In search of words to combine with music here, I sometimes find it necessary to translate from other languages. Poetry translation involves following strange paths.
Here’s the path I followed to present today’s piece, Jules Laforgue’s “My Poor Bagpipes.” Throughout this month I’ve been presenting parts of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as part of my celebration of April as National Poetry Month. This causes me to look more at Eliot and where he derived his sense of modern poetry from. Eliot’s own testimony says that a late 19th Century French poet, Jules Laforgue was very important to his own poetics. That’s about all I knew about Laforgue: important to Eliot.
I search and find some Laforgue poems, though only a couple in English translation. Luckily, there’s a site, laforgue.org that has put a great deal of his work online in its original French. I pick out a handful that have interesting titles or first lines and see what rough machine translations will show me.
As I looked at the rough translations I was struck by déjà vu—only in English of course. “Hey, that sounds familiar! I’ve read something like this poem.” In French it was “Poètes a Venir,” and of course it was Walt Whitman’s “Poets to Come.” It appears that Laforgue may have been among the first to translate America’s Whitman to French in 1886, while Whitman was still alive. And from his work translating Whitman, Laforgue began to write “vers libre”—free verse, himself, helping to pioneer that idea in French poetry.
I will not be translating Laforgue’s translations of Whitman back to English here. I picked his “Air de Biniou” to try, primarily because I was intrigued by the first line “No, No, my poor bagpipes.” I’m attracted to incongruity and black humor, and I kept double-checking to make sure that line’s “cornemuse” in French must mean “bagpipes.” The poem’s first verse seemed to refer to the bagpipes’ famously raw timbre and pitch issues: “everything is a mistake, everything turns out bad” claims Laforgue’s first stanza.
Inserting gratuitous bagpipe joke:
Why do bagpipers walk while they play?
To get away from the sound.
As I worked on it, I had trouble with several words, two or three of which I’m still unsure I’ve translated correctly. This may be a general issue for anyone translating Laforgue, as he liked to play with language and meanings, sometimes using unusual words. But I soon had a more serious issue, after dealing with “occit” in the second stanza. A poet’s images are not his literal manifesto, and irony was part of Laforgue’s stance. In this second stanza he says Nature is a wife the artist will kill. I get his point: the artist thinks they can better the mundaness of nature and create something new and above it. And it’s nature—an inanimate concept, not a person. Yet and all, it’s still a too-casual image of a too-serious and widespread problem, domestic violence, for me to be happy with it. Looks like this is a general issue with Laforgue too. He consistently used images of women, sex and relations with women as a repository for his issues with our biologic nature. In a word: misogyny.
Clearly he’s not alone in this. It could be one of the things Eliot picked up from him too. Like Eliot, he’s not stinting on masculine failures, but this can reveal an attitude that men fail because of their souls and women fail because of their gender. I’ll say that I tried to mitigate that stanza by dealing with another problematic word in it: “carambole.” It’s a word usually used for a particular fruit, but it’s also a bumper pool game, and something like that later meaning I think was what Laforgue intended. I was going to use something like rebound or carom in my translation, but at the time I performed it, I went with a more archaic meaning of the word where it may refer to cannons. At least that put the poet and Nature in a running battle.
We have little space left to wander more in the twisted paths you find when translating. I think it can be tremendously helpful for poetry composition, because it puts you, hand in hand with another poet, trying to find the right word with the right sound and connotations.
But one last thing, those surreal bagpipes in this French poem. Laforgue’s family was from Breton France. Bretons are a Celtic culture, and yes, they have bagpipes.
Here’s a poem by Sara Teasdale, an American poet of the first part of the 20th Century. I was actually planning to drop another piece using words by Teasdale today as part of my April National Poetry Month celebration, but I changed my plans and quickly worked up this one when I found out belatedly that Tom Rapp, songwriter and founder of the “transcendent folk” band Pearls Before Swine had died.
Rapp loved this poem, and set it to his own music in the 1960s. It was performed on Pearls Before Swine’s first album on ESP-Disk when he was still a teenager, and he later performed it along with his setting of of Shakespeare’s “Full Fathom Five” on another LP in the Seventies. I’ve always loved his version, and Rapp’s work in general, to this is a tribute to him. I didn’t use his music for my version today nor did I sing Teasdale’s words, as he did beautifully. His version is of course better, but I wanted to do this today anyway.
While performing and posting about T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” bit by bit this month, have I mentioned enough how artistically revolutionary it was? For today’s section let me talk first about form and then about subject, where I’ll share a little-known episode in Eliot’s life that may have contributed.
I call today’s part of “The Waste Land” “Goodnight Ladies.” Formally, even today, nearly a century later, a section of a major poem written like this would be provocative. First off, it’s not “poetic” in its language. While there’s a minimal irregular structure from the interjected closing time refrain from the bartender in it, there’s no striking images, meter, rhyme, melodic flow, and certainly no “poetic diction” in it. It’s part in the musical structure of this very musical poem is to present a section with no music in its words. While politically and culturally apart from the Dadaists working at the same time outside of England, Eliot’s structure for “The Waste Land” is to throw in jarring and unannounced cuts in voice and setting. Even sophisticated, educated readers cannot agree how many voices and scenes are present in the “A Game of Chess,” which this passage concludes. I made it three pieces, three scenes, others think differently. Eliot has already used plenty of high culture references in the “A Game of Chess” section of “The Waste Land” before today’s part: Shakespeare, Ovid, and obscure Jacobean playwright Middleton—but he’s also thrown-in a pop song parody. Now he concludes “A Game of Chess” with a bit of working-class pub dialog absent of any literary allusions (until the very end).
The speaker, an unreliable narrator, as well as her subject are working-class women. There is no sentimentality. This isn’t a “salt of the earth” bit of condescending or ennobling praise. The speaker is unkind and perhaps duplicitous (the implication is that she will, or has, put a move on the subject’s husband), and her subject, Lil, is a woman described uncharitably as looking “antique” at age 31, after multiple difficult pregnancies and an induced abortion.
The monolog, if not poetry, feels authentic. The depiction of class and sexual politics, is sharp and unstinting. A poet like Carl Sandburg, the radical and newspaperman, could have heard such dialog—but where the hell did T. S. Eliot, upper middle class raised, prep-schooled, Sorbonne and Harvard (legacy) educated, international banking officer, and furthermore, a man with a reputation as stand-offish and diffident toward women—even those of his class and cultural background—get informed enough to write this passage?
I couldn’t let that question go without some research, and I think I found an answer. It’s one of those “this would make a great movie” moments in literary biography. I knew Eliot had taken a crack at teaching school at a boys-only school in Highgate. That’s the start of the story, he taught French, Latin, math, history, drawing, beside duties coaching baseball (!) and swimming. One of his students: a 9-year-old John Betjeman.
Schoolteachers will know what kind of workload that entails. The bank officer job that followed was a relief to Eliot.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Through some connections, he was introduced to the Workers Educational Association. They were organizing college-level night school classes in Southall. Eliot applied to teach Modern English Literature there, and he continued to do this from 1916 through 1919. Since WWI was on, with many men overseas, the classes were ¾ women.
The weekly classes were a lecture followed by an hour of discussion. Regular papers and reading were required of the students.
What was the experience like for Eliot and his working-class students? Surprisingly rewarding for Eliot, and (as far as we know) for the students. In letters home to America, Eliot praised the minds of his best students, singling out several women. In an account he provided for the Association’s 50th Anniversary in 1959, he could still recall one in particular: “There was one poor young woman who was one of my best students, but was an elementary schoolmistress with a very large class of little children in the daytime and…died, I am sorry to say, of overwork.”
Was Eliot being polite in both his contemporary letters and his later remembrance letter to the Association? Perhaps he did gloss over, or was unaware of, the difficulties one could imagine between himself and his students—but he did this for three years, as a second job that was presumably not his main source of income, and each year, he asked to do one more. Each year, he developed a new syllabus covering additional authors for his literature night-students, some of whom stayed with him for his entire run.
Was that worn-out school-teacher, or some other night-school student, a model for Lil in today’s portion of “The Waste Land?” It seems possible. After reading this, my thoughts went to those students, hungry to learn and experience more about literature in the London night speculating of Zeppelin raids. How I wish we had accounts from the students as well! In “The Waste Land,” Eliot wasn’t going to give us anything he learned about their joys, or any compensations they found for the travails of their lives, anymore than he gives anyone that. We’re left, in today’s piece, with this “mean girl’s” account of Lil, unsparing in scorn, revealing Lil’s burdens as more of the weight of the timeless waste land of post-WWI Europe. Eliot doesn’t even give her story, told so meagerly, any ennobling literary references, nor any poetry, does he? Just a story in a bar.
Wait. Her name’s Lil. Lillith? Possible, but I think not. How did this poem begin? “April…breeding lilacs out of the dead land.” And the last line, the one I use for the title of this performance? It’s no longer the recounter of Lil’s life speaking (she who says it “goonight” not “good night”). The voice has shifted again, without warning in this unpredictable poem. It’s the voice of Ophelia exiting to her death by water in Hamlet.
The reader in this performance is Heidi Randen.
It may be U. S. National Poetry Month, but one can’t deny the impact that English poets have had on poetry, particularly before the Modernists launched with significant American participation.
Modernism, as practiced by those early 20th Century Imagists sought to cleanse poetry of the rust and rot of “poetic language” and rote abstract metaphors. Strong, exact words, no more complex or numerous than necessary were to describe things that were actual things, not merely decorative analogies to describe something else. By the 1920s, that American import, T. S. Eliot, became the standard of one large stream of Modernism. Although inspired by this fresh use of language, the Eliot wing of Modernism sought to rid poetry of “romanticism,” defined as a relentlessly subjective expression of personal experience unshaped by a greater historical and cultural understanding. Poetic language might be refreshed, but the cult of the great poem returned, and said that poetry is best to be in service of great themes and elaborate—rather than elegant—structures of thought.
Early Imagist/Modernist poems were about moments. The High Modernism of Eliot allowed it to be about eras. Imagists prized images of things formerly ignored or costumed only in the rhetorical finery in 19th Century poetry. High Modernism still allowed the mundane to stand for sublime thoughts, but it often sought to display a level of knowledge and literary scholarship along with the everyday in its choice of images.
This is why it’s important to look at the early part of artistic movements. Often their best ideas become mutated as the movements develop. Their revolutions become the new orthodoxy.
Today’s piece, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (Daffodils)” is by English poet William Wordsworth, one of the founders of Romanticism. It’s a poem that can be attached to an exact (April, Poetry Month) date: April 15th, 1802, and to a walk that Wordsworth and his sister took in rural England. But that’s not how the poem was written. Wordsworth wrote it a couple of years later. He referred to his sister’s detailed journal entry about the April walk to refresh his particulars. His wife supplied two critical lines for the final stanza. This was not a spontaneous outburst of subjective personal feeling at all.
When I performed the version you’ll hear below, I made one significant change and one minor one. The minor change? I dropped the adjective golden from his line “A host, of golden daffodils.” I suspect I did this by accident as I performed it. Not to dis Wordsworth (and by the way, Billy, what’s with that obvious pen name “Words-worth” for your poetry gig?) but I think I improved the line when I sung it as “A host, a host of daffodils.” First off, daffodils are a common flower, and they are in the wild always yellow. Strict Imagists would say the golden adjective is therefore unnecessary—and it is, well, a gilding of the lily. I can’t recall my reason for the major change, dropping the next to last stanza—I may have desired to shorten the piece for performance—but it is the weakest stanza in the poem.
The resulting “Daffodils” I perform wouldn’t have been far from what F. S. Flint or Richard Aldington would have written a century or more later as pioneering Modernists. After all, Wordsworth said that he was trying to cleanse English poetry from special, high-flown, poetic diction too, to return it to “as far as is possible, a selection of the language really spoken by men.”
I do retain something else Wordsworth does here, something I don’t recall the Imagists doing much. “Daffodils” is presented in a framing device, while the Imagists were all about the presentation of immediacy. Wordsworth doesn’t say merely that looking at all these wildflowers, the temporary exultation of spring, was transfixing—and he says that less with that next-to-last stanza removed. This is not a poem only about letting us see them in their wild, external multitude through his eye on an April walk in nature.
No, the poem starts, deliberately, in past tense. “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” And the poem closes even more removed. The speaker of the poem is not the energetic nature-walker strolling in Spring. In the actual, unknown, later time of the poem, they’re lying on a daybed, vacant or pensive. These daffodils are now only obtainable by the “inward eye” of recollection.
Setting something in the past can be seen as a tactic of sentimentality, something the Modernists distained, but what we have here is worth that risk. How so?
I thought it a delightful little nature poem when I read it as a teenager. Then I read it decades later, as my Eagle Scout father, the angler long accustomed to waiting perpendicular on the flat surface of lakes, the man who had bicycled across his rural state many times—while he was further and further confined to lying flat in rooms with the erasing of days. In that later time, noting the wild daffodils bliss is told to us in memory, I reversed Wordsworth’s famous dictum on the origin of poetry. In my reading, in that time, it became a poem, a song, of tranquility recollected in emotion.
Continuing in our #NPM2018 celebrating serialization of “The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot, it’s come time to perform the next section of the poem, which I call “Rats Alley.”
It just happens that this week I got a copy of Martin Rowson’s “The Wasteland” a 1990 comic-book riff on Eliot’s poem as if written by hardboiled-detective fiction writer Raymond Chandler and filmed like “The Big Sleep” or “The Maltese Falcon.” Rowson notes that in “The Long Goodbye” Chandler referenced Eliot’s “Prufrock” with a character quoting “In the rooms the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo” and having the character ask his detective Marlowe “Does that suggest anything to you sir?”
Marlowe replies, “Yeah—it suggests that the guy didn’t know very much about women.”
Though that's clever repartee, charges that Eliot was naïve about women or even misogynistic can be difficult to disentangle from his general misanthropy. A female Chandler character may be given more apparent agency than the women in Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” but both the male and female voices of “The Waste Land” are frankly damaged and the minor male characters, wraiths and zombies.
In any case, Rowson’s comic-book/graphic novel is a lot of fun for fans of Film Noir and Chandler, or Eliot and Modernist lit. His drawings have more in-jokes than a season of “The Simpsons” watched with a finger on the pause button. And from his notes Rowson supplies in my edition on dealing with Faber and Faber and the Eliot estate, it could have been even funnier if any of them had allowed the comedic-take to use any of the lines from the poem. I laughed often reading the Rowson, but never so much as when he recounts being refused the rights to use the ancient Greek and Latin quotes Eliot dropped into his poem, because Eliot’s rights now include them as part of a unique compilation. That may well be legally sound, but it’s also howlingly funny. Eliot as he wrote his “Waste Land” was clearly borrowing widely from other authors’ work, because he thought it would show us something new when he put them in another context—the same thing that Rowson’s book sought to do.
Which is also what we try to do here as part of the Parlando Project, show you familiar and unfamiliar words in the context of different music and performance styles.
“Rats Alley” is a dialog, and the two speakers are clearly broken vessels. The woman dissatisfied, depressed, afraid, maybe even unstable. The man, numbed, haunted, unable to express even the short expressions of discontent the woman speaks. When he (once in the poem, three-times in my performance) breaks into the cryptic “We are in Rats Alley, where the dead men lost their bones” I decided to alter the voice, to make it a third voice. She’s asking him to speak, to tell her what’s going on, but she doesn’t seem to have heard him say anything, other than a litany, literally, of “nothing.” And so, I’m portraying the “Rats Alley” line as his inner torment, his monster, that is heard loudly, but only in his head.
“Rats Alley” sounds like yet another reference to some dark Jacobean revenge play, samples from which Eliot has already peppered his poem with. If it is, no one has found that work. Some speculate it sounds like the darkly humored street-signs WWI trench-soldiers hung on their subsurface battle lines. If so, then the last voice, the fourth voice of the piece, an imaginary, comic ear-worm song Eliot has made up, “That Shakespearean Rag,” could also be an internal voice. It’s sometimes been considered to reference Irving Berlin and Ted Snyder’s “That Mysterious Rag,” a giant pre-WWI hit with lyrics that say “Did you hear it? Were you near it? If you weren’t then you’ve yet to fear it.” In the hit parade context, the lyrics turn out to be just bragging that this rag is a killer hook “because you never will forget it.” Eliot substitutes Shakespeare in his parody, but is this male voice a soldier, haunted by the trenches and dead comrades to whom old tunes now take on a new context, a sinister edge? It’s a bit of a stretch, but could Eliot have planned to use “That Mysterious Rag’s” mock-dangerous lyrics as a counterpoint to his scene—wouldn’t that have been a powerful sample!—but was enjoined by copyright issues?
We had a real Minnesota whip-saw this week, the aftermath of a 15-inch snowstorm as the week began and a day in the 50s as it ends.
Much digging out of cars, and wheels doing the whistle-spin on the ice beneath for three days. It’s been a long winter, but “Sometimes It Snows in April” as Prince once sang.
Today, when it reached the lower 50s, people were out in shorts and T-shirts, with snow still covering yards, with the low rubble of white ruined walls still on the streets where cars had once been imprisoned. This is how Minnesotan’s celebrate unbelievable spring.
Now this Saturday brings the anniversary of Prince’s death, which was as unbelievable as Spring. I was looking for another poem to combine with music, and I reminded myself I hadn’t done an Emily Dickinson poem yet this April, and there can be no full celebration of U. S. National Poetry Month without Dickinson. As I looked, I came upon this poem, and it seemed right.
“Dear March” has one of Dickinson’s bold apostrophes, but instead of death or some other imponderable, it’s Spring that gets to be portrayed as the caller, one who gets treated with old-school manners. There’s delightful wit in this: the Spring winds portrayed as being out of breath, it must have walked the long way to get here! “I got your letter, and the birds.” But being Dickinson, she must add her slant. Just past halfway she bemoans the colorless landscape of winter that she’s been left with, as if it would be her job to color it in: “There was no purple suitable/you took it all with you.”
And I think again of Prince. I think this is the poem to do.
The poem continues, and we can now understand that the wit has an undercurrent. Someone else is knocking. It’s April, more visitors—or are they both suitors? “I will not be pursued!” Dickinson is now ambivalent to more Spring, to more young man’s fancies. She’s not answering the door “He stayed away a year”—well so did March. And so, the poem ends in ambivalence. She should doubt the constancy of these Spring suitors even with the flirting, the flattery and the gifts they bring, but then there’s joy in blaming them for their absence now that they have returned.
I don’t want to stretch things too far here, but there are a couple of similarities in Dickinson and Prince. Both known for wearing one color (white and purple). Both enigmatic to the public (“The Myth” and “The Glyph”) and increasingly reclusive. And both were capable of being artistically and prolifically self-sufficient, though this is not as rare for poets as it is for musicians and songwriters who could (as Prince did) write and record all the parts. In the end, they are both American originals, not copies of anyone before or since.
“Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule.” This famous line from T. S. Eliot’s modernist epic “The Waste Land”—oops! I’ve become confused here. As part of our celebration of National Poetry Month this April, I’ve been performing “The Waste Land” and dropping the mixtape here as I complete a section. We’ve completed the first part “The Burial of the Dead,” and this week I moved on to the start of the second section.
That section, sub-titled “A Game of Chess” opens with an elaborate descriptive passage with lines quoted from older literature, with paraphrases and references of stories dating back to Classical Greek. It’s opening lines are cribbed from Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra. The section’s sub-title itself is taken from an allegorical play first performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.
Throughout “The Waste Land” Eliot does this. He’s sampling. He thinks these bits will add flavor, perhaps even to those that aren’t as well-read and as he was in 16th and 17th Century literature. But this is also part of one of his tactics in his poem, to portray the specific malaise and suffering throughout Europe after the First World War and his own personal depression and chaotic marriage as something adrift in time, an infinity echoing inside the museum of Western Culture.
In this opening section he’s describing a woman in an over-decorated room full of upper-class bling and old-fashioned mannerist art that makes only sentimental reference to searing tales. As he describes this his syntax is convoluted, his sentences run-on, his poetic line breaks disassociating. And all this is in service of a segment when nothing, absolutely and intendedly nothing, happens.
As I re-encountered this section I had that flash of metaphor that I love. Metaphor is the powerful fusion that occurs when two things unite into one expression. Eliot’s room may be decorated differently, but the room seemed familiar, the language usage brought forth déjà vu, the air in the radiator pipes rumbled, the heat pipes just coughed.
How much did T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”, or this section of “The Waste Land” enter into Bob Dylan’s toolbox? The two poets share some common influences from French poetry. Both love to mix highbrow and lowbrow references. Both quote and paraphrase other writers, though in Eliot this is usually considered scholarly, and with Dylan it’s too often taken as evidence of plagiarism. Sometimes Dylan is just Eliot without footnotes.
All I have to go on is a passing reference to reading and finding some value in Eliot in Dylan’s memoir “Chronicles,” and the line in Dylan’s own waste land epic “Desolation Row” where “The Waste Land’s” editor and dedicatee Ezra Pound and Eliot are fighting in the (ivory?) captain’s tower. That’s plainly thin evidence. The flash of metaphor don’t care, these two moments of decorated stasis feel similar enough to inform this performance.
I got part way into this recording of the first part of the second part of “The Waste Land” as illuminated by Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” before I decided I’d go with more than memory and listen to the canonical recording from the “Blonde on Blonde” record. I’ll have to say that my memory-track of “Visions of Johanna” is mostly a mashup of the various live versions performed with solo with acoustic guitar and harmonica in 1966, where Dylan’s “you’ll like it, or you won’t” singing makes every word tell. An electric band version of the song proved exceedingly difficult to get in the can that same year, perhaps because a Rock’n’Roll song about stasis is a hard thing to make. On reencountering the “Blonde on Blonde” version, I took some inspiration from it: the organ player who gets lost partway in, the importance given to the bass part, and the drums that follow the ebb and flow of the singing. I vowed to make no effort to add the annoying high string staccato guitar stab that is present throughout almost the entire LP track.
This is the sort of thing we do here, even on months that aren’t National Poetry Month, bringing music to poetry and illuminating poetry with music, reencountering familiar poems to see something new in them, finding lesser known poems and presenting them. Here’s what I ask you to do to support this effort: tell others.
Today’s piece uses words by Robert Hayden, who was a 20th Century American poet who often wrote about that essential American subject, Afro-American history. He was born just before WWI, and was writing poetry both before and after WWII, during the rise of the New Criticism, which held that the poem exists as a thing created as a conscious work by an author but is best judged irrespective of who that author is.
To the degree that this theory was actually practiced, it solves a number of problems. One of them are the issues of discrimination, old-boy networks, and literary log-rolling where who you know or where you are in the social and academic order pre-emptively decree the worth of writing. It helps deal with thorny problems, like having poetic Modernism’s great progenitor Ezra Pound becoming a Fascist propagandist during wartime. If it was still in vogue, it might assist in considering issues around artists in our time who’ve committed heinous acts or supported political opinions we judge to be beyond the pale.
One of my favorite sayings is: In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there is. Historically, the New Criticism as a critical movement didn’t consistently break down cultural barriers, though things like the post WWII GI Bill certainly did. Extra-academic movements like the Beats and their successors, and the Black Arts Movement did so as well. Great cultural shifts such as the civil rights movement have literary impact. In the end, the New Criticism seemed to restrict itself to giving students and academics a framework to discuss literature without the need to refer to the problems in their authors lives.
Perhaps too, it’s just easier to judge works based on friendship, affinity groups, or cultural and political stances. Even for an artist, how much can we live in an prospective artistic world separated from the daily, inescapable effects of the political and economic world?
But let’s not be too unfair to the New Critics. They cared about the work as it exists, treating art not as inessential decoration for something else. They offered open structures, criteria that were open to any to master. When Robert Hayden, born in the crowded Detroit ghetto swelling with southern migrants looking for industrial work, mastered those structures, he (eventually) earned a place in the culture of his time. How did this play out as my generation, born after WWII, came of age? Let’s look at the tape.
This is a time capsule from over 40 years ago, yet it could be longer for all the patina of time. The monochrome of the film makes the impassive white interviewer, the smoke from his constant cigarette, and the later-life Hayden each look gray. You see the coke-bottle glasses on Hayden’s face, but not the tint of his skin that would have born him instant misjudgments throughout his life, misjudgments that he would have to have dealt with along with his art. You will hear him make the claim I made to describe him at the beginning of this: that he’s an American poet who will write about Afro-American subjects, and hear him begin to make the case as to why this distinction is important. I can clearly hear how important he believes this is. Around 10 minutes in, he’s asked to engage with the separatist strain in Afro-American culture, and he offers his full-throated disagreement with what he thinks are their goals. That’s too big a subject to deal with here, but apparently at the point at which he was finally achieving some recognition for his poetry, some aligned with the Black Arts Movement saw him as an assimilationist. Some might view this part as a “damn kids, get off my lawn” generational moment.
Also, in the film Hayden reads two poems. One is probably his most well-known work “Those Winter Sundays,” and the other is today’s piece, “Frederick Douglass.” In the later, using only the eloquent words in his sonnet, Hayden makes that argument that he could write a political statement timeless and yet incisive, and in the former, he writes a poem of gratitude to his foster father, an unpoetic man who made it possible for him to be a poet.
“Those Winter Sundays” will be featured this month on Poetry In America on PBS. It’s a fine poem, and I’ll be interested in seeing what they do with that poem’s details, things that one needs to linger a bit to see. I, on the other hand, had already chosen to present “Frederick Douglass” for my first Robert Hayden poem here. If you take the poems together, you’ll see two arguments for paying attention to Hayden. One the universalist for liberation (a political theory Hayden shared with Frederick Douglass) and the other the argument for gratitude to those, however imperfect, that helped us.
When I first read Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass” this year I was immediately struck by the poem’s uncanny details, laid in-between the eloquent flow. It was written over 50 years ago, but it’s more current than that B&W film from 1975. Perhaps you’ll hear them too if you attend to them: freedom that can be beautiful and terrible, hunted aliens, metal statues more valued than lives made possible.
Thanks to the publisher for permission to perform this. “Frederick Douglass” is Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden. From COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT HAYDEN by Robert Hayden edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Company
Well the rooks were wrong about Winter passing, at least for now. As much of Minnesota is covered with a foot or more of forgetful snow, with more remembering to fall over the top of us all day, it’s a good time to return to T. S. Eliot’s landmark of Modernist poetry “The Waste Land,” the poem that, by beginning with the famous line “April is the cruelest month” is largely responsible for National Poetry Month being set in April.
We’ve been performing it on the installment plan this month, following up on our performance of the first segment of it last April. But, it occurs to me that because so many of our listeners hear us via the podcast section of Spotify, which perversely doesn’t allow podcasts to be placed in playlists, that it might be good to combine what we have completed into one longer piece.
So, here’s the more-or-less complete first section of “The Waste Land” titled “The Burial of the Dead.” Eliot intended his poem to be musical, so even though it’s sprawling and includes many voices, it’s been fun to make audible the musical implications in it. As I do this, I’m reminded again of my first encounter with “The Waste Land.” I didn’t understand any of it—well, that’s not completely true, I could extract meaning from a few lines—but the whole thing could just have well have been a symphony with notes in place of words. Even now, for me, “The Waste Land” remains a hard poem to love, and unlike many poems and poets of our current scene, it’s not asking us to love it.
So, if it’s hard to understand, and hard to love, why listen to it?
Because it is a great poem? I doubt that would work. Because it was so influential historically? Well, that influence is now largely historical. It did move things powerfully one way, and then, after decades, things moved another way, in part in reaction to it. Because there are still fresh experiences to encounter in it? Now we’re getting closer. Art isn’t immortal only because it’s great in some ideal way, an art work’s immortality happens from our mortal human actions, our human reactions to it, and some of those become richer when the work has become strange to us from a change in fashion.
But in the end, I ask you to listen to it consistent with our overall tactics here in the Parlando Project: listen to it as music first, do not worry at the great, overall meaning immediately. I hope I can illuminate some meaning with my performance and music, but simply to comprehend “The Waste Land” as this suite of voices and moods is to comprehend much.
Yesterday’s Edward Thomas poem “Thaw” had an irony, he had rooks, a bird used symbolically to represent death, as messengers of Spring’s arrival. Walt Whitman ironically used early spring flowers to start his Lincoln elegy, and T. S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,” a long poem that we’ve been performing this April for National Poetry Month, followed flowered suit. Here’s poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay that tackles some of the same tensions that Eliot put in in his longer poem, but in just a few lines.
“Spring” is Millay at her most Modernist. It’s free-verse, not the metrical verse, often in traditional forms, that she used elsewhere. Is she copying Eliot’s landmark poem, as many would try to later? No, “Spring” was published in 1921, a year before “The Waste Land.”
One of the good things about doing this project is moving from looking for poems to use, selecting them, and then one-by-one grappling with how to perform and accompany them with music. This poem is so full of complex, multivalent emotions that I think I could perform it many different ways. Because of the production schedule I’ve set for myself here, I almost never spend more than a week on the production of any one piece. That means I must decide things about the composition and presentation fast. In the absence of limits, this piece could have gone on in search of a more perfect version. I’m comfortable with many of the choices I made here, but one bothers me still.
I decided early on I would sing this one. That decision came from the text itself, it wants to express a variety of things intensely. Good actors (something I’m not, or not yet) can put great shading on a speaking voice, but the singing voice has more tools to bring to the presentation of a text. I am under no illusion that my singing voice is strong or skilled, and I think a better singer could improve this. What you hear here is simply my honest attempt to do the best I could with a text that I grew to admire considerably as I worked with it.
Musically I once more found myself using several tracks of Mellotron, the primitive 1960s tape-sample “virtual instrument” before it’s time. The topline melody is carried by violins and the famous Mellotron flute samples that are an audio madeleine for anyone who listened to certain English bands in the age of groovy. Each note played on a Mellotron keyboard sets running a short length of tape playing that pitch recorded from the “real” instrument.
I can’t afford the cost and complexity of an actual Mellotron, but I use a good approximation issued by MOTU a few years back. One thing I perversely appreciate about it is that, just like the real thing, any note just stops after 8 seconds, when the strip of tape in an actual Mellotron would come to its end. Avoiding this can force you into some odd playing techniques when used in a slower tempo piece. If you listen very closely in “Spring”, I just let that abrupt tape end-stop happen for effect several times. For a sustaining note to end like that gives it a catch-in-the breath gasp effect.
One image in Millay’s poem puzzled me over the week I worked on it. “Life in itself is nothing…a flight of uncarpeted stairs.” I can find no one who has made any sense of it. The best I can figure out, knowing houses from Millay’s time first hand, is that while any stairs between floors of a properly furnished home would have likely had carpet runners, utilitarian stairs, such as ones to the basement would not be carpeted.
I like to mix up our musical encounters with poetry here, using both well-known and lesser-known poems. Here’s one you probably haven’t heard before, written by a poet who is less-known in the U.S. than in his native Britain, Edward Thomas.
Thomas was 36 years old and was scratching out a living for his family as a freelance writer on whatever topics could generate a check, but his real passion seemed to be as an enthusiastic naturalist. He liked nothing better than to walk about the countryside reading the book of nature, jotting down notes about what he’d seen. It was 1913 when he met a similar no longer young writer, a 40-year-old American who wanted to be a poet.
The American had not found his own country in agreement with his vocational desire, and so he had flipped a coin to strike out somewhere else: Canada or England? He knew no one in either place, it was just a hunch that someplace different might change his lot. The coin came up England. He took a cottage in the Cotswolds, near to where Thomas was living. The 40-year-old American poet? Robert Frost.
Over the next couple of years, the two men developed what would be the most significant friendship in their lives. Now Thomas had a companion besides his notebook on those nature walks. Although Frost had published only a handful of poems in periodicals at this point, Thomas saw his talent, a man who could write metrical verse so supple that it didn’t seem like poetic diction. In turn, Frost saw another poet in this self-described “hack writer” with his avocational notebook.
Frost published his first two books of poetry in England, “A Boy’s Will” and “North of Boston,” and Thomas reviewed them enthusiastically, helping launch Frost’s literary career. And with Frost’s encouragement, Thomas’ notebook jottings became poems.
In 1915 Frost moved back to the U. S. where publishers would now publish American editions of his poetry. Edward Thomas, and his family, were to follow. The two poets were to live near each other in New England and continue their fruitful friendship.
These two men, these two friends, who each could write tremendously concise poems in which a natural drama could play out in but a few lines, had one constitutional difference. Frost was reconciled to chance and fate. He would jump oceans with a coin flip. If lost on a road by a snowy woods on the darkest night of the year, well keep on driving that buggy onward in the dark. Thomas, on the other hand, believed that introspection and judgement, an ever-closer reading of the book of nature could discern the right choice. If two roads diverge (as they would when he and Frost walked the Cotswolds) your honor derives from making the correct choice from the inconsistent evidence.
Back in the USA, Frost wrote his famous, misunderstood, poem about those two paths and sent it to his friend, still tarrying in England, and Thomas became the first person to misunderstand “The Road Not Taken.” No matter how much we honor the author’s intent, the poem exists after it’s creator. Thomas’ outlook saw the undercurrent in the poem, that choice could be important. Thomas thought: if Frost was making gentle fun of that, no matter, that was the point.
Here’s a small, four-line poem that Thomas wrote about spring, “Thaw.” As often with Thomas’ poems “Thaw” is set on a nature’s large stage, but it’s a very short drama. Winter’s snow, as it is here in Minnesota today, is half-melted. Crows are cawing in tree tops, as the crows I saw today on my morning bike ride to breakfast were too, speaking the inscrutable language of crows. I saw one swoop down and frighten a foraging squirrel on a lawn, the black bird somewhat larger than the squirrel—and then, larger yet to it when the rook spread its wings and hammered out its hard-consonant caw.
The squirrel hopped like something had exploded underneath it and disappeared. These natural decisions could be read if one picks up the book of nature.
In Thomas’ “Thaw,” the poet understands that the crows know spring is coming, they are nesting already, and their treetop kingdom, unlike the ground beneath the poet’s feet, is snow free. They have read the book of nature more perceptively.
In Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” the comic narrator will sigh “ages and ages hence” about not having read nature right, of having lost the experience the road not taken would have given him. Edward Thomas decided not to move to New England to live next to Frost. Edward Thomas decided, though he was nearing 40 years old, and with a family to leave behind, that honor and his sense of correct decision required that he enlist in World War I, then half-way over. Within a few weeks of arriving at the front, a German artillery shell, following the arc of nature’s laws for men’s unnatural needs, killed him outright.
Thomas had continued writing his nature poems through his boot-camp training, and presumably at the front. In that unnatural world, he was still seeking to find what it knows that he doesn’t.
Today we continue our performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as part of our celebration of National Poetry Month this year (#npm2018). We’ve reached the end section of the first part, “The Burial of the Dead” which started with it’s famous stance, opposite to April and Spring, before proceeding through some scattered bittersweet pre-war reminiscences and a satirically murky attempt to read the future. In the concluding “Unreal City” section, we move on to an even darker scene.
In a dreary London day cast with brown fog, the poem recounts a hellish procession of desultory men walking to work over London Bridge. Compare this to Carl Sandburg’s Chicago-set treatment of the same bridge scene written just a few years earlier. Sandburg, the working-class political radical, knows well the worldly bargain the workers face in addition to the human condition. Eliot, the conservative bank officer personally grappling with depression, will ascribe the weary enervation to a spiritual brokenness.
Readers differ on what level of reality we should ascribe to Eliot’s scene, which after all is labeled “unreal.” Is this a vision of the dead of the World War I arising in a zombie walk? Or is this some level of Hell or Purgatory, in which urban London is only imaginary set-dressing for immortal torment? Or is it an actual observed moment in Eliot’s London living life which seems as trapped and without options as death? Imaginary gardens with real frogs in them, or real gardens with imaginary frogs?
Eliot develops this scene with the deepest gallows humor in the whole poem. One of the sighing walkers on his unvarying path is called out, greeted by the speaker in the poem as a fellow veteran of a naval battle between Rome and Carthage in 280 BC. I’m sure Eliot would have appreciated the anachronistic pun before its time, as by happenstance that Punic Wars battle at Mylae can now pun on the infamous 1968 My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war.
“The Waste Land”, which had begun with lilacs bred by Spring, now speaks of a corpse planted in a garden as if it was the bulb of a prized perennial flower. Eliot’s writing this nearly a hundred years ago, but poetically his iconography has taken a step toward a late 20th Century Heavy Metal album cover. I’ve double-checked Eliot’s notes on this poem. No, he wasn’t listening to Iron Maiden when he wrote this poem.
If you haven’t read “The Waste Land” before, or recently, where do you think Eliot will go next, now that he’s put us in grisly post-World War unreal corpse garden land? Fulfilling his poem’s design, it will be somewhere completely different.
Musically, I didn’t attempt NWBHM to accompany this section of “The Waste Land.” Instead, I combined a fat synth motif and Rhodes electric piano with some electric guitar stabs and burbling bass.
Today’s audio piece marks the 200th published by the Parlando Project! Since presenting our first piece, Carl Sandburg’s “Stars Songs Faces” back in 2016, we’ve combined words (mostly poetry) with original music as varied as we can make it. Those who’ve followed along know that the words we use are generally written by others, because that lets me encounter them, as I hope you do too, freshly, to discover what charms they have.
Not only does the music vary, but how we present the words varies too. Sometimes we sing the words, sometimes we just speak them, sometimes we chant or intone them.
Through this past couple of years, Dave Moore has been the alternate reader here, and I expect that you enjoy the break from my voice once in awhile (as I do). For today’s 200th piece, and for April’s National Poetry Month, I’m pleased to present Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” read, not by me, but by the “Lake Street Writer’s Group,” a small group of usually poets who’ve met since the 1970s. The first voice you’ll hear is poet, musician, and comics artist Dave Moore again, the second is poet and writer Ethna McKiernan and the third is poet Kevin FitzPatrick, who has the honor of having the latest book published by a member of the group, “Still Living in Town”.
It was my idea to ask them to read Marianne Moore’s poem, since Moore herself breaks her poem up into various voices, not only from abrupt changes in diction but with the use of quotes. My thought was the changing voices would emphasize the poem’s stance of speaking for poetry’s audience.
I broke this on the group of poets cold, and they are reading the poem off a page I gave them, which divided “Poetry” up in small beats and phrases of the poem. Remarkably—well, maybe not all that remarkably, Dave, Ethna, and Kevin are all excellent readers of their own poetry—what you hear is one take, just as they read it, just as they handed it off verbally from one to the other around a room. They had no musical backing to hold their cadence, only Marianne Moore’s words. I wrote, played, and recorded the music later: drums, bass, guitar, and piano.
What I hear coming out of this is the same thing I aim for often here. Just as you are encountering the poem’s words freshly, as they hit your ears, the performers are doing the same. Sure, we may have heard or read the poem before, but it’s another’s voice, happening now, that is conveying it to you. We use music with the words here, and with the other Parlando Project pieces, for several reasons: it reminds us that poetry is musical speech, that poetry works in its sounds, its rhetorical flow, and the harmony of imagery like music; and because it offers the option to relax the cause of the words meaning.
There’s one missed word in the trio’s cold reading. I won’t tell you where that is, because it’s beautiful in its accident. When I’m improvising melodic lines freely, I except that I’ll need to deal with “wrong” notes, musically creating (to vary Moore’s famous line) “imaginary gardens with real clams in them.”
Look at a picture of T. S. Eliot. Chances are you’ll see a proper English gentleman looking back at you. You might suspect a teacher, or if not that, a bank officer. By the time he wrote “The Wasteland” he’d been both, and the later job was considered by some in the Modernist circle a small scandal from which he needed to be rescued. Respectable, English, settled—you would trust him with your money or your child’s education.
Eventually Eliot became a British citizen, a confirmed Anglican Church believer, and a canonized poetic figure. So that man in the picture is what he intended to become. But the man who wrote “The Wasteland” wasn’t him yet, even if he could dress up as him for a portrait. What he was, was a thirtysomething American trying to engage a European culture that itself was now refugee after an unprecedented World War, a man also in a disastrous marriage and suffering from “doctor’s orders” depression.
Except for the World War part, one could, from some standpoints, look at this and file Eliot’s situation under “first-world problems, see also: middle-class white male.” And while WWI had profoundly changed Europe, Eliot seems to not have had any direct experience with the war, unlike many of the Modernist circle, so you could add to that “survivor’s guilt.” Let’s just center in on that depression part. That’s apropos, depressives are often told that their real situation is not as bad as all that.
I’ll blindly wager that many, probably most, reading this have suffered at some time from depression. Considered as a disease or syndrome, it’s a very common one, like aging or pregnancy—it’s not some rare, god-sent, lightning strike calamity. Yet, that’s not how it’s most often experienced. A depressed person feels trapped in themselves. One thing that is common to many in depression is the distrust of any judgement or decision. Whether it’s your own, or some outside others’, whether it’s a judgment of praise or damnation, you distrust that it’s true and fear that it is.
As we reach the “Madame Sosostris” section of “The Wasteland” we meet a fortune teller, a line of work that should be helpful to one in this depressive trap. In Eliot’s intended scheme for the poem, she serves as a Deus ex Machina to introduce, as part of a pseudo Tarot card reading, some mythological themes of the poem. But if we are to understand the emotional core of “The Wasteland,” which is the poetic expression of a person suffering from depression, the undercutting of her authority begins right away. If Madame Sosostris is some kind of enlightened and advanced being, she’s suffering from a mundane head cold. Her patter as she reads the cards is perfunctory, only occasionally rising to the level of oracular obscurantism, and she all to quickly jumps out of her clairvoyant trance to the details of delivering some work for the comically named “Mrs. Equitone.” There’s no relief, no reliable guidance here.
We’ll be returning to “The Wasteland” as April, National Poetry Month (#npm2018) continues.
As we continue our celebration of National Poetry Month (#npm2018), today we present one of America’s most loved poems, “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.
This poem is loved, but like many of our lovers, it may not be understood. We think it means, as we think they mean, what they mean to us.
Some love the poem as an endorsement of going against the tide. If an article or personal story includes the line “the road less traveled by” that will likely be the point they are making by referencing this famous poem. So common is this understanding that many people think that phrase is the title of the poem.
Some think of it as a slightly less sure poem that reflects on a common life experience. Many of us can look back at some seemingly mundane choice that we’ve made that has had far-reaching consequences in our lives: that class we took on a whim, that meeting that occurred only because we were late or went to the wrong place, that failed idea that lead to a much better one and so on. We often love a poem that reminds us of ourselves and the common beats of our lives. We may even be flattered by that.
Robert Frost was adamant that neither of these was the poem he wrote. And if I’m to honor my mid-century teachers, all schooled in the then only slightly old “New Criticism” and it’s close reading, I’d have to say that Frost is right, that’s not the poem he wrote.
As I recounted in my presentation of one of Britain’s favorite poems, Edward Thomas’ “Adlestrop,” Frost was attempting to make a generalized joke derived from a particular foible of his British friend. Thomas, who Frost encouraged to become a poet, was a naturalist, and as he and Frost walked around the Cotswold countryside, Thomas (though the native) was often unsure about the old and sparsely marked paths and lanes that wander through that landscape. He wanted to take Frost to the best locations to see wildlife, and when he took the wrong path, he would regret it and puzzle all the more the next time he came to a fork or crossroads.
In the poem Frost wrote, the vacillating description of whether there is any actual difference in the roads to choose between, at the time of the choice, is meant to describe the difficulty in making that decision. That’s consistent with that second reading of the poem about how seeming inconsequential decisions can have unexpected effects later. We don’t know what meetings to be late for or which whim will turn out fruitful at the time.
It’s the poem’s last stanza that sets out Frost’s poem, not ours, despite it ending in the two lines (“I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference”) that are used to sum up the first two subjective readings. First, the conclusion revealed is stated “with a sigh.” This is not an “I took my own path, and that’s what made me what I am today,” or an “I didn’t know it then, but that mistake was a lucky break” recollection. Those are statements of triumph or benevolent fate, and we don’t make either of those “with a sigh.” And even more subtly, there’s a trick in the two lines before the last one, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by.” Did you notice it?
Perhaps the musicians, the poetic or the score-reading kind, or actors will notice it. Frost has the speaker, announcing his oh so firm and final conclusion stated from the certainty of comically exaggerated “ages and ages hence” to repeat a word. It’s almost a stutter. He doesn’t say “and I took the one less traveled by.” He says “I (pause) I took the one less traveled by.” It’s the slightest tell, isn’t it? It’s not the shouty Townshend/Daltry “why don’t you all just f-f-f-fade away,” but the speaker is still divided about what road he should have taken. Frost called the poem “The Road Not Taken” after all, not “The Road Less Traveled.”
As it sometimes is with our lovers, we may have misunderstood what he said by misunderstanding how he said it.
Let us return to that April epic of high-church Modernism. T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” Long time listeners will know that I’ve made great use here of the works of the pioneering Modernists, that generation that formed itself on both sides of the Atlantic in the years before the outbreak of WWI.
We’ll continue to talk about them later, but for now I’ll point out that one thing they all shared was a commitment to shorter works with new imagery often drawn out of immediate contemporary experience. Given how I later encountered Modernism in Mid-20th Century American schools, I was surprised at how simple, how commonplace, were the materials they often used for their fresh imagery. Subtlety and ambiguity were not forgotten, but they were also not belabored.
To “make it new” in this pre-WWI era, it was often to radically simplify. If traditional poetry was referred to, it was not the grand epics or the most serious verse of the past centuries, but the highly compressed Chinese and Japanese forms, Greek lyric fragments, or vernacular verse from folk traditions.
Modernism as it mutated after WWI had no such concentration. Grand themes and grand works were once more the best goal. Allusions to tradition abounded. As Modernism marched forward toward my own Mid-Century youth, its poetry began to take an air of post-graduate knowledge as a pre-requisite to understanding or enjoyment.
Eliot’s “The Wasteland” is a landmark for this change. I’m not an Eliot scholar. I won’t presume to psychoanalyze him accurately at the biographic point where he wrote this with some editorial re-shaping by Ezra Pound. As I said when I presented the opening section of “The Wasteland” here last April, the work is clearly informed by personal depression. Since a large percentage of contemporary people have experienced depression and grappled with it, parts of “The Wasteland” communicate with us on an emotional, associative level even if we don’t understand it in a “pass the exam” way. This is good for the poem.
Eliot’s complex, even maddening, use of distancing tactics in “The Wasteland:” the rapid dislocation of location, time, speakers, and national language, along with a plan to make everything a possible reference to something else—something old and not merely immediate—is not at all like the pre-WWI Modernists. Still, that didn’t keep that sort of older Modernist style from breaking in every so often.
Today’s piece “Hyacinth Girl” is one such part of “The Wasteland.” If it had been presented as a standalone poem in one of the early Imagist anthologies it would have fit right in. There’s no post-graduate work necessary here, as was demonstrated by an 80s college-rock band who conceptionally used the same trope with no need for footnotes.
Studied academically and considered as a part of the rest of the poem, it need not be experienced this way, directly. One can consider any intended connection to the Greek myth of Apollo and Hyacinth and their tragic Frisbee accident with homoerotic overtones. I did so just yesterday, reading some papers and summaries of papers which if nothing else made me conscious of how often gender is unknown and shifting in “The Wasteland”—but I did this long after recording my performance of “Hyacinth Girl.” I didn’t feel the need to revise it in the light of the papers or the classical reference, no more than I needed to know if it refers to Eliot’s girlfriend, or his wife, or a young man who was killed in WWI. Pound had once said that the image is “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Eliot seemed unsure that it should be only that, if that was enough. That lead him and Modernist poetry to some strange places and practices, but it didn’t stop such poetry from breaking into “The Wasteland’s” manifesto of High Modernism.
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.