminds us more, that we will never know.
I’m often attracted to Chinese poetry, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the deceptive simplicity to the images, that hardly seem like images at all if one expects the showy metaphors used by many western poets. The concision of many of the most admired Chinese poems can be shocking. And to me there seems to be a radically flat broadness to the way some of the poets consider society and politics. Like a lot of my favorite UK folk songs, the tales of royalty and servants, peasants and generals, saints and drunkards seem to treat them all with the same even diction and consideration.
From what I read, Du Fu is highly regarded as poet in Chinese culture. He wrote in the 8th Century, about the time someone in Europe was compiling Beowulf between long drinks of mead out of cups made from skulls. Du Fu’s time was a chaotic one, with the Chinese kingdom falling into rebellion and civil war. “Spring View” is his response after his side had lost the battle and he was in disgrace.
In translating Du Fu’s poem “Spring View,” I thought of our own times, particularly here in the United States, three months now into some kind of change. Alas for Du Fu, I became so enamored of seeing our own current events in his lament that halfway through I started to get more “free” with my translation, until by the time I reached the final line, I chose to conclude on a different thought altogether from the original.
Last night my computer news feed informed me that Chuck Berry had died. As with any 90 year old of a certain fame, the obits with their career summaries were already considered and ready. There were many elements the obits needed to include, and they did their job.
Around 40 years ago I wandered into a group of Minnesota poets who called themselves The Lake Street Writer’s Group, because they all lived, as I did then, within a few blocks of this main Twin Cities east/west commercial street—but what attracted me to them was that they had considered The Chuck Berry Writer’s Group as a leading alternative to that name.
I was then (as I am sometimes still) and obscure little poet. I like my works short, but I don’t require them to be all that clear or straightforward. I like them to play with words, both in the sense of assembling and using words in new ways; but also in the sense that they play with words in the same way that musicians play instruments. Chuck Berry was a beautiful example of that.
Tomorrow is the first day of spring. Here’s an example of my trying to do that. We know how to write the traditional spring poem. Spring! New beginnings! Happy blooming flowers! That’s probably the most welcome and acceptable way to write a spring song, because the world needs hope—but is it the only way?
What does spring’s beginning really look like? A few episodes back I presented Boris Pasternak’s “February,” where he described a winter thaw not as a promise of Easter Bunny spring, but as a mucky, crow-ridden, rotten-fruit invocation of tears. Early spring is the cyclical end of dying, but as the wheel reaches March 20th, death is still palpably there to be ended.
For death, Spring is change—and how do we often react to change, particularly change that is imposed on us externally? I decided to tell that slant, to speak from those winter corpses at spring’s beginning. After all, we don’t choose spring, it’s decreed to us by nature and any ruler of nature we believe in, and nature is not a book only of triumphs, it’s full of predation and predestination.
John Renbourn, the English guitarist, and the subject of our last episode, once introduced a song in concert by saying he was now going to play an English song, “It’s a nice little melody—alas, there are just not that many good English ones.” As we said last episode, John’s repertoire was vast, so he had many musical traditions to draw from and could pick and choose. I mention this only in passing today, because when it comes to music, musicians accept no borders.
In the US today we have an odd holiday, St. Patrick’s Day, where we broadly and vaguely celebrate—well, not missionary saints. Instead many engage in an approximate celebration of Irishness, where amongst the dyed green rivers and dyed green beers, the “Kiss me I’m Irish” T-shirts, and the saucy leprechauns on everything, there is some occasional notice given to Celtic culture.
Alas, I have nothing prepared to be dyed green. I expect we’ll revisit Irish writers’ words soon enough though.
Instead I have a piece by the LYL Band’s keyboard player and alternate reader Dave Moore titled “He Hit Me First.” I think his words speak well enough for themselves, so I’m not going to add much here to them. When I asked him if the words were written about a particular incident, he told me that it was inspired by working on a book collecting some of his father’s sermons. Looking over a pre-publication proof of that book, and the sermons Dave decided to include there, I don’t see where Dave used any exact words from his father, Lester Moore, but I do see how Lester Moore’s inclination and approach informed it. Here’s a few words from a sermon Lester Moore delivered in 1981:
“Christianity conquered an empire that was more cruel than Hitler’s Auschwitz. And it was done by Christians who were willing to live the love that God gave them in the model of Jesus.
I sometimes wonder why it is that we still fail to see this. Christians who offer love in today’s world are called ‘soft-headed.’ But what happens when we bluster and threaten in today’s world? Are we nearer peace today because we speak in militant tones?
Psychologists tell us that we get a REACTION equal to the ACTION in the emotional world just as we do in the physical world. When we shake our fist at someone, we get a fist right back. So, who is soft-headed?
Love does not turn its back on evil. It does not pretend that evil does not exist. Love stands firm and insistent. It is disciplined and ready to sacrifice. It cares about what happens to people, whether it has to do with freedom or hunger or health or hope.”
This is a complex subject, and I’ve only given Lester Moore a few words for his position. Knowing the action/reaction pair he speaks of, I anticipate one response, something I could summarize as “That’s all very nice, but in the real world, you may want those fists, that military, those soldiers to protect your music, poetry, and preachers.”
I will note only that Lester Moore earned a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Silver Star serving in WWII, before he took up the ministry and eventually gave this sermon.
A perennial question asked of songwriters is “Which comes first, the music or the words?” Here with the Parlando Project, the words often were written centuries before the music; but with the pieces where I write both the words and music, the method is for the music to come first with the words.
By that I mean, I tend to compose the words first, but the words emerge for me as melodies do, as a series of sounds that may precede any idea of their meaning. And even when I sit down to write “about” something, the improvisation of their melody can lead me to change what I am writing, even in the end, change what I believe I think about something.
While it’s a good assumption that my methods may come from my visceral attraction to music and poetry, this sense that the act of writing shapes, even reshapes, the thought is a common finding among writers. Have you ever thought yourself, “I didn’t know what I thought about this until I wrote about it?”
So where do melodies come from, whether they are melodies played on a string or melodies played on words? The answer, after millennia of human thought and knowledge gathering, is “We don’t know.” That area of knowing that it is, but not knowing why, is the genesis of myth.
The classical Greeks and their Roman inheritors ascribed these creative incidents to “the muses”—nine goddesses that could engender music or poetry in humans. Their stories told of the bad ends that would come to those who would mock the muses by claiming they could practice the arts without them.
This sort of thing gradually fell out of favor. Shakespeare in his 38th sonnet claims his beloved is as good or better a muse as one of the nine classical muses, and by the 19th century his humanistic idea that another human could serve as a muse to an artist became the common myth.
So, what use then is this old myth, the idea of an inexplicable outside source that informs artistic expression? Here’s one use I’m attracted to: it lets the artist relax a little bit about their efforts. Ever try to be inspired? That rarely works. Even the inspiration tricks that worked once, twice or twenty times may wear out and bring nothing. Have you ever been impelled with an idea, shape, thought, or melody when it’s inconvenient and unexpected? Ever beat yourself up when the ideas and expression just won’t come? Using the myth, the metaphor, of the muses you can get a handle on these things. This does not mean you don’t work at art. This doesn’t mean that discipline isn’t a valuable artistic trait. This doesn’t mean you sit on the mountain top and dawdle. Worshiping and honoring the muses just means if you sit on the mountaintop and nothing comes up, you might try the valley next time, but that nothing is not your fault. If you look for inspiration 365 days a year and it only comes around a dozen times, that’s a dozen more times than it would come if you never looked. If you look for inspiration only a dozen times a year, it will take 30 years to do what you could have done in one.
That is a long introduction to today’s piece “To John Renbourn, Dying Alone.” John Renbourn was very good British guitarist and singer. Beginning in the 1960s, and with a small and wondrous circle of his contemporaries, he was fearlessly eclectic: blues, jazz, traditional British Isles folk music, American Appalachian ballads, 19th century broadsides, Asian music, modern singer-songwriters, or Renaissance tunes—all that could show up at a John Renbourn concert, or on one of his recordings.
Two years ago this month, he didn’t show up to demonstrate once again his amalgamation of music at a scheduled date in a Scottish club. He was not mocking the muses—it was soon found that he had died alone in his modest home.
The day I heard the news, I hoped his suffering had been brief, or if not brief, useful. I thought of him like Frost’s solitary man in “An Old Man’s Winter’s Night” or my father imagined in “A Rustle of Feathers,” or my own dear friend John who had died alone at home a few years earlier. I thought of John Renbourn and wished to apply this myth, this lie, of the muses to this man. An artist like John Renbourn, who informed us with his art, listened better to the muses than most any of us.
We’re going to drop back into questions of death and life for a little bit with this one.
Arthur Koestler was a novelist and public intellectual who lived and wrote about some of the greatest issues of the middle of the 20th Century, and his breakthrough work was his novel “Darkness at Noon.” Let me be honest here: I know of Arthur Koestler, but I have not read Arthur Koestler. I’m not sure how much of Koestler this piece’s author Dave Moore has read either. Perhaps that is of secondary importance, as this song isn’t so much about Koestler’s life or his works, but is instead about his death.
By 1983 Koestler was in his mid 70s and was suffering from serious and incurable illnesses. With apparent deliberation, he decided to commit suicide, writing his suicide note in the summer of 1982. Nine months later, in this severe but promising month of March, he decided to go through with it.
Later that same year Dave Moore wrote this piece, and the LYL Band would perform it with our usual sound at the time, which featured somewhat distorted Farfisa organ, organ bass keys, and loud discordant guitar. My understanding of “Arthur Koestler’s Death Song,” as we performed it then, was it was about Koestler’s intellectual and philosophical approach to this choice, and the hubris that implied. Of course, we were Thirty-Somethings considering the choices of much more esteemed old man.
The performance of “Arthur Koestler’s Death Song” you will hear here was recorded almost 30 years after this. It’s a solo piece I recorded as part of a collection I put together then to showcase some of Dave Moore’s writing.
A key part of the story of Koestler’s act is depicted in one verse. In March of 1983, Koestler’s original suicide note of the year before now carried an addendum. His wife, 20 years younger and in perfectly good health, was going to join him in taking the barbiturates and alcohol that was his chosen suicide method. “I see my wife sitting across from me. She’s going to join me in death.” The verse starts.
Please allow this to disturb you, because it should.
I’m no psychic. I cannot know what went into that decision and what was in his wife, Cynthia Jefferies’, mind, but I do know all too many relationships where the spouse of the artist, the intellectual—even if that thinker is an avowed proponent of freedom, liberty, and equality—is reduced to the role of servant and subservient.
“Arthur Koestler’s Death Song” lays out the facts and lets you consider the possible motives. It assumes you will be an active listener, one who can not only form your own answers, but your own questions.
I’ve been on the serious side for the last few episodes, but this time it’s going to just be a late night, late winter jam called “Bar Tryst, Late Winter.” I wrote the words to this one—at least I think I did.
Do you know the story of how the song “Me and My Uncle” came to be? It’s a great cowboy song, recorded and sung by many people, including The Grateful Dead. Sometime in 1964 or so a songwriter named John Phillips who had toured to no great acclaim during the American Hootenanny pop-folk era in the early Sixties got a royalty check for writing this song. Seems Judy Collins has recorded it on a live album, and his first thought was to set the record straight. He got in touch with Judy Collins and told her that the writing credit must have been a mistake, that he didn’t know anything about any such song.
Collins then proceeded to tell the surprised Phillips that they had both been at an after-concert party in 1963 where a heady mix of intoxicants were present. During this night she had heard him compose this song on the spot. Luckily someone had run a tape recorder during the party, and from that tape she had learned the song.
Well, Judy Collins was not involved in my story, but it’s more or less the same. Sometime early this century I was looking through some old notebooks from the 1970s where I had written some things, and there on a page in my handwriting was this piece. Not only had I had no recollection of writing it, I had no recollection of any night like it describes. It’s possible I imagined the scene it describes. It’s even possible that I didn’t write it, but why would I transcribe something of that length in the midst of other things I was writing?
Shortly after rediscovering it, I recorded this live take with the LYL Band and a drum machine. The guitarist I was playing with at that time was Andy Schultz who pulled out a lot of improvement in my playing as we wove lines between the two of us. Like the composition of the words used here, I can’t always tell when I listen to recordings from this time which of us played which guitar line back then.
Our last episode featured words by Phillis Wheatley, whose story I first heard about in a graveyard.
I was taking a walking tour in Boston, and there was a lot for the guide to talk about as we strolled through the Granary Burying Ground near one end of Boston Common, the cemetery where many of the instigators of the American revolution are buried. That’s where I heard Phillis Wheatley’s story.
There’s no tombstone for Phillis Wheatley there, and no record of where she was buried, though it could have been there. So, we don’t even know her graveyard, but we know her story.
Only a few days after wrapping up the work on the Phillis Wheatley episode, I happened to catch Viola Davis’ Oscar acceptance speech. Like David Harbour’s speech earlier this year, it compressed an artist’s calling into a few well-chosen words, and so, I set about creating today’s audio piece.
I recast Davis’ words a little, turning it from her own pledge, to an artist’s pledge than we all can take.
There are only a few words here, but the opening sentence announces itself strongly, while going—to my take on it—in two directions. “There’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered—and that’s the graveyard.” In that magnificent sentence, we may think of all the potential that’s totaled up short in every graveyard: potential lost due to life’s duration, lost due to injustice, lost to just bad luck, potential never reached for the many human failings. One of the most common of those human failings is to just not try, and when we fail to try, the graveyard is where that potential will end up.
This direction, where the sentence could go, is not where Davis takes us however. She reminds us: there, in those graveyard lives, is that precious struggle, the part-ways reach, all the somedays that someday may see victories. We should “exhume those stories,” she says.
And then Davis’ makes a daring statement. Art “is the only profession that celebrates what it is to live a life.”
Can that be so? Certainly, historians and social scientists collect and analyze information about lives too—but perhaps they must step beyond that role to light the footlights that art does. Art is the transference of the emotions and the perceiving inner being between people. Only at that level of communication can the celebration of what it means to live a life be reached. That’s what we do when we create art, or when we consume it actively.
Davis repeats her specific charge to artists, as she praises the creative acts of August Wilson, the writer and playwright: art’s radical empathy empowers and obligates artists to tell other people’s stories.
Writers listen to her here, listen to her evoke August Wilson: even your story is not your story. It’s your great-grandparent’s story, perhaps it will be your great-grandchild’s story. The graveyard, the grocery store and the stars are full of stories. Allow them to ask you to tell them.
I’m going to tell you a very sad and very wondrous story. A little over 350 years ago, when America was still a colony of England, a young girl about 7 years old was abducted in West Africa by men who took and sold human beings for profit. This enterprise then shipped her across the ocean along with other abductees. This business, a very profitable and respectable business of the time, was slavery.
The way this business worked then, those who were deemed useful for labor would be shipped to the West Indies. There some were put to work as slaves, and others were—to use the term sometimes applied to the harnessing of wild horses—“broken,” so that they could be more useful as laboring slaves. In this case, with this ship, it took those that were not figured to be the good laborers— the odd lots and freight salvage of their cargo—and carried them on to Boston in the American colonies.
Our 7 year old girl was one of those less valuable pieces of cargo. And when she arrived in Boston, she was also sick, and so she was sold to a family for a very low price, because the ships master figured that if he didn’t sell her quickly she would die and there would be no profit in her.
The family that bought this girl treated her unusually. They named her Phillis, as that was the name of the ship that carried her away to America, and as was the custom, used the family’s last name Wheatley for her as well. They taught Phillis Wheatley to read and write English, and then as she showed extra facility with language, they allowed her to extend her learning. By the time she was teenager she was reading not just the Bible, but Greek and Latin classics and the works of the leading English classical writers of the time. And something even more remarkable happened: she started writing like these men.
Nothing like this had ever been seen. An American, in the far-off colonies, writing like an educated Englishman. No, an American woman—wait, not just a woman, an African-American woman, a slave, someone’s property, writing like an educated Englishman!
Did the business of enslavement of Africans, the thing that brought this girl to America, arise because of a belief in the inferiority of black Africans? Or did the widespread belief that black Africans were mentally and spiritually inferior become widespread because it allowed otherwise moral human beings to take part in this repulsive practice? Whichever, Phillis Wheatley, this young girl, had become a wondrous rebuke to those ideas of racial superiority.
In 1773, only 20 years old, Phillis Wheatley once more crossed the ocean and traveled to England, met Lords, Ladies, Counts and Countesses. A book of her poems was published there, the first book of poems by an African-American ever published. She was even going to meet King George, but she had to return to Boston before a date could be arranged. Back in America, as the foment leading to the American Revolution began, she wrote a poem to King George, reminding him that she was his loyal subject, but it might be wise to reconsider things like the Stamp Act that were riling up the colonies.
Yesterday, February 22nd was George Washington’s birthday, and three days ago I celebrated the holiday that replaced Washington’s Birthday with a piece based on a poem written by the teenaged Washington. After the Revolutionary War broke out, and Washington became the commander of the American forces, Phillis Wheatley wrote a poem and sent it to General Washington. Washington wrote back that he was impressed by her “great poetical talents” and suggested that if it could be worked out, he would “be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses.” Alas, as with the King George, this meeting with the General (and slaveholder) never happened.
So here is Phillis Wheatley, a person who was abducted, torn from her family and home, sold for a pittance as damaged property, shipped across an ocean to a new land that speaks another language. She owns nothing, she herself is owned. And what then does she obtain? Poetry. The ability to speak fluently in the voice and art of this land of exile, and for a time, a measure of fame for this accomplishment. Is that enough?
I look at her words now, over 350 years later, and the style she wrote in is so mannered, often encrusted with the gilded and blushed Georgian portraits of Roman myths. I told you at the start: this story is sad and wondrous. We know, it is our obligation to know, the sadness of slavery, committed by humans on other humans. The wonder of what Phillis Wheatley was able to accomplish fades somewhat with time. As a small gesture to that wonder, today’s episode uses a lyrical evening pastoral "Hymn to Evening" that Phillis Wheatley wrote, wrapped in some music I composed and performed.
Here a piece "Frances" based on a short, incomplete poem written by a teenager who went on to do other things. You can tell he’s a clever young man. He’s infatuated with a neighbor girl, but there’s no such thing as texting yet—no such things as telephones either. Thankfully, love songs are a well-established technology, so he sets to work on one.
To make sure that she knows he’s serious about her, and not the other young ladies he’s been seen cavorting with, he decides it’s not just going to be a poem, it’s going to be an acrostic. The first letter of each line will, if read downward, spell out her full name.
If John Lennon had wanted to write “Oh Yoko” as an acrostic, it wouldn’t have added much difficulty to his verse. Alas, our teenager’s object of affections is Frances Alexander. Well it could have worse, if he was a teenager who wanted to write a love song to the New Zealand singer who performs as Lorde, and wanted to use her full name, he’d have to write a 27 line poem to Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O'Connor.
He only needs 16 lines to prove his love.
He gets to line 11. Gotta start with “X.” He grabs onto Xerxes, the famous Persian leader and general to fill out his acrostic, but one line later he runs out of gas and just drops the poem before finishing.
Didn’t finish the poem, didn’t get the girl, but our teenager like Xerxes became a famous general and eventually his country’s leader. He’s got a birthday coming up on the 22nd, but they celebrate our boy George Washington’s birthday as a US holiday today.
A couple of episodes back I mentioned that we’d meet Yeats “rook-delighting heaven” again as we visit some more expressions of the month of February. Well, here’s one, Boris Pasternak’s “February.”
Coincidently, it appears that Pasternak wrote his “February” within a few months one way or another of Yeats’ “A Cold Heaven.” And both poets put ravens in these poems, though Yeats’ crows show up early, and Pasternak’s drop in near the end. Though Yeats wrote his “A Cold Heaven” in more temperate Ireland, it resonated with a Northern Midwesterner like me with its burning ice and unwarming sun. Pasternak, presumably familiar with a colder climate more like my own, sets the thermostat on his February to an early spring melt; but this is a muddy, sodden spring. His black spring holds cold rains, mud, and slush—more like a real early spring than a happy-butterflies-and-wildflowers May spring.
I’m not fluent in Russian, but the challenge of translating this lyrical poem from Russian to English has attracted many. As I recall, when I tried to put together the text for this performance, I used several of those as gloss, tempered with Internet translator apps fed the Russian. I know nothing of Russian diction, so I aimed for an informal American diction, and unlike some translators, I didn’t try to keep the original poem’s rhyme scheme in English—after all, I knew I’d be supplying music for this.
I believe the music I choose here, bluesy rock’n’roll, while American, is fitting. I hear Pasternak here singing the Russian Blues: blues like unto our great American music of endurance, and rock’n’roll that cares only to seek the state he speaks of in the last two lines “The more haphazard, the more true, the poetry that sobs its heart out.”
So I’ll be putting this episode up, and then I’ll go out in our haphazard too-early spring February myself. I too will head out past the noise of city church bells, past the cars, biking to the edge of my city where I’m going to buy George Saunders sad new novel.
Today’s episode is dedicated Renee Robbins, who once was lost on the edge of Moscow herself, the last passenger remaining at the end of a bus route. She found her way back long enough for us to know her.
I decided on my own that Yeats’ piece in the last episode was about February, but I have some other pieces that say, right out, in their own words, that they are about our current month. Here is one, “2ebruary.”
Earlier this month I saw Jim Jarmusch’s film, “Paterson.” This movie succeeds, in its modest and appropriate way, to do something impossible: to film poetry, or more exactly, the composition of literary work. It does this two ways: by having a writer, its central character, portrayed as a regimented, routinized person, grounded in a particularized working-class city and job; and then by having him compose “aloud in his head” his work against this background.
This is a wonderful choice. The city, the routine clock of the days, the job, become the metrical, musical background for the flowerment of the writer’s consciousness that becomes the poems.
Though the movie is set in the New Jersey city of it’s title, the filmmaker refers often the “New York School” of poetry, using the poems of Ron Padgett to stand in for the work of the film’s main character.
The New York School uses a lot mid-20th Century Modern ideas, combining them into various combinations, depending on the individual writer associated with the movement. Some of it can be obscure and abstract, taking off from the same ideas that launched abstract expressionism in painting around the same time. But some also find a tenderness and wonder in the abstract patterns of urban existence, a Pop Art with a depth beneath its surface able to hold a beating heart. At a point in the film, the main character opens his noon lunchbox to eat, and to write down the intermediate state of his morning’s writing aloud in his head, and there like a Thermos, nestled above an orange and a sandwich, is Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems.” It has to be there.
O’Hara wrote in a great many styles, but this slim chapbook features several poems that someone once called his “I do this, I do that” poems. where O’Hara walks about, seemingly composing aloud in his head amidst daily tasks. These are my favorites, because, like “Paterson,” these poems seem to be about their own grounded creation in a city of routines, reflected inside the moist, encased, flowing mind of their writer.
Today’s episode “2ebruary” takes off from that Frank O’Hara mode, as I often like to do, though I’m an old man, writing in another century, in the Midwest, not New York City, and my old joints creak best on a bicycle.
“2ebruary” is a short bicycle journey thinking of history, and past the events that are turning into history that we can still change. I take a pause, as every American should, to note that American culture is made from those who came here carrying something from elsewhere. And Midwestern culture? For many, those packing trunks are hardly great-grandparent’s-age-old, at the eldest.
At one point in the journey, I note those that had no trunks when they came to America, they had only their chattel bodies and souls—and even of those two things, the former had been appropriated by others for handy profit. What could they unpack? Well for one thing: the largest and grandest part of our American music. Our history is short compared to many nations, but it contains mighty things like this. We who are joining that history, already in progress, can turn it one way or another. Which way do you choose to turn?
We’ve already met Irish poet William Butler Yeats with a brief poem earlier this month. Now his words return with a piece suitable for the aftermath of Valentine’s Day, for “A Cold Heaven” is the tale of a rejected valentine. It’s also fitting, because Valentine’s Day comes in the midst of late-winter. February, as Margaret Atwood put it, is a “month of despair, with a skewered heart in the centre.”
Here in the northern Midwest it was a “seasonable” 19 degrees F. this morning, and hardy ice has outlived any soft covering snow. There is a promise of a thaw this weekend, but that will only recall mud and the detritus of what the snow once remembered inside it.
Critics from more temperate climes praise Yeats for his oxymoron here of “ice burned,” but up north we know that’s just what happens to skin in the cold, with no need for poetic intercession. And my back yard, my cities’ parks, and our central greenway have been home to that “rook-delighting heaven” he speaks of as well. Strange isn’t it, that the bird of death is so smart, so intentional, so sure, and yet inscrutable.
In “A Cold Heaven,” Yeats’ winter and his death-omen birds lead to a missed and misunderstood, “crossed” love; and he takes the blame: if not for the season, for the failed love. Like so many, and without the succor of chocolate or flowers, he is left in the rejected lovers worshipful, davening stance, “rocking to and fro.”
But he is a poet still! “A Cold Heaven” breaks itself in two with an image that is also a pun: “Riddled with light.” Yes, we Northerners know that winter light. Brighter than summer, and paradoxically the sign of a piercingly cold day. He knows his love’s in vain, and yet no amount of blame that he can assign himself—even if he exhausts “all sense and reason” to catalog that blame—can account for the failure of his love. What can solve this “riddle?”
Yeats begins again, with a majestic “Ah!” only to take us on a short ghost story, the spirit of his love in purgatory, in bardo, naked as a corpse or as a lover, wandering and asking why clear skies, clear answers, seem like punishment.
So to all those whose valentines were not accepted yesterday: peace. Such riddling has no end to its depths. I know this: that hole is too deep to be plumbed, just know that it’s deep. The correct prayer for such things is unknown.
As a performance, “A Cold Heaven” had some challenges because Yeats makes use of enjambment, where lines break in the middle of sentences; and where the meaning too, often forks, seeming to mean one thing before the line break and another afterward. Since I like to let the lines “breathe,” so that the music can interject, and so that the words’ impact can sit a little bit before the next line, I resorted to repeating a few words. There are also a couple of other audio tricks in the piece. The string parts, particularly at the beginning have a “backwards tape” articulation where the sound swells from louder to silence, in the reverse of the normal decay of strings, which I hope signifies the drop into the past in Yeats’ text.
I feel I’ve been a bit long-winded lately with the notes for these episodes. In my defense, I would say the topic of several recent episodes, the relationship between art/artists and politics is a complex subject. Today episode, “The Garden of Trust”, is shorter, and the notes are too.
Weston Noble was a long-time conductor and choral director at Luther College in Decorah Iowa. I never met the man, but shortly after he died at the end of 2016 I heard this lovely quote from him, In a matter of a few words, he moved from vulnerability to trust through music. Thanks to the permission of the kind folks at Luther College, I am now able to share that with you. Today’s episode, so appropriate for Valentine’s day when we think about love, lets the man himself speak those words surrounded by the music I wrote to celebrate them. I can add no more than that music, other than to urge you to listen to them.
Let's continue our investigation of connections between art and politics that I’ve touched on earlier this winter.
The motto of the Parlando Project is “The Place Where Music and Words Meet,” but in practice it has been the place where music and poetry meet. However, just as I want variety in the music used (within the limits of the musician’s talents) I don’t plan to always use poetry for the texts here. Today’s episode is an example. I’m going to use a short public speech, but as I have done with poetry in other episodes, I’m going to treat the words as if they are specifically meaningful, and I’m going to treat those words as if they want to sing.
About two weeks ago, a cast of actors received an award, and the actor acting as spokesmen for the cast delivered the acceptance speech. Though not entirely a political speech, it was received as one, and it was almost certainly intended to make a political point.
The actor, David Harbour, was representing the cast of a series currently available on Netflix called “Stranger Things.” That show is a sort of bumblebee. Like the famously un-aerodynamic bee, it shouldn’t fly, but it does. “Stranger Things” is a show that uses tropes of 1980s movies and books to tell a story set in that same decade. It should be a winking meta exercise where you spend more time noting the references than to the story itself, or a dreary “I’ve seen this one before” drama that plays as an unoriginal re-hash of ready-made plot points and incidents. Perhaps for some viewers it is one of those things, but for many viewers it’s an ingenious contradiction of all the ways it could fail, doesn’t, and instead flies.
As an actor, Harbour was part of that levitation. In his acceptance speech, he makes a choice as doomed to fail as the concept of “Stranger Things.” In his awards-banquet tuxedo, standing in front of an audience of actors, he gives his acceptance speech more-or-less in the person of his character, a gruff, down-on-his-heels Midwestern town sheriff.
What’s the percentages on this working? First off, actors are not their characters, often not even close. Humphrey Bogart wasn’t a grizzled tough guy, he was the son of a cardiac surgeon who grew up upper-middle class. John Wayne was a football player and son of a dirt farmer, not a cowboy or a military man. Actors themselves would know this more than anyone else. Secondly, whatever audience size “Stranger Things” has, that audience isn’t everyone. Will folks who haven’t watched “Stranger Things” get your message if it references tropes from your series?
Well, like the series, like the bumblebee, Harbour’s speech worked in the room none-the-less. You can view that short speech and the reaction here.
In turning this speech into today’s episode, "Artists Hunting Monsters," I changed a few things. First off, the video I first saw after the event did not include his prelude to the words I ended up using. In the part I didn’t have while composing, Harbour talks eloquently about his view of an artist’s role today. In editing the words I did have, sifting them down, and dressing them with music, I choose to universalize his rhetoric to the degree I could, so that even those who haven’t seen “Stranger Things” would have access the message; and in so doing, I changed things to address the role of artists in general, not only the actors that were his present audience.
I’m once more going to violate a principle I thought I would hold to here, and “explain” the text. Harbour, and my selection and recasting of his text, says that an artists’ job, an artist’s calling, is to offer succor to the disenfranchised: to show with our artifice, truth; with our play fighting, successful struggle; with our imagined detectives, the underlying monster. It’s a call to arms for artists to pick up blunted stage-swords and to deploy magnifying metaphors against oppressive decisions, systems and persons.
That’s not all I have to say on this issue, there are important questions yet to discuss on the role of the arts. Subscribe to this podcast for more expressions of these questions and others as we more music meets up with more words.
Today's episode is a short, yet puzzling piece with words by William Butler Yeats: “On Being Asked for a War Poem.”
Why puzzling? Yeats is good example of an artist engaged both in spiritual concerns and politics. In the struggle for Irish independence, Yeats was a leader in the idea that Irish cultural independence as a pre-requisite for political independence. If skeptical of armed rebellion, Yeats consistently pushed for what eventually became the independent Republic of Ireland and he become a Senator after Irish independence. One of Yeats inspirations, Percy Bysshe Shelley had famously said “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Yeats in effect revised Shelley’s passage by striking “Unacknowledged!”
What would you expect from such a man in regards the use of his art for political purposes? You’d guess he’d be all in. Well, he was asked, just like the title says. Edith Wharton asked for a poem from Yeats for book meant to raise funds for Belgian war victims during WWI, and this was his response, which indeed was printed and therefore served its charitable purpose.
“I think it better that in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.”
So why is Yeats seeming to refuse to put his artist’s shoulder to the wheel and write a “war poem,” as so many others did? Well first, Ireland’s position in WWI was complicated, as it was not yet independent. Ireland’s colonial ruler, England, was engaged. The ancient principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” might make an Irish nationalist (at the least) abstain from taking sides.
He goes beyond that however, on the face of it saying that a poet—“a poet,” unqualified, not “this poet,” or “given that I’m a colonial subject against my will, don’t ask me for poetry about your war." Poets, he says, have “no gift to set the stateman right.”
I don’t know what was inside Yeats’ mind, nor am any kind of expert on his work, but in thinking about these things, about how the artist, the clergy, and at times that statemen, are all in the same line of work; an alternative reading has come to me.
That pronoun “He” that starts the fifth line, why did Yeats not make the antecedent clear? Most readers believe that the “He,” the one who’s suited to pleasing an indolent young girl or an “old man upon a winter’s night”—that last, a character who could be that frightened and lonely farmer in Frost’s poem we recently featured here—is the poet, or a poet performing his rightful role. If so, it’s a surprisingly modest, even dismissive, statement of a poet’s worth. However, the last noun before that pronoun “He” isn’t the poet, it’s the “statesmen.” English syntax rules indicate that “statesmen” could likely be the “He.” If I write “Frank went to a Minnesota Timberwolves basketball game, saw Karl Anthony Townes, and he scored 42 points.” We know that I couldn’t score 42 points, even in an empty gym, not because of my athletic ineptitude, but because we usually think the pronoun refers to the last applicable noun before it.
So did Yeats slyly mean to say that a statesman, like the poet, like the artist in general, is engaged in the same game, fooling the youth and the feeble old?
I have more why artists with political opinions are treated differently at frankhudson.org and I’ll also have more to say on artists and politics in the next episode here.
Eric Burdon and the Animals had a considerable run of hit singles in the 1960s. To the degree that we remember that output today, it’s to recall songs that Burdon’s voice made famous, though they were written by outside writers: “House of the Rising Sun,” “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” All great songs, all great performances, but what’s forgotten are the songs Burdon himself wrote.
That’s not an accident. Eric Burdon as a writer was often topical, writing about social and cultural events while they were current, before the ink had dried on things; and he was heart-on-his sleeve sincere, without protective layers of irony that made Jagger/Richards or Ray Davies harder to pin down. These things sometimes make his writing seem dated or naïve, but I think folks don’t value his commitment to immediacy enough. And then there’s Burdon’s steady stance against racism, something he never gets enough credit for.
Fifty years ago Burdon and the Animals visited San Francisco and he commented favorably on the warm climate and the altruism; and while charmed by the chemically-enhanced visionary culture they found there, Burdon noted issues with police/public interaction and recommended that the American Dream should include Indians too. That bit of reportage was a top-ten hit record in the US and the UK.
To me, a lot of the charm of that record is its spoken word opening, a deadpan “Dragnet” parodying recital of the worth of experiencing San Francisco. Spoken word—sounds like a Parlando Project idea!
So this is my rough parody of warm summer “San Francisco Nights” written in and for the cold winter city of Minneapolis. It’s 9 degrees F. as I write this, and the temp is dropping overnight. Snuggle someone if you’ve got the chance.
Here in the upper Midwest we are now in the middle of winter, and so are in a various ambivalence about it. Part of us doesn’t like the burden of winter, part of us wants to taunt it, and show that we can still have the upper hand over it, and some of us, those who don’t want to stop reading the book of nature, can find a cold, white chapter to puzzle over and admire.
I’ve already spoken here about how Minneapolis was settled as something of a colonial outpost of New England. The author of the words for this episode, Emily Dickinson was a lifelong New Englander, steeped in Transcendentalist thought, so we know she’s read that Winter chapter.
Just before dawn this morning, I jumped on my winter bicycle and took a ride to my favorite breakfast café. It was seasonable, 20 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing, the streetlight globes surrounded with particulate halos of pelting snow. My tires were crunching the snow, the big knobs of their tread like typewriter keys imprinting the blank pavement’s page. It really was quite beautiful, if obscure of meaning. Summer rain saturates us, inebriates us. Snow surrounds us, but we are never more than a transient part of it, unable to understand its dance.
Emily Dickinson’s words are featured here a lot because she’s a great lyric poet and her words fit with music almost without effort. I learned decades ago that Dickinson favored “hymn meter,” that 8,6,8,6 syllable verse that makes much of Dickinson singable to the melodies of “Amazing Grace” or the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song. For “Winter is Good” I decided to throw out that pattern, turning some lines into refrains and marrying it to a melody similar to the Christmas carol “Joy To the World” instead.
Dickinson’s second verse is a doozy. Just 17 words in her text, but it twists so wildly. “Generic as a Quarry”—there’s winter’s white page I suppose. “And hearty – as a Rose-“ not sure where we go there. Dickinson was an avid gardener, and she no doubt missed her summer plants, but my best guess is just rosy cheeks. And finally, the concluding two lines “Invited with asperity/But welcome when he goes.” A jokey finish that seems like it’s singing the old joke about the pleasure of hitting oneself on the head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop.
Our various ambivalence aside, that’s what the Winter chapter in the book of nature says to us Northerners, our words arise and are recovered over by the white page; our music only the spaces between silence, soon to be drifted in.
As promised, here’s my “bird in the house” piece presented as a companion to Dave Moore’s episode from yesterday.
I wrote this about a decade ago. I was going through a bit of a rough spot in my life then, and just as the words place the narrator in the piece, I was alone in a house in the wintertime, acutely aware of the sounds in winter. In that house, with no other human sounds but my own, I found myself thinking of my aged father, now widowed, living alone as well. In a somewhat morbid, gloomy mood I thought of unwitnessed death, of my father, or myself, dying alone.
Just as in the dream reported in Dave’s piece “The Bird Dream” the trapped bird image came to me as I wrote the words for “A Rustle of Feathers.”
Odd that that trapped bird image occurred to both of us thinking of our aged parents. I don’t know if this is a common image or archetype, something that waits in our common human unconsciousness, waiting for a writer’s words to awaken. “A Rustle of Feathers,” with it’s aged narrator in an otherwise empty house acutely alert to sounds, shares a bit of the mise-en-scène of Robert Frost’s “A Old Man’s Winters Night” that was presented here earlier this month. Possibly I had read the Frost poem somewhere in my youth, but I don’t believe it was present in my unconscious as I wrote this; but shortly after I wrote “A Rustle of Feathers,” I did think that Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”—a poem widely known to Americans of my generation—might have been a subliminal influence. Musically I was thinking a bit of a Johnny Cash feel as I composed the music.
Well the muses keep dancing, and they are hard to keep in our narrow field of vision. The piece got written, and now it’s here for you to listen to.
You may have noticed that episode frequency has fallen off a bit this month. Well besides the usual struggle of an upper Midwest winter, both alternative Parlando Project reader Dave Moore and I have had some extra tasks this month. I’ve been helping transition my mother-in-law to new living arrangements, and Dave has been working on editing a book of his father’s sermons.
Today’s episode is a piece that Dave wrote a few years back about his parents, and his father’s experience after Dave’s mother had died. Like many good stories, it seeks to find meaningful connections in the flow of coincidental events.
And speaking of coincidence or architypes or something, I wrote another piece myself a few years back. Though I did not mention it explicitly, my piece was also engendered by thinking of my father now living alone after my mother had died. Both pieces used the image of a bird trapped in a house.
I’ll not attach any more meaning that that to this. Today’s episode is Dave Moore’s story, read by Dave. Tomorrow I’ll post mine.
I often wonder when reading opinions when someone stops or starts thinking.
Opinions generally come from two states. One is intuitive emotion the other is from reason, a thoughtful weighing of something or another. In the case of the former, thought has little to do with it. We know something is wrong, wonderful, disgusting, laudatory, whatever from something we feel innately. The child saved from the burning building, the willful act of unnecessary violence—but we feel intuitively about more complex and controversial things too: the results of an election, the worth of some work of art. In the case of art, many of us are comfortable with expressing that intuitive response, we like it or we don’t, we don’t know why, and don’t really care to know why. However, in politics and public policy, that sort of response can seem irresponsible. Furthermore, mere internalized like or dislike is no good for recruiting others to your side.
The other state, the opinion generated from thought, from some comparison of the options and a reasoned judgment brought forth on the results seems admirable. The problem is that too much thought seems to stop as soon as some conclusion can be reached. There’s no second thought on the thought, no deeper examination of one’s assumptions. There’s a worth to this—speed is a value in decisions not about art after all—and the nature of thought and questions is for them to be never-ending. At some point, one has to stop thinking to ever reach a working conclusion.
I opened this morning’s local paper and saw a man from Crosby Minnesota moved to think about political matters and how they intersect with art. Meryl Streep, a famous movie actor, has expressed political opinions about a TV actor—let me look this up, oh yes—Donald Trump, who has taken up politics and found himself with a prominent new job in the public policy field.
The man from Crosby feels he has found an important thought in this Meryl Streep matter, and his thoughts are expressed as a couple of questions and answers:
“Who wrote those words for her? After all, her whole life has been one of just reading and acting out the words creative thinkers have written for her. She has been good at it, but how can someone who has never had a thought of her own criticize others who have?”
Did he answer his questions too quickly? Did he not expand his inquiry enough?
So, assuming we think about something, when do we stop thinking? We have to stop sometime, but stopping too soon can leave us with meager conclusions and less rewarding art.
For that matter, when do we stop practicing our art? In 2013 a local actor (Kate Eifrig) made a decision to stop acting because she felt that continuing was harmful to her. She gave an interview about her decision, which I felt it was an honorable and insightful one, and this audio piece with the LYL Band performing the music was the result. The first sentence is a quote from her interview, which I then developed into the rest of "Acting."
One thing she may not have accounted for in making her decision: while as an actor she would have been allowed to serve in a political office like Helen Gahagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Franken, Ronald Regan, Fred Grandy, Jesse Ventura, George Murphy, or Fred Thompson; but she would not, by our man from Crosby’s accounting, be qualified to comment on political matters.
In one limited way I agree with the man from Crosby. While thought, sometimes even considerable thought, goes into acting and performing; the performance itself is not a thoughtful process: for it is entering into, embodying, a thought, often someone else’s thought. That is a visceral, not intellectual experience whatever thought went before it.
I would ask one more question, reformulating the man from Crosby’s rhetorical question to a familiar piece of folk wisdom: how can someone who has never lived someone else’s thought criticize others?