We’re about to begin April’s National Poetry Month in the U. S., but I’m going to begin celebrating #NPM2018 today with a piece that’s a good way to start things off, the opening two sections of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
National Poetry Month isn’t just for American poems or for American poets, but if it was, Whitman would be all the more inescapable. In the middle of the 19th Century, he and Emily Dickinson forged two original styles whose sounds and tactics can still be found in contemporary verse—Dickinson, with small lines in small poems that bind-up with puzzles immensities; Whitman with long lines and epic poems that offer a catalog of exultation. One sees a single, small thing and says it represents the universe, the other beholds the diversity of the world and says it’s really one thing. Complementary opposites.
Both were working at a prodigious pace during the 1860s, during America’s great Civil War. On April 14th of 1865 Abraham Lincoln, the US President during that war, was shot. The next day he died. Within weeks Whitman had produced the first published version of this poem along with other poems about Lincoln and the ending of the Civil War which he published as “Drum Taps.” It would not be like Whitman to hold his thoughts on those great events inside. In contrast, Tennyson’s epic elegy on the death of a beloved friend took him more than 15 years before he published it.
At over 200 lines in its entirety, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” taken as a whole, would exceed my usual mode here. I prefer my audio pieces more the length of the 45 RPM single records of my youth. So today, I present only the first two sections of Whitman’s longer poem.
I did the same thing last April for the poem I believe is most responsible for April being National Poetry Month, T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” which begins memorably “April is the cruelest month…” Those that can finish that first sentence may recall it continues “Breeding lilacs out of the dead land.” So, Whitman’s elegy and Eliot’s poetic apotheosis of High-Modernism written over 50 years later, both begin in April, and with lilacs.
We’ll be revisiting territories in “The Wasteland” later this April, but today you can start where Whitman started his poem, and from where Eliot got some of his inspiration for his. Musically, this one is fairly simple, but I hope effective: acoustic guitar and piano with a little low synthesizer groan eventually joining in.
Here’s a tribute to a couple of other American originals who are inspirational to this Project.
“Side-Walks” is the second piece here using words taken from a Laurie Anderson interview. In the earlier piece, Anderson was talking about how the sky of her Midwestern childhood taught her to realize that she was “nothing and everything.” Today’s words are quoted from a 2015 interview where she’s talking again about childhood, but particularly her childhood as she can revisit it in memory.
The phenomenon she talks about is extraordinarily common, while still extraordinary: the intense memory of childhood, rich enough that one feels they are experiencing it in fully dimensional, traversable, 3D space, with access to senses other than vision (such as smell and touch).
If you don’t feel you have this ability, Anderson suggests a method to engender it in her story. Although, I took this account of hers from a written interview, anyone familiar with Anderson’s speaking style from her work, may hear it in her performance voice, that slow, measured coo that never rises in intensity or volume, and varies only in a slight, auditory smile that can indicate any number of stances without determining one.
As I mentioned last time I used Laurie Anderson words, her performance voice is hypnotic, and influenced as I am, I can sort-of imitate it, but choose not to. But as I listened to this piece over and over as part of the mixing process, I began to realize that I was somewhat imitating the performance style of another influence of mine, Ken Nordine.
At some point, in another post, I’ll probably need to discuss Ken Nordine at some length, but hearing that echo, I said to myself “I bet no one has ever connected Laurie Anderson and Ken Nordine. Wait until I tell everyone about how these two unique American artists have these striking similarities!”
Because I write, my mind immediately starts writing, all in my head, all the ways their work connects. Both are native Midwesterners, who can carry that mindset to any cosmopolitan location. Both use that very even speaking style in performance, with Nordine allowing just slightly broader bemusement to sneak into his affect for contrast to Anderson’s often present, but more muted, smile. Both use music in combination with their hypnotic words, but both will choose music that is not calm, conventional “music beds.” Both love the sideways movement from one topic to another that seems alternately random and deeply meaningful, and both enjoy the shaggy-dog story conclusion that doesn’t overdetermine which.
I pop Laurie Anderson and Ken Nordine into a search engine, and find…
I’m too late. Laurie Anderson has been listening to Ken Nordine since her Chicago childhood. She’s a fan (her late partner, Lou Reed, too), and she knows Nordine influenced the development of her concepts.
Well then, let’s go back to Anderson’s story of how she can revisit a vivid childhood time, as many of us can. Her story is vivid too, even if she’s telling it off-the-cuff in an interview, not in performance, but what I found most striking were her conclusions.
A great deal of what you hear me play here is made possible by a 1983 invention, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), a standard for communicating musical commands. MIDI lets me create piano parts I can’t “play” with my non-pianist fingers. I tell MIDI what to play, and MIDI then instantly responds by playing those notes on an instrument so I can see if they fit.
Given MIDI, I as the composer can have the equivalent of a pair or more of pianists willing to play as simply or complexly as I want them to, and not only are my MIDI pianists totally compliant, they can be preternaturally skilled as well, willing to play odd rhythmic displacements or impossible fingerings.
If an assiduous composer such as J. S. Bach had had access to MIDI in the 18th Century, the 1128 pieces he composed could easily have been multiplied. Would any of the additional Bach pieces created in this alternate history have been better? We cannot say.
In the years between WWI and WWII, a young musician of no great wealth or social background was studying composition in Boston. He was said to have crossed paths with some of the giants of 20th Century music there, including Walter Piston, whose Harmony book I once started many decades ago and Nicolas Slonimsky whose book on scales later became a huge influence on John Coltrane and Frank Zappa.
However, the titanic forces of world events would soon sweep him away from all this. In the 1930s he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Americans who volunteered to fight the Fascist forces seeking to overthrow a republic in Spain during a war that served as a beta-test for World War II. This was a complex event, but all we need to know for our young man is that the anti-Fascist coalition was defeated, and the survivors who had fought for the Spanish Republic ended up as men without a country.
Earlier this year I was reading some 1939 writing by Herbert Read where he was appealing for support for a plan to transport these Spanish war survivors from French refugee camps to Latin America. Our young man, who’d hobnobbed with key musical theorists before becoming a “premature anti-Fascist,” soon found himself in Mexico City, perhaps as a result of this plan.
It was there in the 1940s our exiled young man took a technological step as a composer. He chose to write his music using “player pianos.” Player pianos, also called “reproducing pianos,” were a home entertainment fad from the era before better quality electronic recordings. An elaborate clockwork rolled a scroll of punched paper across mechanical sensors inside the piano which then drive the hammers to strike the piano strings. Scrolls of piano music, some recorded and played by the famous performers of the early 20th Century could be purchased, and when inserted into the home player piano, played back with musical fidelity.
Our young man’s name was Conlon Nancarrow. Over the next few decades he exploited the player piano, not for parlor entertainment, but to create striking Modernist music of otherwise unplayable complexity. He was hip to new varieties of rhythm and harmony not only from other 20th Century “serious composers,” but from Jazz—and the mathematical structures of Bach-like cannons were well suited to the looping scrolls he would punch himself. He wasn’t reproducing music someone played, he was producing music he conceived and punched into the controlling scrolls.
In the first few decades of his work Nancarrow had no funds, no grants, no copyist/assistants, no local orchestral resources to realize his musical ideas; but this one artist, a player piano, and his own score-roll punching could produce work needing only himself and his ideas to sound inside his small Mexican apartment.
Except for it’s painstaking, mechanical, cuckoo-clock handwork, what Nancarrow did is schematically like how one can use MIDI today. In a tip to this heritage, MIDI scores are still shown on the lit-up computer screen like player piano scrolls.
In 1969, using the high-fidelity home entertainment media of its age, an LP record of Nancarrow’s works was issued on a major, well-distributed record label (Columbia, the record company of Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap). That’s when I first heard him. Acclaim in avant-garde music circles, and some grants and touring followed until his death in 1997.
In some ways the typical Nancarrow piece sounds like an artist who when finding out the vast capabilities of his new technology decides to use all of them. At once. A lot. Typical tempos sound like someone playing a recording at the wrong speed—and backwards. The number of simultaneous notes can be overwhelming, the intervals jarring, the rhythms insane. It’s challenging you to understand it, and it’s not a matter if you want to, you likely cannot. As with some avant-garde music, repeated listening (if one allows it) can increase comprehension of the ideas, but Nancarrow is never going to be shoving Billy Joel off the piano bench in popularity.
No, the reason I wrote this to celebrate Nancarrow isn’t because I think you’ll like his music, or even because he’d figure in any Desert Island Discs episode in my future (though through castaway days one might find the time to try to untie all the knotted ideas in a Nancarrow piece). No, it’s because I admire that kind of audacity and perseverance.
I originally wrote music of an acoustic guitar “folk song” sort, even though the poem sought to make use of eccentric meters and a tricky rhyme scheme to reference some of Nancarrow’s ideas. Today’s version has new music I wrote which fits the words better. Using MIDI-controlled pianos, it’s sort of “Nancarrow-lite” musically.
Metaphors, implied or direct, are a form of an equation. If E=mc2 or 2+2=4 then should fog=little cats feet? Well, not exactly. But for some poems the metaphor, the image and “what it means,” is surprisingly equal at each side of the equals sign.
Here’s a poem that Ezra Pound included in the first Imagist anthology in 1914, written by someone we don’t normally think of as an Imagist, or even as a poet: James Joyce. Joyce didn’t consider himself a member of the Imagist movement, but his fellow Modernist Pound considered this work consistent with its principles.
Oddly, the case for Joyce as poet instead of the instigator of the modern literary short story form and the creator of increasingly avant-garde novels has been largely carried forward by folks (like me) who wish to combine words with music. The James Joyce poem I first knew, “Golden Hair” came from Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett’s lovely setting written in the 1960s and used beautifully a decade or so ago to begin Tom Stoppard’s play “Rock’n’Roll.” Today’s words from Joyce, “I Hear an Army” was set to a complex piano accompaniment by famed 20th Century composer Samuel Barber along with two other Joyce poems as his 1939 “Three Songs” (Op. 10).
As words, “I Hear an Army” is very musical (the consonance of “whirling laughter” is exquisite!), but that element wasn’t rated as highly by mid-20th Century critics who redefined poetry as a literature of complex and hermetic language. Still, its central image shows a bilateralism that I’d like to point out. I think most will see this first as a love song with a strong and strange metaphor of loneliness and separation from one’s beloved as feeling like the invasion of a grotesque and threatening army. Loneliness=as oppressive and overwhelming as an invading army.
But what if we reverse the equation? Is an invading army, this oncoming hoard, this force of arrogance, also like the absence of love, the sundered heart and the steeled will? Invasion, war=separation from love and our beloved—separation for not only the invaded but the invaders.
When an image can sustain this kind of bilateralism, it gains tremendous power. Maybe not mass times the speed of light squared, the force that hung over my youth, cleaving dreams, and whose blinding flame is seeking to haunt us again, but power none-the-less.
Not to dis Barber, a giant, but I think there’s room for a different way to present “I Hear an Army” combined with music. So you’ll hear my original music for this, not Barber’s. Some take the Barber at rapid tempo, horses at full gallop. I don’t have a score to say what guidance Barber gave for that, but there’s a power in slowing dread—after all it’s a cinematic cliché to show an onrushing threat in slow-motion.
My predominant accompaniment for “I Hear an Army” is a vocal chorus using different vocal timbres, including a low part using Himalayan Tuvan throat singing where two pitches are sung simultaneously. Other than the two short rock band interludes, the only “instrument” used is electric bass.
Cleverness in poetry or writing can be a mixed blessing. While poetry without cleverness can be bland and unexciting, poetry with too much of it can seem a show-offy exercise exhibiting the most exorbitant self in self-expression.
Unlike my pleasant puzzlement with H. D.’s “The Pool” last time, I can speak with authority about the author’s intent on today’s piece “Ruined Refrigerator,” because I wrote this set of words. A short aside for those that are new here: this isn’t the way the Parlando Project generally works, we’re normally about “Other people’s stories,” our audio encounters with other author’s words.
But since I wrote this I can say a bit about how this worked with “Ruined Refrigerator.” This started out as a sonnet I wrote in 1978. I’ve always been attracted to the 14-liner. It’s just about the perfect size to develop a point with a turn or even two, while still asking for concision. The 14 lines can be divided in many eccentric ways into stanzas, sections, and rhyme schemes. And since Shakespeare used it for his best poetry, you have a mighty model to measure up against.
The problem with the sonnet and Shakespeare as a model is that it can fall into clever complexity. Shakespeare was intoxicated with flowery language, language that loves using extra words and similes to express itself. Given the youthful vigor of the mostly modern English of Shakespeare’s day, and Shakespeare’s genius, this is not as tiresome in his best poems as it would too often be in those that were written after him.
Artists already have too much to worry about, but perhaps we should be more careful when we invent something, as any imitators will exploit all the faults in the invention—and so, eventually Shakespeare’s poetics can descend into “poetic language” that violates the call to concision that lyric poetry should heed, and to merely clever works that exercise the skills but not the aims and ends of great poetry.
I can tell you that as an author, writing clever poetry is great fun. Finding what you believe is a new way to say something is wonderful. Engaging in the music of thought where a theme emerges in a surprising and even mysterious way is as great a joy in words as it is when composing music. Fitting the stuff of a poem into the puzzle of meter and rhyme and stanza forms takes effort, but like any number of enjoyable crafts, it’s satisfying. The dance of metaphor as it leaps back and forth from the compared thing to the thing can feel in creation almost God-like.
These things have degrees of difficulty and achievement, yes, but the greater difficulty is engaging an audience for them. What is enjoyable and satisfying to the author is not necessarily the same to the reader or listener. Too little cleverness and the result is bland, too much and the reader will decide: too much effort for too little reward. Or they may read on and decide that it’s much ado about nothing. What the author thinks is clever, based on their effort and self-evaluation, seems mundane to the more sophisticated reader or obtusely obscure to the naïve one. Audiences don’t love or hate cleverness, they just want it to be worth their while.
“Ruined Refrigerator” may suffer from these issues of failed attempts at cleverness. I wrote a complete draft around 40 years ago*, and I must have liked the “deep ecology” idea enough that I revised it 15 years ago. So far (small) audiences haven’t cared for it much. Maybe that’s my failing, or maybe it’s the audiences’—though I believe the audiences were good ones.
As an artist, you can negotiate a treaty with that failure, knowing that all artists fail—sometimes, depending on the audience. Artists can succeed with some audiences by making the choices that will certainly cause them to fail with others. One can always choose to fail better or differently. The important thing is to try, in the way you think best to try.
*A note on the 2004 draft I have of this says the first draft (lost) was from 1978. But I also recall stealing the germ of the idea from a Gary Larson “The Far Side” one-panel cartoon, though I have not been able to find that cartoon, and the “The Far Side” was first published in 1980.
With a poem, mystery and ambiguity can be often served best alongside brevity. H. D.’s “The Pool,” which supplies today’s words, is a fine example of this. It’s a condensed tale of an encounter that takes seconds to read, but longer to absorb.
We last met H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) here with her tiny but fierce poem “Oread.” In that case, the title let us start off the poem knowing the main character of the poem. “The Pool” offers us no such clue with it’s somewhat generic title, and it throws us in the deep end by beginning with a question: “Are you alive?” Five spare lines later it ends still listing questions: “What are you..?” It’s called “The Pool,” but the unnamed thing in the pool seems the subject.
Go ahead, listen to the musical performance of “The Pool” now, because encountering it in mystery is important. The poem is so short and yet multi-faceted, I repeat some of its words, extending the listener’s experience of the words a bit longer, encouraging you to not let go of them too fast.
H. D. must have intended this to be mysterious. Various “solutions” have been suggested, though they would reduce the poem to a riddle. When I first read it, I assumed the object the poem’s speaker is questioning in the pool was a fish, taking the metaphor of it quivering “Like a sea-fish” literally—but if steps back for moment, we would never describe a fish as like a fish would we? Over at the always “Interesting Literature” blog a commenter suggested it could be H. D.’s unborn child, an ingenious solution, consistent with the quivering and the water and possibly with the “banded one” epithet for the object, if one thinks of the womb as a band. H.D. was pregnant for the first time around the time the poem was published, and if this is part of the poet’s intent, the opening question is achingly poignant, since that pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. But if that is the largely intended experience to be drawn from the poem, H. D. has given us no internal clues in the words to lead us there without knowing now obscure biographical details regarding her life and the poem’s publishing date.
Is that meaning there unintentionally? That’s certainly possible. The New Criticism writers assumed intent, honoring the artist, but modern Deconstructionists would find this a moot point. It wouldn’t even matter to them if H. D. had written the poem a year or more before it was published, before her pregnancy, as a reader could choose to experience the poem as about pregnancy with no intent on the part of the author.
My second reading of the poem takes from another context, H. D.’s love for classical Greek lyric poetry. Any situation involving looking into a pool and becoming entranced with what one sees suggests strongly the myth of Narcissus. At the very least from H. D.’s other work, we can assume that H. D. would have recognized the likelihood of this reading. But if this was her intent, why not call the poem “Narcissus?”
In the tiny amount of words in this poem, the net and the “banded one” are all that lead us away from Narcissus. Is this poem in fact a representation of a modern experience stated directly with no excess words in the manner of the Imagist credo? If so, what could one see in a pool that is banded and is like a fish. Some crabs have banded leg markings, that possibility exists, and the “I touch you” line takes on a new context if one imagines the crustacean strangeness and pincher-claw danger of touching a crab in a tide pool to see if it is alive.
Or the modern, direct experience could be intended as an echo of Narcissus, a moment when the speaker of the poem sees their reflection in water and assumes, as Narcissus did in the myth, that this thing in the pool is an entrancing other. And the net then, an expression of the inability to capture our selves. Interesting Literature suggests that the “banded” could be the net interrupting the reflection with its strands. An echo then of a Narcissus’ reflection, and Echo is the name of the nymph who tricked Narcissus into the reflection lock.
That would explain why the poem isn’t called “Narcissus.” In this modern encounter, the speaker doesn’t lock forever in contemplation of the unknowable reflection, spending five lines there, aware of Narcissus’s plight. The net becomes the thing that, this time, breaks the spell. And what of the “banded one?” Is there a pun there? I didn’t see it reading the poem on the page, but my overlapping voices in the performance made the phrase sound like “abandoned one.” Narcissus wouldn’t abandon the entrancing reflection, and by extension, is bound by his attraction to his perception of himself.
Perhaps H. D.’s “The Pool” is all of these things, perhaps even something else as well. Mystery and ambiguity is sometimes best served by brevity. Go ahead and listen to my performance of “The Pool” again, it may reflect something else.
We’ve already met most of the small circle of poetic Modernists that assembled itself in London before WWI. From the United States, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) and her one-time fiancé Ezra Pound; and from England, the combative and influential T. E. Hulme, and the risen from poverty F. S. Flint. Other poets, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost, touched them tangent, but where bent with the gravity of what Flint called, and Pound promoted, as Imagism. If you’re new here, you can check our archives (now almost 200 audio pieces) and you’ll find all of them represented.
Today we use the words of the man we’ve left out, Richard Aldington. Another Englishman, he married the American H. D. in 1913. He worked with Pound to promote T. S. Eliot. Unlike T. E. Hulme, he survived WWI, but many said his combat experience changed Aldington, and retroactively the diagnosis of PTSD has been associated with him
His long career had more than a few bridge-burning episodes, all disputes which I know not enough to have an opinion on. Partially because of this, Aldington is not well-remembered as a poet, even though at the start of the Imagist movement he was universally considered a principal.
Like his partner H. D., Aldington looked to, and translated, classical Greek poetry and like Pound he was fascinated by Chinese and Japanese compressed forms, and he produced work connected with each of these traditions. Today’s piece, “The Poplar” isn’t one of those poems. In some ways “The Poplar” reminds me of F. S. Flint (another too often forgotten early English Modernist), as it’s free verse in Flint’s “un-rhymed cadences” mode. It’s blissfully easy to read. It’s homey and unfussy images remind me of T. E. Hulme. It’s odd now we think of Modernist poetry as requiring obtuse and learned images, when it’s founders like Hulme and this poem by Aldington have no images that wouldn’t be clear to a grade-school student without need to access Wikipedia.
Musically, today’s piece has a core guitar part that I played on a small acoustic guitar I’ve owned for 35 years now, but instead of “real strings” (which in my case would be “virtual instruments” where various notes and articulations of acoustic string instruments are sampled and then played by a keyboard or a guitar MIDI controller) I used a virtual instrument which sampled an old keyboard “strings” instrument. I feel the dual falsity of this instrument, a simulation of a simulation, produces something that has its own validity. I also wanted to use a harmonium, but I don’t have that available as a real instrument or a sampled one. The closest I could come was a slightly modified “toy organ” patch which had some of the wheezy reed timbre I wanted.
Enjoy “The Poplar” by using the player below. Even though it’s from the dawn of modern English poetry, it remains fresh because it’s not that well known; and it doesn’t ask you to enter some dimly-lit labyrinth of images you cannot decipher. Yes, elusive images can have their pleasures, but so do these.
Last time we made some fun of Shakespeare’s honest love poem, his sonnet 130, “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun.” Well today, let’s give it it’s due.
The fun was that if was a poem meant to attract or hold a lover, it’s, well, not complementary—but there’s no evidence internal to the poem or external to what little we know about its writing, that says that was its intent. It’s one of Shakespeare’s sonnets that was written to “the Dark Lady.” Great title that. We may feel put off if the meaning of a poem isn’t clear to us right away, but in love and biography, most of us love a mystery. Let’s examine that mystery a bit.
First bit of mystery: it’s not clear exactly how autobiographical the typical Elizabethan poet, such as Shakespeare, intended their poetry to be. The idea of art as a mode of direct self-expression has become increasingly more common in the past 200 years, but it wasn’t necessarily the mode of the 16th Century poet. Showing off one’s language skills and elaborate allegorical metaphors while speaking of popular and entertaining subjects scored points in the game then, and it was less about biography that rhymed.
Poets of that era liked to revisit the same subject over and over, because playing on the same topical court let them measure themselves against each other. And so it was when writing a series of sonnets about love troubles.
But no author can avoid the personal entirely. This has lead to the detective game to identify the “Dark Lady.”
A leading solution is Emilia Bassano Lanier. Like a lot of Elizabethans, a fascinating character of which only scattered but intriguing facts are known. She may have been Jewish, North African, or Italian. Family described as “black” in Elizabethan times. Had connections to the same theater and artistic world that Shakespeare did in London. Musical family. Her father helped Queen Elizabeth with her lute when she was a young girl. Emilia wrote the first book of poetry published by an Englishwoman, and she seems remarkably independent and kick-ass. She even makes it onto the lists of the people who “really wrote Shakespeare.”
Shakespeare wouldn’t be the first writer to use a person they knew as a model for a literary character as an in-joke that his crowd would get, or just as a handy way to gather a matrix of characteristics. And yes, Shakespeare and Lanier might have been a thing.
It’s fairly clear that Sonnet 130 is another answer record/dis cut like our dueling shepherd poems from the same era. However biographical or invented, the poet is telling us that as far as his love is concerned, all the bullcrack about white skin, golden hair, and rosey cheeks doesn’t get his motor running. There is that breath “reeks” thing in his poem, but I’m not sure it was automatically funky in Shakespeare’s time. The word comes from the Middle English word for smoke or steam—so not necessarily stinky breath, just not literally like perfume.
Elsewhere in the “Dark Lady” sonnets Shakespeare praises “black beauty.” Was the Dark Lady Black in the modern sense of the term? I don’t know if we can say for sure. Sub-Saharan Africans were in England in those times, including a trumpeter who was part of Elizabeth’s father’s court.
Was Shakespeare “answering” one particular poem? One doesn’t have to look far for targets, but some point to a poem set to music by William Byrd “Of Gold All Burnished”:
Of gold all burnished, brighter than sunbeams,
Were those curled locks upon her noble head
Whose deep conceits my true deserving fled.
Wherefore mine eyes such store of tears outstreams.
Her eyes, fair stars ; her red, like damask rose ;
White, silver shine of moon on crystal stream ;
Her beauty perfect, whereon fancies dream.
Her lips are rubies ; teeth, of pearls two rows.
Her breath more sweet than perfect amber is ;
Her years in prime ; and nothing doth she want
That might draw gods from heaven to further bliss.
Of all things perfect this I most complain,
Her heart is rock, made all of adamant.
Gifts all delight, this last doth only pain.
The poem’s 9th line might be a mondegreen, as it makes sense if the last words aren’t “amber is,” but the perfume “ambergris.” Who wrote the words? Not stated in the book that published Byrd’s piece in 1589, but a modern musician and relative of Emilia has put forth the idea it’s a poem by Emilia Bassano Lanier, though I can’t access any cite for his evidence.
Are there more poems about love than any other topic? I’ve done no study, but I think that’s likely.
Now, are the majority of the most prestigious poems about love? I strongly suspect they are not. If one looks at the top of the list compiled from mostly American modern poetry anthologies completed by Emily Temple for LitHub, less than a quarter are love poems—and this is so even if one loosely counts poems like “Prufrock” as love songs on the misdirection of the title.
Another thing I would expect to find, if one focusses on the poems concerning love, is that most that remain are about how love has gone wrong.
Perhaps that can be laid to the principle in Tolstoy’s famous line about families “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Perhaps there is more varied material in love’s absences and discontents.
Can this relative rarity have other causes? Could it also be that it’s harder to write a good love poem? Mere gushing has its limits, as true as it may be to love’s initiation. Honest love poems have their dangers, as they ride on a delicate balance point. My favorite episode of the BBC Elizabethan-era sitcom “Upstart Crow” has Shakespeare trying to explain that sonnet 130 “My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun” is a good love poem. Sitcom Shakespeare explains:
“Conventionally, love sonnets are ridiculously flattering. They make absurdly overblown claims for the beauty of their subjects. Well, we wouldn't want that, would we? The love I show you in my startlingly innovative 130th sonnet is greater, because it recognizes your flaws.”
“Next time bring me sweets.”
And then there’s the episode’s ending when Kit Marlowe defends Shakespeare on a morals charge with a surprising legal defense. I won’t spoil that.
“Already a Broken Heart” is my own attempt at an honest love poem/love song. If even sitcom Shakespeare has troubles with honest love sonnets, I won’t claim success. Furthermore, I’m hesitant about the performance, as I’m asking my singing voice, the only one I have available in my production process, to do things it’s not good at. Sometimes I hear it as honest, and other times I hear it as insufficient. A better singer or singers could do much more with this.
Choosing to make even one arbitrary choice can be a great aid to creativity. After all, though many of us are driven by various and powerful urges to create art, the choice to do that is arbitrary itself.
Today’s piece comes from several, singular, arbitrary decisions.
Coming upon the author of today’s words was a two-step process that has no A and B to it. First, knowing that the change from the 19th to the 20th Century impacted everyone, I wanted to see how African-American writers moved across this change. I was already somewhat familiar with how they moved musically in this era, a momentous cultural act that made American music, to an impressively disproportionate degree, Afro-American music. I was less familiar with the early 20th Century Afro-American poets. I started with Wheatley and Dunbar, as many did then. As our copyright laws effectively forbid me to utter on the Internet most any work written past 1922, I was heartened to find James Weldon Johnson had published a collection of Afro-American poetry just before that.
I read it, and Anne Spencer’s contributions included there didn’t grab me.
That too is arbitrary isn’t it? The poetry (or music, or anything) that can impress you on first encounter is only one element of how it might work.
Then a few weeks later I read a small piece online highlighting a long life of service and art that Anne Spencer had lived across part of the 19th Century and ¾ of the 20th. That moved me immediately. I re-read her poetry.
Did I appreciate her poetry more because she seems to have been such an admirable person? I tell myself, no, that by the time I combine it with music and place it on the Internet, few listeners will have any inkling of that. But I’ve just told you how I encountered her, and yes, that has arbitrary elements.
How did Spencer decide to write “Before the Feast of Shushan?” Were there arbitrary choices? If you’ve followed me so far, you’d suspect there were. The subject is taken from the Hebrew scriptures, and she could have encountered it in any Bible at the start of the book of Esther. In the world and time of cultural appropriation, those ancient Semites have been borrowed from an impressively disproportionate amount, haven’t they?
Arbitrarily, as I finished the audio piece around sundown last night, it was the beginning of Purim, the Jewish holiday based on the events in Esther. For a large portion of my life I lived in what could arbitrarily have been called a Jewish household; but family and religious traditions are varied, and I never took part in celebrating Purim. From what I gather that might include elements like unto a Jewish Halloween, with costumes, food, parties, and burlesquing of evil. My wife once summed Purim up as “They wanted to kill all of us. They failed. Let’s eat!”
But Spencer took her story from the beginning of Esther, a part I’d forgotten, and shouldn’t have. The book of Esther is a woman-centered book, but before the heroine comes on stage, the first woman we meet is Vashti. Go ahead, and read Vashti’s story if you’d like, but here’s the summary. Xerxes/ Ahasuerus (the former is his Greek name) is ruler of a great world-spanning empire. He’s throwing a multi-day party to surpass all before or since. All his princes, bros and vassals are enjoying the week-long open bar at his palace in Shushan full of the absolutely top-line, first-rate stuff his power has obtained. At some point in this sausage-fest, Xerxes (rhymes with jerk-sees) figures what this party needs is for his queen to show up wearing the crown he’s bestowed on her, so everyone can see what a fox he has for a Queen, as she’s a certain 10 if the Persians had been using a decimal system back then. Some commentary even suggests that his command is to be understood for her to show up wearing only the crown.
Vashti refuses the emperor’s command. Xerxes, a stable genius type, modestly agrees to ask his advisors what to do, no doubt so that he can blame them if anything goes wrong, and they tell him that this is a huge deal. Not only has the Emperor been disobeyed—it’s like someone didn’t clap at his speech, only worse—because if this gets out, every wife will feel that she can disobey her husband.
Clearly, this won’t do. Vashti is cast off, and that arbitrary action sets in motion the rest of the story of the Book of Esther that results in the celebration of Purim.
The Bible itself offers no commentary on this. The Book of Esther is also unusual in that there is not even one mention of God in it. You are asked to decide yourself.
Anne Spencer doesn’t want us to forget Esther’s opening, and in “Before the Fest of Shushan” she writes a very Robert Browning-like monolog for Xerxes to speak. As Xerxes would no doubt like it, no one else gets a word in edgewise. Browning was one of the eminent Victorians that Spencer had read in her 19th Century dominated youth, and because it hews so closely to Browning as an influence, it’s considered one of Spencer’s first poems.
Spencer’s prequel scene (it’s “Before the Feast…”) has Xerxes in an explicitly randy mood and he’s somewhat puzzled that Vashti seems to want something more. Likely written before 1920, it shows that Anne Spencer had a clear feminist eye. At that time, if Spencer had overcome the hindrances widely used to deny Afro-Americans the right to vote, granted on paper in 1870, she still would have been prevented from voting—because, she was a woman.
Arbitrary choices—useful sometimes in art. Likewise, they might help people to create businesses or new testable scientific propositions. In art we might own up to them, examine them, play with them. Can we do the same in life?