Earlier this month I mused a bit about renowned poets’ “batting averages” when I use their words here, that the hall-of-famers and MVPs don’t always get the most likes and listens, that many of our most popular pieces use words from poets that are much lesser known. Of course, those levels of response may be secondary to the music Dave and I supply and our performances having their own range of attractiveness, or it could be that the subject matter of the popular lesser-known poems resonates in some way with audiences.
Perhaps it’s just random fate at play, but poet and artist William Blake never attracts much of an audience here, though he remains dear to my heart for his stubborn individual persistence and production. Blake is an 18th Century writer who looked backwards to Milton and Dante as much as he predicted the early 19th Century romantics. In America, he’s loved by some outsider poets such as Allen Ginsberg* and Patti Smith, but in England he may be encountered as the lyricist of a national anthem “Jerusalem.” Compared to our founders of American Modernist verse, he can be in his “prophetic books” more long-winded than Whitman—and yet also as seaming simple and elusive as Emily Dickinson in his short lyrical poems. If you hear Blake as hard to value or difficult to appreciate quickly, you are likely hearing him right.
Take the piece that the LYL Band performs today, “A Poison Tree.” It’s Dickinson-short, and like some Dickinson, if you give it only cursory attention, it seems like a simple moral tale. It certainly starts off like one. To paraphrase, I was mad at my friend, but we were open about it, and it all blew over; but with my enemy, I kept my anger a secret from him and it didn’t go away. This poem was even once published under an (ironic) title “Christian Forgiveness,” and that may be what you expect to hear extoled. After its few moments this poem ends, it goes away, and that could be what you think you heard. But it’s stranger than that—unedited fairy-tale strange.
By the third verse the poet/speakers’ hidden, festering anger, has produced an apple, an Adam and Eve apple, a Snow White apple. Sure, magical realism, expected poetic imagery this. How’s the plot going to go on from here? Will he wicked-witch-trick the foe into eating the apple? Will he somehow reconsider his anger and resolve it? Will he somehow eat the apple himself by some misapprehension? Will he patent the apple’s genetic design and make so much money that the foe will be forever jealous?
Two lines into the third verse, it goes somewhere else than any of those easily comprehendible endings. The enemy sees that apple, that property of our poet/speaker. He wants it! He breaks into the speaker’s garden and steals it undercover of the night. Thus, the poison apple kills the foe. And the poems speaker sees this and is “glad.” Roll the credits, and anyone who’s been paying attention should walk out puzzled.
What the fruit!
Could Blake be saying that hidden anger is dangerous material, you need to be careful with it, as stuff could happen? Or is it a more elaborate allegory? Is Blake saying that our enemies will covet our anger, even if we think we are keeping it hidden, and the foe, seeking to seize this anger (perhaps it’s righteous or powerful) will kill themselves? Or, in the context of Blake’s overriding mythos—where the righteous, authoritarian deity, similar to the Old Testament Jehovah, is not simply good, and must be opposed—is Blake demonstrating that our festering anger will turn us into a trickster god who will allow the fall of man from Eden? Or is this a simpler anecdote about passive-aggressive sins, where the story is: well I was mad at him and he was my enemy after all, so why warn him off from my poison apple, he had it coming?
To those attracted to it, “A Poison Tree’s” power derives from this mystery couched so simply. But if it only confounds you, that’s OK too. The Parlando Project tries to vary things—not to confound you, but because we’re attracted to a diversity of ways this can work or fail.
*Allen Ginsberg sang Blake poems regularly, once issuing an LP of his performances with an eclectic group of accompanying musicians and performing them live. His unguarded and guileless performances of Blake were one influence for what I do here.
Remember back a few episodes when the Parlando Project performed a question posed by poet Vijay Seshadri? He asked what poetry, or any art, can say about children in cages. There are many answers to that for poets. One obvious one: to say in your work that it is wrong and that you oppose it. One can argue that shouldn’t be avoided. Even if denunciation is simple and obvious, it could still be appropriate. Others will find simple denunciation worse than not sufficient, that it may only be signaling your self-removal from it.
Some will say, poetry or art is beside the point in such cases, to the barricades! or the voting booth! The former is easier to say than a poem, though harder to do successfully—so hard, that the consequences of power, due should the revolution succeed, can most always be avoided. The later seems so prosaic and lacking in artistic verve and purity that we shrug it off as too easy or uninspiring.
Seshadri ends up suggesting that poetry and art can express reality and some moral order vibrating in the universe in a compelling way, that this is the sharp edge of its weapon or scalpel. A good point. That’s what art does, it’s a way to transfer experience, including the experience of this. But his question about dealing with great and obvious evils in a poem is still difficult to answer successfully. It’s easier to write a successful poem, a small sound-machine made out of words, against menial human faults: ignorance, self-importance, narrow thinking, the ordinary follies.
Perhaps it’s those small faults, ones we all share, that accumulate, and lead to great evil.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that once hugely popular and now deeply unfashionable poet, seems to have tried but once to use his poetry to address great evil: a pamphlet of poems addressing slavery. His effort was not long-remembered, and it has not saved him from his fate to be cast off as a poet of undistinguished, conventional and sentimental verse, the very sort of thing that the Modernist movement needed to supersede.
I’ve already performed one of those Longfellow poems on slavery: “The Witnesses.” I could have performed “The Quadroon Girl” instead, but I didn’t think I could. This is a level of evil so deep, compounding even the evil of slavery, that it is, paradoxically, a sort of sacred space. I didn’t think I was ready or worthy to go there.
I’m not going to further explicate “The Quadroon Girl” here. Despite the shakiness of my singing, it’s better to listen to it, to follow the story as it unfolds. I’ve performed it exactly twice, and I don’t know if I could perform it again.
As long-time listeners will know, the Parlando Project likes to vary what it does. Loud, immediate and approximate rock’n’roll, string quartets, folkie and electronica tinges combine with words that I look around for—different stories each time, most of them not mine.
Are we now going to vary from Bronze Age Chinese poetry collected to instruct politicians? Or from the W.H. Auden-who-can-bring-the-funk remarks of Jimi Hendrix’s ET visiting the Third Stone from the Sun and marveling at the chickens?
Well, maybe a little.
And so, we’re going to descend into parody today. Mad magazine imprinted me on parody while young, and Weird Al Yankovic never did a thing to cure me, and here I am an old man who still can’t help making up travesty-lyrics to songs he hears, which distresses my son who likes to sing Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” with his sincerely growing voice, while my questionable tenor tries to make that into a dissertation on salad vs. main-course silverware: “Fork with the Longest Tine.”
To the possible detriment of today’s piece, I didn’t choose anything as well known as one of Joel’s hits. In tryouts, just one of the folks I’ve sung today’s piece to even recalls the original song it references: Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.” That may say something of the fragmentary fame of Leonard Cohen in the United States. Back in the Sixties, a couple of his songs “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire” were fairly well known from cover versions, and his 21st Century song “Hallelujah” became even more well-known after being sung by John Cale, Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright—but “Famous Blue Raincoat” despite dozens of covers, just hasn’t penetrated the U.S. mind. There may be reasons for that. It doesn’t have a hooky chorus, even Leonard Cohen himself thought the lyrics were confusing, and to the degree it has an accessible plot it’s about a complicated love relationship far from the common I love her/him, or her/him has left me and I’m so sad or angry about that. My favorite part of the song was its uncommon ending, where it’s revealed to be a letter of sorts, signed with solemn irony “Sincerely, L. Cohen.”
And that was the hook for today’s parody. I thought of another Cohen living in New York City, who is a principal in another romantic entanglement, whose feelings about it are multivalent, and whose sincerity is a changing thing.
Here’s one more musical piece from the anthology of ancient Chinese poetry collected by Confucius and his school and known as the Confucian Odes or The Book of Songs.
This one may be my favorite, though my performance of it dates to a time before I could find literal translations to check against the extant English ones. Perhaps even more so than our last episode, “Wild Plums,” this presents itself as an expression of lover’s desire. You might find it similar to the Bible’s Song of Songs in that regard.
When I was young and looked at commentary on the Song of Songs, I was surprised to find that some scholars believed it to be a spiritual metaphor rather than some too-hot-for-school love poetry. My take then: those scholars must be prudes.
With the Confucian Odes, remember that the Confucians thought their collection of folk-poetry was not just a piece of cultural curation, but required reading for advanced participation in society—not just for poets or humanities majors, but also for politicians and bureaucrats, a class the Chinese Empire needed a great many of. There is commentary on “Cold Is the North Wind” that says then that this song expresses a hardship or grievance experienced by some province or another, or that the lover’s desire is a metaphor for political concern. After you listen to “Cold Is the North Wind” you may think that must be willfully obtuse. “What part of the ‘I’m lonely, it’s cold in this bed alone, and I want you right here, don’t they get?” you might be thinking.
In both cases, the Song of Songs and “Cold Is the North Wind,” I’ve come to a slightly different view. Poetry, sometimes when it’s at its best, binds the image and what it’s representing in a way that doesn’t privilege one over the other. William Carlos Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow” isn’t some symbol which we need to decode as a handy emoji for the usefulness of tools in ordinary work, and “Aha! We’ve solved the poetry puzzle for today!” it’s also a freaking red wheelbarrow in a chickenyard and it’s wet with rain in a way we can feel and see if we allow that. Separated lovers are separated lovers, and their ache we can feel, but that ache specific to that need and pleasure is something we can feel again in other intensities. And that act of listening to these words (or listening to them on the page) binds us to the poem in the way the poet binds the image to the things the image is like.
There’s something there for future bureaucrats and politicians.
There was a time, also in my youth, when we thought songs might be able to do that. Someone who listened to Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Patti Smith, or other Smiths and Jones would be changed not necessarily into record store clerks or musicians but into more empathetic people whose imaginations would be wider than the immediate space around them. To what degree were we wrong? One provisional answer: “not entirely.”
If there was a modern Confucian school sitting somewhere in the English-speaking world, what would they collect to instruct future government members and business functionaries?
Is love enough in dealing with matters of translation? I want to talk a bit about some issues with this, and while it may start out sounding esoteric, stay with me, I’ll end up as immediate as anything.
Listeners know I’ve presented Chinese poetry here before. Collected classical Chinese poetry goes back to around the 10th Century BC, materials gathered from an oral tradition around 700 BC and written down by Confucius or his school, and also a later golden age in the 8th Century AD for litearary Chinese poetry. In Western terms, that’s from the time of the Bronze Age Trojan War to the time of Homer to the European Dark Ages.
If you enjoy thinking about large amounts of time, consider those dates again, that’s 1,800 years between the time of the oldest Confucian Odes (or the Book of Songs as it is sometimes called), and the time of Du Fu and Li Bai, and then over 1,200 years until now, a total of 3,000 years—enough time to get through that bookshelf of books I’ve put off reading to do this project. Or if you’re a listener and want to relate this to the oral culture of the Modern or the Bronze Ages, in that 3,000 years span you could listen to every one of the 20 million tracks on Spotify 26 times each and still have time to go for a night walk in the country while trying and failing to count the stars.
Let us contemplate the differences inherent in that much time. How different was the culture of Du Fu’s time or his anonymous predecessors who sang the Book of Songs before it was a book? I can’t even begin to compress those differences into a short post.
We sometimes speak about unchanging “human nature” when talking about such a great divide of time and place—and yet, then we turn the page (or flip to a new browser tab) and read about how technology and social changes may have significantly altered how humanity works in a decade or two. How much differently did a poet or a listener/reader evaluate, create, and experience poems then, compared to now?
Both of those conclusions could be true (essential, retained, human nature elements and change that is not slowing in velocity), each moving from opposite edges of the human experience in proportions hard to measure objectively from inside it.
Into this gap steps the translator (and in our case here, also the performer) who seeks to render the written record of these poems from a place so far away in time that great geographical distances seem minor. The task of translating a hundred-year-old poem from French to English is difficult enough—but this?
Should there be any surprise that many of these translations will seem inaccurate and differ significantly between themselves in their approximations, or that areas that would be understood by the poet or their more contemporary readers remain mysterious?
Greater scholarship and cultural knowledge than mine may help in these approximate efforts at translation and performance, but even then, one should understand the difficulties and likelihood of success. And yet I do it. I want to try to grasp this, however imperfectly, not because I am Du Fu, or his nearest like extant, but because his story is different.
I promised I’d eventually get immediate. Here’s the first level of the now: think of the occurrences in our times where a choice to use, perform, or even experience cultural expressions of our contemporaries will draw condemnation on the grounds of cultural appropriation, non-identical background tone-deafness, of just plain laughable or painful ignorance on the part of the artist (that last often two sides of the same flaw).
Some of these are very practical objections. In financial (as opposed to artistic realms) cultural appropriation impacts people’s livelihoods. Yet there’s no Du Fu or other 8th Century Chinese man to perform his work with a closer understanding today. And Du Fu himself, as a neo-Confucian, probably realized that his appropriation of Confucius’ literary appropriation of the oral tradition Book of Songs material would be different and inexact in his own way.
Even if we’re necessarily failing, creating in our errors a cultural “telephone game,*” if we do this humbly and with respect for our forebearers, ancient or contemporary, I believe it’s honorable work.
Here’s a second here and now: I mentioned I was re-reading some translations of the Confucian Odes because my wife sent me a copy of one of those poems in translation, the one I’ve reworked into today’s piece which I call “Wild Plums.” This was a gift of love I received in gratitude—even if the composer/performer-with-a-pedantic-streak part of me wanted to know who translated it, and if I could find a literal raw translation for another perspective on the work.** And here I found this, which indicates that it was not intended originally in Chinese in the way the translation presents it in English. My guess is that the translator loved the word music they found in it, and that the lure of that lead away from the original text’s meaning.
As best the literal translation can transfer an original meaning to me, the woman who speaks in it is either claiming that she has so many suitors that a successful one will need to up his game to make the cut (a Bronze Age “No Scrubs”) or it’s a portrayal of an eligible woman who is being too picky about a husband and has driven suitable mates off.
So, the poem that my wife sent me is probably not accurately translated, and yet it expresses something that was engendered in the translator by it, and by the caroms of life that bounced off my wife and to me. And that poem’s yearning, and the music of it in English has its own beauty, like the love that brought it to me.
And so that is what I adapted and performed. I’ve added some additional refrains to further emphasize the musicality of the piece.
*Also called “Chinese whispers,” unintentionally helping me make my point.
**that my wife is willing to tolerate this dreadful mix of traits is one of her charms.
National news and household events continually waylay my attention. Dejected gutters, palace intrigues throwing glances on complicated and duplicitous political alliances, and a middle-schooler with the sniffles—how can one weigh these things against this small but welcomed audience here for music combined with poetry?
And so, I found myself short of material as I got ready to record with the LYL Band this week, a problem that the domestic, the national, and the poetic world combined to answer.
My wife had sent me a poem from the Confucian Odes recently, a loving gesture gratefully received, and as beautiful as it was, I wondered about the poem and its English translation because of my work here. As the news sticks its tongue out at me with screen-edge notifications (mutterings about the Emperor and his possible private derangement issuing from the far-off capitol) I read again some of those Confucian Odes, an ancient anthology designed to instruct not just scholars or poets, but politicians and bureaucrats.
What an odd idea. I suppose distributive requirements in American colleges still require some exposure to literature for those who will eventually serve in those roles, but this anthology was considered core material in Imperial China. And the Confucian Odes are not grand works of moral or civic uplift, rather they are compressed, tiny reports of humble activities, decisions, and situations. They sometimes imply or depict correct behavior, but they don’t explicitly end with a moral. Their lesson may be, in the largest part, that the reader must study them and find the lesson in the everyday.
How different would our Emperor or his retainers be if this was their schooling?
One collection I read mixed in later classical Chinese poems with some of the Odes. It was here that once more I was pulled in by Du Fu, one of those aspiring bureaucrats who was steeped in those odes, but who lived centuries later at a time his country was in rebellion and upheaval. The Confucian ethos elevates faithful service, but who was to be served was shifting with the tide of rebellion. Reading Du Fu’s poems from the 8th Century as a small-part-citizen witnessing an empire disrupted in folly can have eerie resonances.
Late Thursday night, worried about material to record the next day, I began to translate Du Fu’s “Jade Flower Palace.”
I could not find a clean literal translation of the original ideograms for the entire poem, only for about half the lines. I was able to find three previous English translations, which I could at least triangulate for the parts I didn’t have the raw stuff for.
Looking at what I had, I noticed that Du Fu was making constant juxtapositions, comparisons of contrast. Even the opening lines had water pushing and wind sighing and reflecting. That seems conventional, even a commonplace like “oh no, the wind and rain” in an English folk ballad, but it’s followed by a jump to rodents running through a roof, so close to a translation of the English idiom “bats in the belfry.” I decided to take Du Fu as intentional here. Events may seem to push you, or you may sigh and accept them, but “Rats are running in the rafters.” The ruin is real, and for that matter, your mind may reflect that too.
What follows is part "Ozymandias" without Shelly’s political radicalism, and part ghost story. A ruined palace, once as lush as Mar-a-Lago, haunted by ghosts. I was puzzled by the “green ghost fires” referred to in this section, what with my limited knowledge of Chinese culture. Those three words are wonderous, but I still don’t know exactly what Du Fu is describing. Are there actual fires, lit as protection from ghosts (akin to the tradition of ghost lights in theaters)? Why green? Is it brightly colored moss or overgrowth in the ruins? Is Du Fu seeing luminous ghosts (instead of hearing them as he does later in the poem)? I can’t tell. Looking at some online material on Chinese ghosts, I see that this end of August/beginning of September period is sometimes celebrated as “ghost month” in China, and various things are done both to connect with or protect oneself from various spirits. Offerings, such as burning a pile of currency may be left out. I have no idea if that goes back to Du Fu’s time, but in our current world, the thought of a burning pile of greenbacks to keep one safe from long dead rich people sure seems like a vivid image. And water is running over the palace’s roadways. Just what is the sea level of Mar-a-Lago if global warming isn’t only a political question?
As you listen to “Jade Flower Palace” perhaps you’ll want to pay notice to Du Fu’s subtle use of juxtapositions. More so than the other translations I read, I sought to bring those forward in mine. Translators seem to differ on Du Fu’s final lines, and that was a part where I didn’t have a literal translation to draw from. As midnight approached, I left two alternatives for my decision of what the final line should be to follow “There are many paths away from here.” It could be “How long are any of them?” or “None of them go on forever.” In the morning I decided that I would keep both, another juxtaposition.
In the performance on Friday I used this as our band warm up, where we loosen up our old and demented fingers, a cold first take. I repeated the first two lines once more at the end both to emphasize that they should be heard as more than commonplaces, and as a reminder (to invert a proverb of mysterious origin) that history isn’t necessarily instructed by rhyme, but repeats.
I spent Saturday riding my bicycle on the Mesabi Trail and visiting Hibbing, the Minnesota Iron Range hometown where Bob Dylan grew up non-ferrous.
To the visitor, the landscape there has a strangeness. Since the late 19th Century, open pit iron mining has been the industry of the region. An open pit mine is not the kind of underground tunneling and mole-dark pick-axe work you might visualize when you hear the noun “mine.” Instead it is the removal of cubic miles of earth with explosives and huge shovels, work my wife describes as “making your own Grand Canyon.” The iron gives exposed rock and dirt a Martian red hue, and this colossal earthwork of generations of open pit mines has added extra hills, ridges, gorges, and small lakes. Though trees and brush eventually regrow and give these acts of men something of the appearance of nature, some hills retain the terraces where the trucks moved—giant Northern ziggurats or Mayan temples, now sprouted with pines—the Hanging Gardens of Bob Dylan.
Since Bob Dylan grew up here, the strangeness of this landscape may not have impressed him in his youth, but an adulthood away from there might have eventually revealed its uniqueness. It is a singular place on a Labor Day weekend where one can see the mark of daily labor sculpted in a giant tableau.
How many of us can say the same for our labors? Children are raised, daily cares are met, that meeting makes a decision, a sick person is comforted and will live another couple of decades, the number of widgets on the planet increases infinitesimally, a project that will impact things for a few years is completed. In contrast, in the land around Hibbing, Virginia, and Mountain Iron, vistas are forever altered to mark a work life.
An artist’s work, for all the literary pretentions to immortality, is at least as ephemeral as other work. The work is finished, and the earth has not changed its face. The work is read, seen, heard by its handful, and it melds at best into a memory in some part of those.
So, punch a clock or not, these are the same jobs, the same work. The poem, the performance, the painting, no less, no more, the product effort of applied human energy as any other work.
Occasionally, someone gets to be a Bob Dylan, and the vistas change. Leonard Cohen said that giving Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain. I stood next to my bike on the state’s highest bridge spanning a man-made gorge. Maybe somehow, subconsciously, that gave Bob the idea.
Today’s audio piece will not remind you of the Bard of Hibbing, as it is a fuzzy epitaph using Mellotron instead of giant earth-moving trucks to get its rocks off me. Here’s wishing all Parlando Project listeners a lanquid fall into the fluffiest snowbank.