Here’s a short piece using a poem by a person who started out her career as a poet but who spent the greater part of her life working for her country, India’s, independence: Sarojini Naidu.
Sarojini Naidu, like Edna St. Vincent Millay around the same time in the U. S., impressed people as a capable poet while still a teenager. Her talents lead to her being sent abroad to England for college, and eventually she connected with the Rhymer’s Club, the turn of the century London organization that was the last stop in the 19th Century for some of the poets who would launch the poetry of the 20th century.
Today’s piece, “The Poet to Death” was first published in England as part of Naidu’s initial collection of poetry The Golden Threshold in 1905. Fluent in several languages, the pieces in The Golden Threshold are in Naidu’s own English. Some accounts say that the young Sarojini was modest about her poetry at the time, worried that her work was less-substantial because it is lyrical and song-like, and retroactively English-language Modernism did discount that sort of poetic gift. So, while her poetic work is still remembered in her homeland, where she’s called the “Nightingale of India,” Sarojini Naidu will be a new name to most of our listeners.
During the WWI years Naidu transferred her focus from poetry to working for Indian Independence, a cause in which she became a principal, working alongside Gandhi and the other independence leaders.
Did the world loose a poet for India to gain its independence? Perhaps. I do not know enough to say. In her English poetry, I can see the influence of the earlier 19th Century English romantics, but her language is less extravagant. She can remind me at times of Christina Rossetti (listeners here will know I consider that a good thing), and “The Poet to Death” is a concise version of a trope Keats would use as well.
Today’s music employs a polyrhythmic blues. Perhaps I was subconsciously moved by the “till I am satisfied” line in Naidu’s poem to think of Muddy Waters and his “I can’t be satisfied,” though what I ended up playing has some elements of Skip James’ style. At a conscious level, I was worked on this thinking of poet Donald Hall, having read a review of his new collection of essays coming out this month, and then hearing later in the same day that he had died at age 89. In his last couple of decades, Hall has often written of what continues until it ends in the course of aging.
For some reason the version of the text I worked with did not have Naidu’s first stanza, which specifically speaks as a younger poet for death to stay his hand. In the remaining two stanzas, the age of the speaker is less determined, and so the situation is joined whether it is a young poet or old. The blossoms are always there a short time, at any age.
Back more than 200 years ago, poet, painter, engraver and mystic William Blake was reported to be conversing with angels in English trees. Last episode we had William Carlos Williams celebrating celebrity scientist Einstein in a blooming New Jersey night early in the 20th Century. Today we have Dave Moore in his backyard garden in Minnesota in our present century.
Is this poetry, song, or story-telling? It might be a little bit of all of them, but then labels are just sticky paper. Let me refrain this time from talking so much about the piece. I encourage you to just listen to the LYL Band and Dave Moore tell the story.
Metaphor, that stuff that helps make the music of thought in poetry, is the linking or liking of things. This is like that. This stands for that. The sensation of this is like the sensation of that. This reminds us of something else. The way I say this recalls the way one says that. Metaphor recombines the stuff of our world even though it’s a combination that only exists in the imagination.
Metaphor can make something clearer to an audience. It’s so useful in that way that one can barely explain anything challenging to an audience, even in the most prosaic day-to-day business world, without falling into metaphor. In poetry however, the bounds of increased clarity can be stretched, broken, and abandoned. Depending on one’s mood as a reader, this can be frustrating or a pleasing play of the mind. With the Parlando Project we perform the poems with music. One hope from this is that you can relax and let the beauty or strangeness of the words carry you over gaps in meaning. Sometimes you can enjoy a poem before you understand it.
William Carlos Williams who wrote the words in today’s piece, gives us Spring weather with Spring flowers and fruit blossoms, gardens and orchards, and all under a title that combines a famous saint with his era’s most famous scientist. He gives us almost no help in combining that title with the poem, other than yoking them together. The linkage of metaphor is much strained here, even when he further explains his title by adding a sub-title: “On the first visit of Professor Einstein to the United States in the spring of 1921.”
How are we to make the connection that will construct the metaphor?
My best understanding so far is that the connection is wonder and change. Recall our last episode, where in his “Queen Mab” Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic early-19th Century poet gave us a vision of the wonder of an immense cosmos, which Shelley’s own notes tell us he could also sense through the poetic/mathematical meter of the speed of light. The theoretical scientist and the visionary poet each seek to grasp some new metaphor of the world. Einstein was changing physics in the time that Williams and his fellow Modernists were seeking to change the apparatus of art. Williams elaborates on this theme mostly by vivid descriptions of the change of Spring. In the only mention of Einstein in the body of the poem, Einstein is “tall as a violet.” He is the Spring’s new growth.
There are a couple of obscure literary references in one section, the sort of thing T. S. Eliot or his imitators would have used. Who is “Samos, dead and buried?” I’m not sure, but my guess is that it’s Pythagoras of Samos, the famous classical Greek philosopher for whom science and the arts were one. And Lesbia? Catullus’ Roman poetic beloved, who we’ve met here in Elizabethan guise. It may be enough that they have ancient sounding names, and of such ancient classical modes, Williams, who is in some ways the Anti-T. S. Eliot, says “Sing of it no longer” as he moves right back into a present day of Spring. Pythagoras is dead, Catullus’ Lesbia is dead, and so is a black cat buried in a newly planted garden. Awhile later in the poem we may get one more connection to that cat part of this buried trio. A chicken-raising man who puts out poisoned fish-heads to keep the cats from his chickens. That man becomes like the Modernists, needing to kill the ancients to protect the new flock he’s raising.
As a side note, this poem’s chicken farmer, the white-haired negro, was quite likely the man whose rain-glistened red wheelbarrow sat next to the white chickens in William’s famous poem of admiration.
The poem closes with a sensuous image of Spring change, a night that grows warm as an orchard owner opens his windows and throws off the covers that were needed in the cold. In an earlier version of the poem, Williams had woven Einstein by name in and out of those Spring images explicitly, including this last one where Einstein was named as that man with the blossoming orchard, another grower of renewed things. In this later version, all these stated links to Einstein are removed (save for that one Einstein as a violet).
Was that a right choice? The resulting poem is shorter and more mysterious, but it also doesn’t make it easy to see what Williams is getting at. He’s using metaphor, but he’s removed all the connections. I decided to perform the later version. I think it performs slightly better, and perhaps the music makes the obscurities less taunting.
It’s not often that we think of English Romantic poets along with science. We tend to think of them as pure examples, an engraved picture of an enraptured youth subject to the throws of inspiration, to be found next to the words “poet” or “fool” in a dictionary.
Percy Bysshe Shelley is no exception to this. In my mid-20th Century American school-days he was seated with the Romantics, and biographically some mention would be made of his notoriety during his lifetime, the matter of which would be ascribed with a summary of libertine sexual behavior in the Byron and Shelley households. I suspect many of those descriptions, brief and bloodless as they might have been, were attempts to woo additional interest in poetry from otherwise little-interested adolescents.
Part of the joy of this project is finding surprising things in poetry among the accidents and intents of looking for material. At the end of last week, I read of the memorial service held for physicist Stephen Hawking at Westminster Abbey.
Vangelis is going to stream a musical piece with Hawking’s famously synthesized voice out to the galaxies! Somewhere out there, the odds say, a curious alien will detect this light-years from now; though probabilities also say they will have likely forgotten to bring earbuds along on their saucer-ride.
And there were celebrities! Elgar, Stravinsky and Holst were played! The ticket application form allowed future birthdates in case time-travelers wanted to apply to attend!
But reading on I find that astronaut Tim Peake read a bit of, what, Shelley. From “Queen Mab” some accounts said.
I find a copy of “Queen Mab.” Turns out it’s another kind of Shelley from the school-book aesthete. “Queen Mab” is a fairly long blank-verse epic, but I didn’t have to read far to find the parts you’d want to read for a cosmological tie-in. Right there in Canto II, Mab, the queen of the fairies, Uber’s up a human soul to her palace, which is more or less an atheist’s heaven, which is to say a philosophical location above the cosmos—and there, the human soul gets to observe the wonder of this perspective. Mind-blowingness ensues.
This is the kind of thing which visionary poets and scientists share, and that thing is wonder. Stacks of SciFi books would lift one nearly that high, but why couldn’t poetry, the literary artform best-suited to grasp tiny pieces of the un-graspable do this too?
Here’s something else I found remarkable, a series of notes on the issues in the poem, written by Shelly, a young man of 18 in the early 19th century. Here’s a portion of the first one:
“Light consists either of vibrations propagated through a subtle medium, or of numerous minute particles repelled in all directions from the luminous body. Its velocity greatly exceeds that of any substance with which we are acquainted: observations on the eclipses of Jupiter's satellites have demonstrated that light takes up no more than 8' 7" in passing from the sun to the earth, a distance of 95,000,000 miles.—Some idea may be gained of the immense distance of the fixed stars when it is computed that many years would elapse before light could reach this earth from the nearest of them; yet in one year light travels 5,422,400,000,000 miles, which is a distance 5,707,600 times greater than that of the sun from the earth.”
I was an English major, I had to look this up. Shelley, or early 19th century science, was off several billion miles on the length of a light-year and a couple of million miles off on earth-sun distance—hey, I knew that last measurement, though from an early-childhood advertising jingle. However, ask yourself, how likely would it be that the most facile poet in any first-year college writing class be conversant in those measurements, and how they are empirically proved?
So, thanks Stephen Hawking, Tim Peake, and whoever planned that part of the Westminster Abbey internment service. I now think of Percy Bysshe Shelly differently.
Today I step aside from our usual practice here, and present words I wrote. With opportunity, next week I should be able to return to “Other People’s Stories.”
“Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street” was written recently, and includes elements of observations I made during a bike ride to school with my son in early May. In the course of writing the poem and revising it, I modified the events of that day. This is not unusual. The events of one’s own life have a fractal branching of meaningfulness that frustrate encapsulation. It may be useful to use those endless edges as perforations to tear away from all things remembered the shape of a poem.
I tested the revision before this one with a group of poet friends, and alas, it didn’t seem to work well for them. They were slightly puzzled why the speaker in the poem didn’t ask the child to stop and smell the blossoms, but altogether bewildered by the question (or the way I presented it) when the speaker asks near the end of the poem about memory being able to remember the smell of something overlooked in one’s past. That was useful information. They also made a very specific suggestion. Originally the blossoms had been tree blossoms, and though they were extravagantly fragrant on the morning that inspired the poem, I did not know in fact what kind of tree was bearing them. No matter, they suggested, it works better if you make them a specific tree.
I read something once particularly wise regarding such honest critiques about one’s writing. It may have been from Kurt Vonnegut, or it may have been someone else, but the gist of it was that if good, honest, readers find a problem in a piece they are almost always right, even if they are often wrong about how to fix it. The suggestion to name the type of tree was simply right I thought, but how to deal with what they saw as the troublesome puzzle of memory?
What I was trying to suggest in my poem’s story was that we can indeed remember things retroactively. Things that were not noted at the time consciously, that were not filed out as if a contemporaneous diary as experienced, can still be recalled when we later find them important or precious. We do this partially from our subconscious, perhaps even from what the Transcendentalists would call the over-soul, but mostly this is augmented because our minds are great pattern makers, able to fill in gaps with all the other things we recall.
The readers who noted this as a problem were smart, perceptive people. They likely knew of this, but I still had perplexed them.
I could not remove this, for me it was the point of the poem. Sometimes, what folks most object to in a poem (or other art) is, paradoxically, why it needs to exist.
I made some slight changes in a couple of lines around that concluding question, hoping in this version to make this natural phenomenon of memory clearer, without hindering the “music of thought” as well as “music of words” that I think poetry should have. Maybe it works better now.
A couple of mornings ago, I awoke after a night’s sleep, and as I took my bicycle out to the alley to ride off for breakfast, I was surprised to see the road dusted in torn blossoms and several small tree branches cast about on the wet ground.
While I had been still and sleeping, a storm must have come up.
That contrast, the stillness and the broken change is at the heart of today’s poem by William Carlos Williams. Williams opens his poem with an allusive image. “In the flashes and black shadows of July.” Is this the lightning of a summer storm? I thought so at first. But it might be just what one sees lying on summer grass and looking up through the boughs of a tree. The whims of a breeze or the caprices of squirrels and birds on the thin branches will flutter the leaves’ fan of shade revealing the sun in a flash.
Yet, summer “seems still.” The animals of summer appear “at ease.” But what if there is danger in the world, as in the unmet character in the poem’s title, the hunter?
In Williams’ poem, the hunter does not appear, ready to shoot the game. The hunter is invisible, as the hunter is time, the hunter is change.
For today’s music I combined an orchestral ensemble and electric guitar with an appearance of a harpsichord.
The words here are quoted from an interview artist and performer Laurie Anderson gave a few years ago in which she talks about what she derived from looking at the expansive Midwestern sky of her youth.
It's been one of the most popular audio pieces for the Parlando Project over the past year, particularly for the listeners who access our combinations of various words and original music on Spotify's podcast section.
If you find this interesting, there are now well over 200 audio pieces exploring this sort of thing available on my blog at frankhudson.org
“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold…” This, written by Byron, is one of the catchiest first lines in a 19th Century filled with catchy lines. It’s so good that I remember reading it in high school many, many years ago—and so good, that I recalled nearly nothing else of the poem, not even its title.
I, like many others since, have informally used that image of a mighty force, that wolfpack, totally overwhelming a weaker force, cast as a fold of sheep. So, even though I did not remember the poem, when I read it again this month I thought that was what the poem described. In that first re-reading I had trouble following the poems plot entirely, though the poem’s rhythm, rhyme scheme, and irresistible forward motion carried me through it with some appreciation. “OK, big bad Assyrians are going to sweep all before them, destroying everything in their path, including, I guess, that ‘Sennacherib’— must be the name of a city.” The poem’s flow moves relentlessly forward, like those Assyrian horse-drawn chariots I think; and there’s death and its all-quiet-afterward corpses—but no real battle, however one-sided, that the famous first line leads us to expect. Did Byron leave something out? And what’s exactly with that last stanza?
Turns out, I was misreading the poem. It’s also been a long time since I’ve read the Second book of Kings in the Bible, where Byron borrowed his story. Sennacherib isn’t a city, he’s the king of the Assyrians. In the Bible story, the Israelite king, about to be swept away like his kingdom by Sennacherib’s Assyrian army prays for God to intervene to save the kingdom, and God RSVPs with supernatural force, wiping out that supposedly unstoppable horde in the famous first line.
Once I realized that, I could properly appreciate Byron’s middle section, with it’s spooky Angel of Death sensuously breathing in the faces of the Assyrian army as it flies past, faster than any charioteer. And the gloriously grisly image of the dead warhorse whose spume from its last furious race to escape is still stretched between its stilled nostrils and the dirt it now lays in.
Yes, Byron races through this story because the mysterious “glance” of God defeating the Assyrian army might be diminished in a mortal’s attempt to describe it, and when Byron jumps to the aftermath, he keeps moving fast, but each detail he chooses to notice tells.
So, unexpectedly to me, this wasn’t a story about how the smart money bets, how the unstoppable force is, as we’d better well realize, unstoppable.
Besides my initial misunderstanding, I found the poem has another problem in modern performance. Its poetic meter is anapestic, two unaccented beats followed by the strong beat. This is a jaunty rhythm, which whether for natural reasons or from association, sounds to me either like “A Visit from St. Nicolas” or Dr. Seuss—and neither assists with the mood of this poem! So, I attempted to break up the metrical feet, and read “against” the meter a bit, while keeping the momentum going.
Today’s piece, like my recent setting of Margaret Widdemer’s “When I Was A Young Girl” reframes a folk song from the British Isles. Widdemer took a song traditionally about a life cut down by youthful excess and reformed it into a poem about finding love outside the realm of adventurous, romantic fantasy. However, today’s words are from Elinor Wylie, whose poetry retains its allegiance to romantic excess, even if it’s frank about the cost of that.
“Fire and Sleet and Candlelight” takes its title from a transcription of an old English song, collected in the 17th Century, but likely much older: the “Lyke Wake Dirge.” The “Lyke Wake Dirge” is a striking song, even though its antique dialect is nearly as hard to understand today as “Summer Is Icumen In.” As this blog post recalls, you’d be hard pressed to make out the lyrics to Lyke Wake in present-day English from hearing it, but the simple yet stately melody grabs you anyway. That is an illustration of a Parlando Project idea: the presence of music allows one to defer decoding a text’s meaning, to appreciate something before you understand it. The line Wylie extracted for her title, in fact, is likely a common misunderstanding of the line in the old song. “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight” makes an easily available winter image, and so that’s what some heard. Scholars are now of the opinion that the middle item is actually “fleet,” not sleet; fleet being an old word meaning floor, and by extension, standing for home. The line’s word-music is beautiful with either word in it, and Wylie was very good at word-music.
To summarize Lyke Wake, the old song, once you’ve died your soul will be tested on an arduous journey, which will be made easier if you’ve lived a life of charity. In the long-standing Christian debate between salvation from faith or works, Lyke Wake favors the works side. The soul’s journey may still be strange and testing, but charitable goodness in life is rewarded as a way through.
This is not the poem that Wylie writes however. There’s a soul on a journey in her poem, yes, but salvation is nowhere achieved or even promised. Lyke Wake is foreboding, but it may only recount two or three tests on the soul’s journey, and the refrain reminds us every verse the possibility that “Christe receive thy saule.” Christina Rossetti wrote a jauntier, more modern version of Lyke Wake with her “Up-Hill,” to give one example of how this could have been restated in modern English.
Wylie’s poem instead piles on the soul-struggles until you lose track of the number depicted. Nearly every pair of lines is a fresh torment or test, some of pain, some of discouragement.
Wylie’s images for the soul’s tests are in general straightforward, nothing too esoteric. The only one that caused me pause was “trysted swords.” Tryst derives from a Middle English word for agreed hunting place. Imagery-wise I was reminded of the Tarot deck’s three of swords. What would be hunted, and injured, would be one’s heart here, and trysted puns to twisted, as in the intertwined piercing blades of the three of swords.
So, Elinor Wylie’s “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight,” presents a more arduous and unrewarded journey than even the spooky “Lyke Wake Dirge.” As a 20th Century poet steeped in the Romanticism of Shelley, Byron and Keats, Wylie would hold that suffering is not to be avoided if it’s a cost for a passionate rush toward truth and beauty. I said at the start, Wylie was honest about the cost of such a journey—and in words she is—but in putting it into such singing word-music she makes the sufferings easier to bear while her music undercuts the real pain and danger.