Choosing to make even one arbitrary choice can be a great aid to creativity. After all, though many of us are driven by various and powerful urges to create art, the choice to do that is arbitrary itself.
Today’s piece comes from several, singular, arbitrary decisions.
Coming upon the author of today’s words was a two-step process that has no A and B to it. First, knowing that the change from the 19th to the 20th Century impacted everyone, I wanted to see how African-American writers moved across this change. I was already somewhat familiar with how they moved musically in this era, a momentous cultural act that made American music, to an impressively disproportionate degree, Afro-American music. I was less familiar with the early 20th Century Afro-American poets. I started with Wheatley and Dunbar, as many did then. As our copyright laws effectively forbid me to utter on the Internet most any work written past 1922, I was heartened to find James Weldon Johnson had published a collection of Afro-American poetry just before that.
I read it, and Anne Spencer’s contributions included there didn’t grab me.
That too is arbitrary isn’t it? The poetry (or music, or anything) that can impress you on first encounter is only one element of how it might work.
Then a few weeks later I read a small piece online highlighting a long life of service and art that Anne Spencer had lived across part of the 19th Century and ¾ of the 20th. That moved me immediately. I re-read her poetry.
Did I appreciate her poetry more because she seems to have been such an admirable person? I tell myself, no, that by the time I combine it with music and place it on the Internet, few listeners will have any inkling of that. But I’ve just told you how I encountered her, and yes, that has arbitrary elements.
How did Spencer decide to write “Before the Feast of Shushan?” Were there arbitrary choices? If you’ve followed me so far, you’d suspect there were. The subject is taken from the Hebrew scriptures, and she could have encountered it in any Bible at the start of the book of Esther. In the world and time of cultural appropriation, those ancient Semites have been borrowed from an impressively disproportionate amount, haven’t they?
Arbitrarily, as I finished the audio piece around sundown last night, it was the beginning of Purim, the Jewish holiday based on the events in Esther. For a large portion of my life I lived in what could arbitrarily have been called a Jewish household; but family and religious traditions are varied, and I never took part in celebrating Purim. From what I gather that might include elements like unto a Jewish Halloween, with costumes, food, parties, and burlesquing of evil. My wife once summed Purim up as “They wanted to kill all of us. They failed. Let’s eat!”
But Spencer took her story from the beginning of Esther, a part I’d forgotten, and shouldn’t have. The book of Esther is a woman-centered book, but before the heroine comes on stage, the first woman we meet is Vashti. Go ahead, and read Vashti’s story if you’d like, but here’s the summary. Xerxes/ Ahasuerus (the former is his Greek name) is ruler of a great world-spanning empire. He’s throwing a multi-day party to surpass all before or since. All his princes, bros and vassals are enjoying the week-long open bar at his palace in Shushan full of the absolutely top-line, first-rate stuff his power has obtained. At some point in this sausage-fest, Xerxes (rhymes with jerk-sees) figures what this party needs is for his queen to show up wearing the crown he’s bestowed on her, so everyone can see what a fox he has for a Queen, as she’s a certain 10 if the Persians had been using a decimal system back then. Some commentary even suggests that his command is to be understood for her to show up wearing only the crown.
Vashti refuses the emperor’s command. Xerxes, a stable genius type, modestly agrees to ask his advisors what to do, no doubt so that he can blame them if anything goes wrong, and they tell him that this is a huge deal. Not only has the Emperor been disobeyed—it’s like someone didn’t clap at his speech, only worse—because if this gets out, every wife will feel that she can disobey her husband.
Clearly, this won’t do. Vashti is cast off, and that arbitrary action sets in motion the rest of the story of the Book of Esther that results in the celebration of Purim.
The Bible itself offers no commentary on this. The Book of Esther is also unusual in that there is not even one mention of God in it. You are asked to decide yourself.
Anne Spencer doesn’t want us to forget Esther’s opening, and in “Before the Fest of Shushan” she writes a very Robert Browning-like monolog for Xerxes to speak. As Xerxes would no doubt like it, no one else gets a word in edgewise. Browning was one of the eminent Victorians that Spencer had read in her 19th Century dominated youth, and because it hews so closely to Browning as an influence, it’s considered one of Spencer’s first poems.
Spencer’s prequel scene (it’s “Before the Feast…”) has Xerxes in an explicitly randy mood and he’s somewhat puzzled that Vashti seems to want something more. Likely written before 1920, it shows that Anne Spencer had a clear feminist eye. At that time, if Spencer had overcome the hindrances widely used to deny Afro-Americans the right to vote, granted on paper in 1870, she still would have been prevented from voting—because, she was a woman.
Arbitrary choices—useful sometimes in art. Likewise, they might help people to create businesses or new testable scientific propositions. In art we might own up to them, examine them, play with them. Can we do the same in life?
My son, now a teenager, is aware that I have a podcast, and that it deals with poetry somehow. Limited by his parents in his computer time, and pressingly interested in the other things he’s discovered, he doesn’t listen to it.
But he does want to be helpful. Earlier this month he suggested by asking: “Have you used any poetry by Kahlil Gibran? Have you heard of him?” One of my son’s teachers is from Lebanon, where Gibran was born, and Gibran has come up as a famous Lebanese-American.
Had I heard of him? Yes, I recall buying a copy of “The Prophet” as a somewhat older teenager in a bookstore. I think the edition may have included a now disputed quote comparing him to William Blake, and that may have accounted for my purchase then.
Over the decades since it was published in 1923, my decision to purchase “The Prophet” has been replicated millions of times. It’s an extraordinarily popular book, and not one that achieved its popularity by a burst of sales, but by remaining intriguing to readers for 95 years.
I remember reading it in an hour or so later that day. My dorm-roommate read my copy too, but I remember he was puzzled that I had read through it so fast.
Unlike many readers of “The Prophet” I had some background. As a young person I had substantial interest in various kinds of occult, spiritual and mystic writings. Gibran in “The Prophet” didn’t impress me as being very good of type. The stilted sort-of King James Version English seemed effected, the matter it tried to convey seemed newspaper horoscope vague, and the typical trope used to express that matter was a litany of everything is it’s opposite.
That was my opinion as an 18-year-old. It has changed slightly as I briefly revisited Gibran this month in search of something I might want to use. First, I have a much greater appreciation for the struggles of those that try to bridge the culture and language of their birth to the culture and language of their new homes, and in the sections of Gibran that dial-back the hazy mysticism I can now read some elements of humor and satire that I missed on first encounter. I wonder how Gibran’s works in Arabic read to a native speaker. Did he present a different face and voice there than he did to English speakers in America? And what I’ve seen of his artwork does have a Blakean tinge, a combination of classical line with romantic subject matter.
Today’s audio piece, “The Fox” comes from Gibran’s first English language collection “The Madman.” As parables go, it’s quite applicable to the daily grind of creating these pieces. It may not be the camel I set out for, but hopefully it’s a delectable mouse.
I remember reading about this some years back, and found it fascinating then. In my memory it was the American poet, and critic John Crowe Ransom who was the teacher, but in searching this week for more detail, the perpetrator named was English poet and critic I. A. Richards. My memory still says Ransom did something similar, but let’s stay with Richards since I can verify it.
The time frame is the 1920s. The Modernists (due to painful copyright laws, the newest poets whose work can be freely used here by the Parlando Project) had begun their ascendency into the mainstream of English language poetry. But the Victorian era, including the later work of the Romantics and the whole of the William Morris/Pre-Raphaelite revival that preceded the Modernist revolution was not that long ago, within the memory of teachers and critics alive then, like the post WWII era or “The Sixties” would be today. The Romantics had been a revolution in how poetry speaks, and those that followed them took different paths from that revolution, and now the Modernists proposed a counter-revolution, once more changing how poetry speaks.
Had poetry, in some Platonic ideal state, it’s essence, changed; or had only the language and form it took to express its inner nature changed?
In such at time, the question of aesthetics, of what constitutes poetry and what are (or should be) its goals and effects, would naturally come to the fore. If one is a teacher, one might examine this by teaching, and so Richards devised an experiment. He gave students at Cambridge, a leading English college, a packet of poems which were without the names of their authors or any context about when they were written—they were even without their titles—and asked the students to write about them, to interpret them. I’m not sure if he presupposed what the results would be, but summaries of the experiment report he was surprised at the results. Their interpretations were poor, and often included what he knew to be misinterpretations. The students often resorted to personal experiences or rote sentimentality to explain the poems. As a result, the interpretations of the poems varied considerably as they missed their mark in different directions.
You might think, “Well, duh!” In subsequent theories of literature all these effects have been explained and codified in multiple ways, but at the time, in the 1920s, this was a new finding. Richards thought this showed a failure of literacy, defined as a kind of higher literacy; not the inability to read basic English, but to read and understand the kind of associative and musical language used by poetry. He spent his life trying to remedy this by teaching. In 1979, while in his eighties, he was still teaching, in China, when he fell ill and died. He wrote a book, titled “Practical Criticism” setting out ways to properly read and derive the effects of a poem.
But the way I heard of the experiment (and this may have been a subsequent experiment, inspired by Richards, perhaps by Ransom) the packet of unattributed poems given to students to interpret included a range of “not great poetry,” pop poetry as printed in mass-market publications as well as the work of more esteemed poets. And the result was the students couldn’t reliably distinguish the great poets from the hacks.
The challenge of the new poetic language of the Modernists, and the experience of teachers like Richards and Ransom demonstrated in this experiment with unattributed poems, lead to what was called “The New Criticism.”
When, a generation later, I began to encounter poetry in school, “The New Criticism” was by far the predominant idea of how poetry should be taught. At the end of my scattered schooling, new theories were arising, Deconstructionism and the like, and I can still recall professors muttering about its willful misunderstandings and mistaken goals as I struggled for money to pay for one more class that would fit into my work schedule.
Now in this century, I know less what happens in schools, but I sense culturally we’re concerned increasingly with the poet as the container that holds the poem and its experience. Some worry about “Identity Politics” and its corelate would be “Identity Poetry,” where the background, ethnic and otherwise, of the poet is integral to the poem. I’m too busy making art to have a coherent philosophy on this. I can easily envision problems arising from a division of poetry into ever smaller spheres where only the right combinations of ingredients can make or appreciate some work. On the other hand, I’m also suspicious of the motives of anyone who claims to hate Identity Politics or Identity Poetry, while showing no interest otherwise in smashing the walls and peeling off the labels from artists for whom those “stick to that” labels and barriers may not be self-chosen.
Oh my, what a long introduction to today’s audio piece! In honor of Richards and Ransom and their experiments, here’s a piece I call “Poetry in Translation” for the purposes of the experiment. I’m not going to give you any more context for the poem used, the author’s name or their ethnic identity. I assure you I’m not in this for “gotcha” or obscure literary one-upmanship. It’s short, so give it a listen and see what you think. I’ll be back later this week with more.
It’s hard to escape the pull of Emily Dickinson here in the Parlando Project, and I keep finding that her poems ask for that unheard music in them to be made audible. So much is remarkable about Dickinson. She’s so original in poetic expression, and yet she’s kept a substantial audience of readers from the time of her first posthumously published collection in the late 19th Century.
Here’s yet another striking fact about her: she wrote over a thousand poems, the majority of her poetic work, roughly around the time of the American Civil War, in a burst of creativity less than a decade long. Can one even imagine what that might have been like? For this means that, on average, over twice a week a new Emily Dickinson poem, a new and unprecedented type of poetry, emerged from her pen.
She shared them somewhat, some of them anyway, with family and friends. She informally bound many of them into little booklets. But did she know what she was accomplishing? What faith drove her creativity?
Today’s words are drawn from a Dickinson poem she wrote halfway into that burst. Unlike some Dickinson poems, the “plot” of the poem is easy enough to follow, and it concludes with a moral, like a conventional poem of moral uplift might. However, like a lot of good art, the experience and meaning of it changes as you bring your own time and times to it.
“We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” starts off in that pre-electric outdoors that we last talked about with Frost’s “Stopping by a Wood on a Snowy Evening.” On a new moon or overcast night, that old dark is darker than any we routinely experience in modern urban America. Yet, then or now, eyes indeed adjust, and make better use of what weak light may be present. Dickinson next changes the scene and speaks of “Evenings of the Brain” where even moon and starlight are extinguished. Other than Dickinson’s near, but not quite, “slant rhymes,” this is a conventional poem up to this point. But wait there’s a small warning that she’s not going to develop this conventionally. Those evenings inside the brain are a larger thing than the whole of the outdoor night.
Her next metaphor is not Victorian sentiment, but outright slapstick farce. Moving forward in the dark earnestly, the nobly brave—smack! Faceplant into a tree trunk.
This brings ambiguity to her concluding moral. Is becoming accustomed to the dark a good thing? We think we’ve adjusted. We think we’ve steeled ourselves to “Brave”—or maybe we’ve just added that outer darkness to our brain, and we agree to pretend it’s normal. “Life steps almost straight” she concludes. Somehow, at least this week, as I watch our dark world, I don’t think Dickinson intends this as a consolation.
I’ve all but promised, here’s a piece using another poem by the lesser-known early 20th Century poet Anne Spencer. It may even be appropriate for Valentine’s Day--though it’s a somewhat complicated one.
Unlike our first Anne Spencer connected piece, Dunbar, from earlier this month, “Lines to a Nasturtium” is a fancier one, but the doily lace on this valentine has strange knots in it. I was going to present it first, but I didn’t feel I understood enough, and after living with it for a couple of weeks, I’m still not sure I’ve found its bottom. I don’t want mysteries of meaning to get in the way of enjoying it, so let’s just listen to it today.
Tomorrow is celebrated in the United States as Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday—or rather, it was in the past. In 1971, a uniform Monday holiday, often called President’s Day, centralized what had been in the past dual, separate, celebrations of Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s.
Washington (as poet Phillis Wheatley’s motto for him said) was first in war and first in peace, and we owe him a great debt for being the rare revolutionary leader that did not try to crown his success with dictatorship. But Lincoln’s achievements are every bit Washington’s equal; and his central achievement, a US government that no longer enforced chattel slavery throughout the country has in recent decades been somewhat obscured for complex reasons.
But here at the Parlando Project, where we combine music with words, Lincoln gets extra props for being as great an artist with words as any US Chief Executive. While taking the various roads that lead to this piece I read his famous Gettysburg Address, or rather refreshed myself with the words in manuscript form, for as a child I had memorized it.
At this site it’s possible to trace the slight revisions that Lincoln applied draft by draft to polish this concise statement of dedication. And the same site linked to another site that let me read (for the first time) Edward Everett’s main speech at the same Gettysburg dedication.
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of how the two speeches that day contrasted. It’s no legend. Go ahead, read as much of Everett’s speech as you can. It’s the kind of grand utterance that could have caused the 19th Century to invent TLDNR 140 years sooner.
So, Lincoln could fashion a memorable, resonant phrase and express complex things concisely. That’s the kind of literary talent that leads one to ask if he wrote poetry. He did, but as far as we know, there’s not very much of it beyond some short light verse. His poetic works consist of an attributed poem with a narrator speaking of suicide, and a three-part poem recalling his hometown.
It’s from the first part of the later Lincoln poem that I created today’s piece, “My Childhood Home I See Again.” It was published anonymously through the efforts of a friend of his in 1847. Lincoln was in his troubled 30s when his longer poems were written, and he seems to have been suffering from depression, the depth and length of which is subject of much discussion among historical scholars.
The parts I used from “My Childhood Home I See Again” tell much the same story as English poet Thomas Hardy’s “The Self Unseeing,” but Lincoln’s poem is more melancholy, even if he tries to make some pretense of it being only wistful. One could also compare it to my own piece “Homeopathic Hometown.”
Here’s a piece using an outwardly modest poem by a modest poet, Anne Spencer. It spoke so quietly to me, that at first I overlooked it when I was reading James Weldon Johnson’s seminal “The Book of American Negro Poetry” anthology, which included it. Just a few weeks later I saw a small story online about her exemplary life as a behind-the-scenes civil-rights activist, which mentioned that she was also a poet.
From it’s title we know she is following one of the Parlando Project mottos: “Other Peoples’ Stories.” When the poem utters its refrain “Chatterton, Shelley, Keats, and I…” that “I” is to be understood as Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was at that time a decade dead at the age of 33, but who was still the most famous Afro-American poet.
Long time listeners here have already met up with Dunbar, and Shelley and Keats require little introduction to those acquainted with English verse. That first name, Chatterton may draw a blank however.
Thomas Chatterton was the most famous failure in 19th Century English literature. A poor boy with pluck he had tricked his way into a modicum of fame by pretending to be the discoverer of a tranche of medieval poetry by a Thomas Rowley. To keep the pot boiling and to engage in the roiling politics of the day, he wrote journalism and opinion pieces under more than one pseudonym, and further literary works. At the height of his career, he might earn about $9 in current dollars for his longer articles. In contrast, accepted contributors to our last episode’s Burma Shave’s jiggles were paid over $800 in today’s money.
So how does Chatterton make it onto Spencer’s words for Dunbar?
You see, Chatterton was doing all this as a teenager. Fatherless, broke, starving, seemingly at the end of his resources, he took a fatal dose of arsenic and died in his garret. He wasn’t yet 18.
A few decades later, the British Romantics grab on to Chatterton’s case as the perfect example of rejection of the beautiful by the unperceiving. Keats, who was himself tagged as a low-born pretender writing “Cockney poetry” in “uncouth language,” wrote a sonnet to Chatterton: “Thou didst die a half-blown flo’ret which cold blasts amate.” The too-little-appreciated-in-his-short-life Percy Bysshe Shelley, exiled from his culture for radical political and social views, writes “Adonais,” the now famous ode on the death of Keats at age 25. In it, Chatterton is met in a heavenly throne “Rose pale, his solemn agony had not yet faded from him” as he greets the now dead Keats/Adonais.
Note here the unperceiving in each case has something to do with politics and class prejudice.
And now we return to Anne Spencer. At age 11, the legend has it she was barely literate, six years later she was the valedictorian of her graduating class. Two years later she married and settled in Lynchburg Virginia. Eventually she wrote while raising children and working as a school librarian. In 1918, she helped found the local chapter of the NAACP. Her home became a waystop for numerous notable Afro-Americans traveling in Virginia (“Jim Crow” laws would have segregated public accommodations). James Weldon Johnson (one of the founders of the NAACP) was one of those visitors, and finding that Anne wrote poetry, he helped her work get first published in 1920.
Spencer was nearly 40 years old before that first publication. Clearly not the live fast/die young sort. In 1922 when Johnson published the first ever anthology of Afro-American verse, Spencer was, along with Dunbar, included. Concluding his introduction to that collection, Johnson said of Spencer’s verse that she was “The most modern and least obvious in her methods.”
“Dunbar” demonstrates that. Shelley’s “Adonais” is hundreds of lines. Spencer’s “Dunbar” is five. Shelley will tell it, repeating and restating his theme in stanza by stanza of glorious English Romantic verse. Spencer’s “Dunbar” sits quietly, in the midst of this history of poets who died young, whose voices were muffled by prejudice before they were stilled by death. It’s just one chorus. She groups them, tells us Paul Laurence Dunbar found himself with them, a statement of quiet, powerful, assertion.
Perhaps you need to know this history to appreciate the power of that, that “Chatterton, Shelley, Keats, and I” isn’t some arbitrary listing, a line that happens in a small poem talking about a poet—but it’s good to know history, it’s good to have a Black History month, it’s good to know that Keats and Shelley, who now are hallowed in our textbooks, weren’t greeted as worthy poets by their times. It’s good to know that one woman around a hundred years ago in segregated Virginia, quietly but eloquently wrote, and steadfastly worked, to assert a different world.
The place of short epigramic poetry in our culture, and just a touch of Percy Bysshe Shelley, combine in today’s episode.
When people seek to stop the expansion of poetry in definition or in practice they will aim and fire at certain targets. If you look closely and slowly, you may see the bullet holes with their worn, rusting lips frozen in mid-kiss.
“Song lyrics? When you see them on the page, you can surely tell they aren’t poetry. And what about advertising jingles then?”
I’ll reply that it’s true that we don’t know if Sappho was a copywriter for hire, or worked independently—and frankly, the advertising jingle has passed into disuse anyway. One benefit of aging is that one can remember lost, golden, ages when the rustic bards of old sang along the roads.
I speak of course of that mid-20th Century, Midwestern American Greek Anthology presented by Burma Shave. We know only the fragments of their work that scribes have preserved in illuminated HTML, but did these jingles really harm mid-20th Century poetry much?
I think not.
Here was the scheme: an insurgent company that made shaving cream in Minneapolis Minnesota took to the idea of a series of small signs, enjambed with the broken lines of an epigramic poem, signed-off at the last sign with the company’s logo: its name in white flowing script. Cars sauntered on narrower roads in those days, roads that went farther between cities that had yet to leak out suburbs and housing projects. Car radios were an option not ticked off by every frugal buyer, and the boredom on the two-lane was an advertiser’s opportunity. Huge billboards, the epics of the roadside, might have pressed the budget of the Burma Shave company, but those little signs in series were another matter. Poetry, then as now, is a bargain.
And to us, the naïve backseat riders with no tablets or Gameboys, we could hope then the horizon might give us that initial red sign and line of verse, followed by their episodic reveal, their enforced caesurae.
Perhaps the poems imagery or significance did not equal Elizabeth Bishop or Wallace Stevens, but the experience—yes!—was exactly what poetry should deliver. It comes on us, with expectation, but unpredictably. It reveals itself, in time marked with intervals that tell us it is indeed time. And in the end, it pleases us in a way that the passage of a mere Pioneer Seed Corn placard or another end-of-lane mailbox cannot.
Its motives may not have been artistically pure, but we didn’t care.
Commercial motives are as fragile as Olympian ones. Around 1960, Burma Shave was sold, and the brand discontinued. The placement of new signs stopped, and only in places where no one cared to groom the roadside did they remain to gradual ruin.
Years later I would move to Minneapolis, and eventually I would fall in with some folks who created a literary magazine that wanted to celebrate the inescapable, unpretentious—yes, sometimes commercial—main drag down Phaeton’s east-west path of the city. They called the magazine the “Lake Street Review.” And down that street, I would often bike or drive past a nondescript building, just before the freight railroad tracks, just before the shopping-and-buying mall built were Minneapolis-Moline once built tractors. When it was built, this building had been a church, but as area became industrial, the building became the headquarters, the factory and the Parnassus of Burma Shave.
I don’t know if any of us knew that. I only found out as they planned to tear it down, which they did. As the workman did a workman’s job, in the midst of the ditch of lathe and beams, a red sign with cursive white letters was found at the end: “Burma Shave.”
I came upon Percy Bysshe Shelley and this poem like many have, a teenager with a school poetry anthology on my desk. It’s a good teaching poem, what with its readily accessible irony—and so, “Ozymandias” came to me, nestled with poems by Keats and Byron, in the handy "The Romantics" chapter.
Stepping outside the poetry, even briefly, into biography, I found them a glamourous bunch of young men to my teenaged heart. The original live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse crew. Political and sexual revolutionaries, aesthetes with groupies. Did I study them or seek to be them? Well the former was on offer, the latter harder to obtain for someone of my looks and stature.
In the 1960s Byron, Keats and Shelley were the rock stars in my textbooks. To the generation before the 20th Century Modernists, they seemed that too, even if “rock star” wasn’t yet a metaphor in the shops. So, Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to be Byron, Keats and Shelley too. In America, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Paul Laurence Dunbar show that you didn’t have to be male or white to feel that urge. Even unique figures like Rabindranath Tagore were touched by their model.
Well, despite the notoriety, the tangled amorous relationships, and the requirement of a tragic early death—yes, in spite of this—in the end the romantic, idealist stance doesn’t remove the poet from the mundane tasks of writing poetry any more than drugs and sex remove from a rock star the need to come up with, well, some music once in a while.
Such is the case here of “Ozymandias.” Did this poem strike Shelley’s poetic soul in a flash of hashish inspiration while adventuring in the Middle East? Well, no. If we were to continue the musical analogies, it instead came from a silent, slow-motion written-poetry equivalent of a “Battle of the Bands,” a “Rap Battle,” or songwriter’s “Song Pull,” a friendly contest undertaken with another poet, Shelley’s contemporary Horace Smith. They both were working off the same short passage from 1st Century BC Greek historian Diodorus, which more or less gives them the plot. Here’s Smith’s “Ozymandias.”
In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
"The wonders of my hand."— The City's gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
After they finished their competing works, I wonder how Smith felt. If one goes to poetry for meaning, these two poems make near the same point. Imagery-wise, Shelley’s choice and portrayal of the broken statue on a barren desert has some better selections of detail. And Smith, trying to make his rhyme, has one particularly awkward line, the one ending “holding the Wolf in chace” (“chace” is an Old-French word that was once used in English to mean hunt). But where Shelley kills it here is his word-music. And if you look at Shelley’s manuscript of “Ozymandias” you can see some of how he worked on these things, so they wouldn’t be “lifeless things.”
Art is not a competition. Criteria are slippery things, and what works in one poem, fails in another. Even day to day, within our own singular selves, what we seek from, or need from, art differs—but Smith’s “Ozymandias” was rightfully eclipsed by Shelley’s.
In my music and performance of “Ozymandias” I went counter to the presentations I’ve heard. The poem’s lyricism and the later 19th Century acceptance of Shelley as a portrayer of ideal beauty has masked the Shelley that was a political radical and iconoclast. As a result, many read it lightly, bringing out its sonic beauty or its pathos. I don’t know how Shelley, the political radical, would want it read, but I’ve always felt that the traveler who’s telling this tale knows all too well, in non-historic terms, about living under a hand that mocked them with a sneer of cold command.
Therefore, I emulated the spirit of another English iconoclast, Kevin Coyne, for this one.
Robert Frost is every bit the master of word music as Yeats and Millay. What makes Frost stand out is that he was every bit the thoroughgoing early 20th Century modernist as any of his free-verse contemporaries, while retaining an ease with accentual syllabic meter.
Here’s an example of Frost handling a subject just as a free-verse Imagist would. His aims, his presentation, hold to the Imagists’ three princples. He deals with the thing directly (as we shall see, two things, but still…), and there are no tacked-on metaphors, no stock comparisons, no special, “poetic” language. Context is shown, but not explained. He loosens and varies his meter, so the poem sings and never seems to be a shackled march. At 40 lines, it’s a bit longer than Yeats’ poem considering “The Wild Swans at Coole,” but Frost’s extra detail is even more specific and concrete than Yeats, though both begin their poem with the poet walking in a rural wetland. Yeats slough is a well-known place to him, conditioned with 19 previous visits. Frost is far enough into his swamp to not know exactly where he is, and so experiences what he sees with a first-time immediacy. Yeats’ slough then contains tradition, Frosts’ the more Modernist “Make it new” place.
Though presented as one simple rural scene and story, “The Wood-Pile” is more at two poems, though each part speaks to the other. As Frost’s tale starts, we are in the midst of one of his characteristic journeys, just as we are in other famous Frost poems. There’s a need for decision (“Turn back” or “go on farther”) and his choice, also made in other Frost poems, is to go on regardless of whatever doubts brought the question. If he’s lost in the dark by a wood on a snowy evening, keep going. If you come to a fork in the road, pick one and go on. If you’re walking in a swamp in winter and your foot is sometimes falling through the frozen crust, well, keep going “and we shall see.”
And so, here he sees his bird. No Keatsian nightingale, not Millay’s elusive flying swans with their awkward dangling legs and crys, nor Yeats’ majestic 59 swans, but a small bird. This bird becomes a mirror to the poet. Frost’s bird too must make choices in direction, and the poet, sensibly, thinks the bird’s guided by fear. “Keep something between little me and the big lummox trodding through the winter swamp,” he humansplains. And there’s a bit of humor at human’s expense as the poet muses that the bird, like humans with their self-importance, may think that the only reason for Frost to be out in the swamp is to go after the little bird.
But, we don’t know why Frost is out in the frozen swamp explicitly. The only reason he’s given, or will give, is the Imagist poets’ reason: “and we shall see.”
The bird leads Frost to the second thing the poem wants to present: an abandoned fire-wood cache. Here Frost zooms in close. Every detail of the cut wood and the once neatly stacked and propped wood-pile is stated. Frost turns forensic, like some New England Sherlock Holmes: this pile has been abandoned for years. Mature vines have grown through it.
Here is another context left unsaid. Why would someone abandon a purposeful wood-pile in a swamp? Frost leaves it for us to be detective and to solve the mystery. This isn’t some lot of fire-wood left temporarily to be gathered later in the day, care has been taken to stack and prop it.
The only thing I can think: someone once built a shack (now completely disappeared) on the swamp land. Frost muses, sardonically, that only someone so busy with “fresh tasks” could abandon such effort in cutting and stacking. Does he mean to say, “only a fool would be so industrious to cut and stack this wood and yet not notice he was building his shack on a swamp that would not support a homestead?”
Now, the small bird with his “little fears” and oh-so-human misapprehensions of reality—and now, the steadfast Frost of miles to keep going, even if you may be lost, are set in contrast to this choice. Your fears may lie to you—but so will your optimism.
I once heard an astringent biological statement that the length of our lives can be reduced to a slow-burning chemical reaction. Frost’s last line here is a sad and beautiful analog to that truth.
Let us for a moment consider length in English language poetry. Despite the customary inclusion of one or two very short poems in most American poetry anthologies (“The Red Wheelbarrow” or “In A Station of the Metro” typically), one can easily derive from them an accumulated mainstream judgement that poems shorter than a sonnet’s 14 lines are judged slighter expressions of less merit.
Similarly, in music, for all the glories of the mid-20th Century’s two minute and forty second 45 RPM single, serious composed music demonstrates greater regard for pieces of at least middling length, and the 20 to 70-minute symphony is still regarded with reverence. And so on with improvised music practice, which seem to find the five-minute mark as a minimum. Even the later 20th Century movement that got called “Minimalism” worked the idea of fewer motifs considered at greater length.
And so it is when we consider swans, the largest waterfowl, in words. Our last episode uses Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Wild Swans,” a fine poem, but if one looks at the accumulated attention gathered in the roughly 100 years since each was written, Millay’s “Wild Swans” is overshadowed by William Butler Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole.”
Yeats’ poem is worthy of this attention, and he does pack a lot into his mid-length 30-line poem, written by a late middle-aged poet as his colonized country has experienced a failed revolution and his world has seen the shocking mechanized slaughter of the original World War. All that violence is subtext—not once is it mentioned—and as we read or listen to it now, that violence may no longer be apparent, though the background of disappointment remains.
Millay presents the swans as something she cannot comprehend as they fly over her, with her disappointment, her heart at present “a house without air.” Yeats on the other hand presents an almost OCD-level attention with the swimming swans at the beginning of his poem. He has apparently been counting them on each visit for 19 years. He’s going to count them again. And then they fly off in clamor before he can finish his count even though he reports an exact number.
The specificity of those two numbers is curious. Is the 19 years of visits to Coole in Ireland a mere biographical fact? Are the “nine-and-fifty swans” he’s counted an actual census he took regularly? I do not know. Given that Yeats had a long interest in occultism, there may be some occult significance in one or both of those numbers. They are both large numbers for the things they measure: anything one has done for 19 years has a resonance for that long a duration, and given how magnificent the sight of a few swans gliding on the water are, the idea of 59 of them viewed together is an image of overwhelming swan-ishness.
What strikes me most about the two numbers subliminal effect is that both end in 9, and so, seem to be almost at an ending. As the poem develops, Yeats returns to that effect.
These details, written in Yeats typical lyrical fluency, accumulate throughout the poem. The lake and sky repeating each other. 59 swans. The “bell-beat” weight of their wings as they heavily swing them into flight, equally straining, equally coalescing into aerial rings. Their companionable swimming on the cold water “lover by lover”—ah, there’s that 59 again, an odd number—at least one swan has no mate.
But he doesn’t say that. The poem is all it’s music, the image after image, the beauty after beauty mixed with the undercurrent of impossibility of its permanency. The world will change, the poet or the swans will not return.
19 years of repetition does not mean 19 years of repetition to come. 59 swans is all but too much beauty, but one swan is without a partner.
So, do the 30 lines of Yeats mean it’s a greater poem than the 8 lines of Millay, an objective judgement causing its greater fame?
Why do I have to choose? If Yeats had written 60 or 6,000 lines would “The Wild Swans at Coole” be better? If Millay had written 80 lines, would her “Wild Swans” have shown greater skill? We can derive from how anthologists, poetry critics and audiences respond what their preferences are, even those they never articulate them explicitly, but in the end it is the longer poems that make the short poems concise and the short poems that make the longer poems seem overwhelming.
How many times have I listened to “Kind of Blue?” Does Miles Davis need to play more notes? Does John Coltrane need to play fewer? Looking at these two poems about swans, they illuminate each other.
Let’s return again to Edna St. Vincent Millay as I start a short series of pieces using words by more famous poets, each of whom considers the book of nature as played out by birds.
Millay’s “Wild Swans” may be somewhat overshadowed in the Cygnet Committee by William Butler Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole,” published only a few years earlier than Millay’s poem. The birds of these poems’ central image, the largest waterfowl, is known for white and graceful beauty while at rest or swimming on the water, which contrasts with their somewhat overburdened flight and strangled hinge-in-need-of-oil song.
Other than their pure color and size, it may be the swan in flight that makes them something of the ornithological model for angels, as for such a large bird to have enough strength and wingspan to fly is practically miraculous.
In “Wild Swans” Millay presents that miracle in flight, but by misdirection or misapprehension. The swans are flying as the poem opens, but Millay is instead looking inward—and furthermore, the poet thinks this introspection is bringing no insight.
But in this short poem’s second part, the images and insights come anyway. In an apostrophe to her heart, Millay addresses it as a “house without air”—an acute metaphor there for despair—and she now asks for the swans to fly over us again, trailing their ungainly legs, crying unselfconsciously their sad and awkward calls.
Wildness, movement, flight beyond bounds, the miraculous after grace, the next day flying over the weeks, then the months and the years.
This is a surprising poem, it’s titular image, those wild swans, are missing, until they are called for in the last five words; not to be beautiful, but straining to be possible.
I’m going to close out our investigation into the little-known early 20th Century Chicago Modernist poet Fenton Johnson with one of his most emotionally moving poems. James Weldon Johnson first included “Tired” in his “Book of American Negro Poetry” in 1922, and it has been anthologized several times since. “Tired” remains the poem of Fenton Johnson’s that one finds most often shared on the Internet today.
You can see why. Only a few beats in, that powerful line is spoken: “I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization.” It may take no more than that line alone to have some tag Fenton Johnson as the first radical Afro-American poet.
I cannot categorically disagree there. I know little about Johnson’s political views, and though the two short-lived magazines he founded before 1920 are said to have included political philosophy, I know nothing of the particular stances he took or supported. At least at the time (the first two decades of the 20th Century) “Tired” along with a few other of Johnson’s poems caused some Black cultural critics to remark that Johnson was too pessimistic, too given over to despair. You might find that strange, but in that moment, there was a feeling that educational and cultural uplift could soon raise the Afro-Americans along with the time’s large and wide immigrant demographics into a new, more accepting America. We know now that didn’t happen, that indeed 20th Century racism and poverty had some mighty blows to land on America and American Blacks with KKK branded racism, Great Depression poverty, and world-wide Fascism—but at the time, that uplift was what many Afro-American elites were pulling for.
However, just by going on what Fenton Johnson poetry I have available to me, I’m not entirely sure Johnson was, at this time, a political radical or a thorough pessimist.
The speaker in “Tired” is not Johnson himself, no more than the banjo player in our last episode’s poem is Johnson, the middle-class raised, college educated man. Even the “Last Chance Saloon,” where the banjo player plays for tips, returns in “Tired”. Johnson didn’t live in a shanty, he wasn’t married to a laundress.
True, this is a character that Johnson wants us to hear, an important voice that maybe even the Black “Talented Tenth” wasn’t listening to then, much less White America. And though it’s free verse, this is a poem, not an incisive political analysis or program. It’s a dramatic speech with rhythm, repetition, and a rise in despair from gin-houses to the stars.
It’s not hard for me to see in “Tired” the ancestor of August Wilson’s great play cycle, or the range of characters and voices in Walter Mosely’s detective fiction.
Musically I stepped at least as many decades into the future here, concluding this audio piece with a short burst of the kind of free jazz that allied itself with the Black Arts movement in the later part of the 20th Century. I’ll allow that this music is an acquired taste, but at its core is an ethic of allowing individual voices and modes of expression even in a group context. Free Jazz is not always as raucous as what I played for this, but it does not forbid it either. That’s consistent with what I try to do (within my limits as a musician) with the Parlando Project. When I say we combine words with various music, I mean it.
That does mean that you may not like all the writers’ words I present, or all the kinds of music I write and play to combine with those words, but it means that I’m also not going to stick with one thing and repeat it until we are both tired of it.
“So, what are you going to do today?” my teenaged son asked me.
“Go and be of some use to the world.” I replied.
“How are you going to do that?”
“Write about Fenton Johnson.”
“No really, what are you going to do?”
“Write about Fenton Johnson.”
“Oh. I thought it was a joke or something when you said it.” He was mildly puzzled—but like most of us, most of the time, probably not interested in explanations. Fenton Johnson is not a figure of wide interest, even within the minority interest our culture finds in poetry. Perhaps at some later time he’ll read this, and it’s not an accident that I continue to write here aiming at someone just a bit older than he is.
Of course, I had meant that as something akin to a joke, because our lives and callings are all, taken whole, comic. The sport of fate and circumstance for good or ill should never be mistaken for judgement. Even the tragic is but darkly comic.
In 1922, when James Weldon Johnson (no relation to Fenton) sought to make up the first anthology of Afro-American poetry, he had similar hopes, though more grounded in his greater talent and effort. James Weldon Johnson, like Felton Johnson, was a rare college-educated man in the early 20th Century, and doubly-rare, both were Afro-American college graduates. Both Johnsons held to a responsibility their circumstance pressed upon them: to uplift their race and to heal and resist the ignorance of racial prejudice.
That second part, the resistance part, should feel familiar, as it’s an ongoing struggle many will feel a part of today. Prejudice of many kinds, injustice in so many cases, is still a pressing issue. The uplift part however may feel quaint.
In his preface to “The Book of American Negro Poetry” James Weldon Johnson sets out the case that Black American poets should be able to rise to the highest levels of literary achievement, and while he’s not exactly apologetic about the poets his anthology will present, he’s also not a hype-man for what they have accomplished in 1922. Of Fenton Johnson, who he includes in his anthology, he says:
“Fenton Johnson is a young poet of the ultra-modern school who gives promise of greater work than he has yet done.”
Yet, as I look for the work of Fenton Johnson today, almost all the work I find are citations to the same pieces James Weldon Johnson included in 1922. What stunted Fenton’s career? A more extensive biography than may exist would seek to answer that question. The struggle for poetry’s place in national culture was hard enough throughout the 20th Century, add to that the challenges of racism. I do know that Felton Johnson sought to ambitiously broaden his cultural impact by financing and editing magazines on Black arts and culture, and the failure of these publications to become sustaining was one setback.
James Weldon Johnson, surveying Black Arts in his 1922 preface for his pioneering Negro Poetry collection, speaks not at all of the visual arts (ironically, just as European Modernists were latching onto African art as an influence) and little of Black acting, despite his connections with the New York stage of the time, but he does speak prophetically about the impact of Afro-Americans on American music. Having only the evidence of the spirituals, cakewalk, ragtime, and the imperfect understanding in the cultured North in 1922 of what the newly discovered “Blues” might truly be about, JWJ professes that Afro-American music is already a predominant strain. Nearly a century since, we can only say that he was too modest in his view of the future, however audacious he might have seemed in 1922. American music, seen from outside our country, and in any honest assessment from inside our borders, is Afro-American music. I don’t want to slight the contributions in our country’s music from many cultures when I say that—they are significant—but all of them cannot help but reflect on, and reflect back, the impact of the descendants of those Africans brought here as cargo.
Which brings us to this Fenton Johnson poem included in James Weldon Johnson’s anthology. Its overall intent is humorous. You can hear the college man’s mix of condescension with an honest observer’s eye for detail. What makes its poetry an example of the “ultra-modern school?” Our last episode’s Johnson piece, “A Dream,” was blank verse, even lines, even if the ironic asymmetry of its story is modern. The cadence of Johnson’s “God Is in the All Time” is strong and regular. “The Banjo Player” is free verse, conversational in rhythm. It jumps from the despair of the “Last Chance Saloon” mitigated by music, to the Kris Kringle promise of little children dancing and clapping to the banjo strum, finishing with a joke of the sophisticate.
Like the complex church music and rhetoric of “A Dream” last time, I had trouble musically portraying the Gus Cannon/Papa Charlie Jackson vibe of the banjo playing bluesman. The banjo is just an instrument that I fight with, and no cheating of one-man-band multi-tracking could save me here I fear. Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, or someone better attuned to the banjo need to perform this.
I spent an afternoon yesterday depressed at my failure to fulfill the promise of Fenton Johnson’s piece. Could one more mix fix this? Nope.
I moped until I went to sleep.
And then my son asked me this question this morning.
Here’s a second poem by Afro-American Modernist poet Fenton Johnson. Like the first piece of Johnson’s that I presented earlier this week, there’s a religious element, but it’s handled this time with a remarkable framing device.
As published in 1921, “A Dream” is the longer of two pieces which are grouped together as “Two Negro Spirituals.” What strikes me about them is the extraordinary knife-edge irony held in them between spirituality and reality. If the Language Poets descended from the Modernists will not find in “A Dream” the novel uses of language and syntax they look for, perhaps the Post-Modernists will appreciate Johnson’s conveying a vivid religious vision framed in a way that causes a reassessment of the foreground material.
That’s more critical theory and bin-labeling that I usually engage in, so let’s move away from that to the piece itself.
Is this texturally a “Negro spiritual?” Not really, though Johnson significantly chooses to call it that. The vision he presents, after a brief “Oh, my honey” aside would not seem out of place in William Blake or any of a number of 18th to 20th Century Christian revivalists. The “spirituals” of the title were largely folk hymns, and the language here is more literary. Johnson wants us to know it’s an Afro-American who’s speaking, yes; but also, a man who could read and know these non-folklore sources. Yet, the recounting of the titular dream is not a scholastic catalog of mystical religious elements, it’s a deeply felt vision of a glorious reward. One does not need to be a Christian to feel the ecstasy of this vision, any more than one needs to fully understand Blake’s idiosyncratic religious precepts to sense their “thereness.”
Johnson concludes the poem with a single line of a contrasting vision that recasts all that has come before it. Listen to the piece with the player below to hear it as it occurs.
Musically, this piece caused me all kinds of trouble, and, to be frank, I don’t think I got all the way to what I wanted to achieve. The difficulties of being my own composer, arranger, reader, ensemble of musicians and recording engineer should cause this kind of trouble more often than it does. However, I did so want to continue to present the things that this to-little-known poet Fenton Johnson did, that I have “called time” on this piece, and present it here now for you to listen to.
I’m continually a few days behind in the past month or so, what with Winter holidays and other appointments and responsibilities. Some of the audio pieces have been recorded especially expeditiously, and another part of this project has been neglected: the searches I take to find words (mostly poetry) I combine with original music.
Because publishers do not respond when I ask for permission to use works that may be in copyright, I am constrained to use written work outside of copyright, typically works published before 1923. Although I respond to, and use, poetry written in various eras, my desire to mix in more contemporary voices leads the Parlando Project to use a lot of poetry from the first two decades of the 20th Century. This is not altogether a bad thing. I happen to like a lot of what these pioneering Modernists did, and in some cases, what we find in the mouth of the “Post-Modern” poetry mainstream delta is worthy of reconsideration in the light of the Modernists. Have stagnant currents deposited silt and detritus at our end of Modernism, its own Mannerism that says that poetry must be written in a special poetic language and syntax, because that is the language that serious poems use? If popular poems are to be about recounting internal personal experience and serious poems are to be about hermetic personal language, what is missed?
Maybe we answer these questions by doing, as we answer other questions (even ones we never ask) by living. In my case, the doing may be by continuing this Parlando Project.
So earlier this month, returning to the research that goes on behind the scenes of this blog, I read two old anthologies of poems now in the public domain, looking for some new material. In one I was attracted to yet another piece by Carl Sandburg, a poet I believe should be reassessed in our time, but hardly an unknown, particularly to readers/listeners here. In the second one I came upon the work of Fenton Johnson for the first time. I’m willing to bet most of you haven’t heard of him.
Johnson, like Sandburg, like William Carlos Williams, wrote Modernist verse while remaining in America. Like William Butler Yeats, his career was long enough that he wrote poems that sounded like the 19th Century before transitioning to a 20th Century voice. Here’s a difference: Fenton Johnson was Afro-American.
OK, let me drop a term here: Identity Politics. I was recently reading a very thoughtful blog post on Carl Sandburg compared to Post-Modernist poetry, when the author remarked that Sandburg was able to write in a time preceding Identity Politics. I don’t know enough about Left Write & Centaur’s full thought on Identity Politics, but the implication was that Identity Politics, characterized as the idea that we are silos of individual experience based on membership in social and ethnic groups, who then by implication need to be treated and considered primarily by that identity, is a bad thing.
I agree, that’s a bad thing for the most part. I also believe it’s often a real thing.
The first half: the separation, at least to some degree, of individual experience, is so self-evident I don’t feel I need to argue it. Poetry and literature is to a large part a demonstration of the things that we find unique in individual voices—yes, along with things we can find in common in our lived lives—but if our take on experience wasn’t varied, literature would soon become dull and repetitive (at least to me). Even for those things that we find in common as we read or listen, how would we know without literature or other arts letting us share this?
If we feel that separation is a bad thing, then art is where we go to heal that. The arts are simply a name we give to that sharing of experience.
The second part, that this separation can be handled and considered with bins of people labeled with ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender, age, class, and so forth, this is where it gets real. We cannot wish away with imagination the ways the world labels and files its temporary inhabitants.
Should I care that Fenton Johnson is an Afro-American poet? Should I mention it? Does mentioning it imply some kind of special pleading? As I present a smattering of his development as a poet, will his work become “Well, it’s a black thing”—a separation surrendered to?
However we dream our ideal world to come, I know that Fenton Johnson had to deal in the real world of 1918 Chicago, just as he would in 1968 or 2018 Chicago, with his ethnic skin color label on a daily basis. That label doesn’t peel off. No doubt, many he encountered imaginatively filled out that label with a long list of contents, but instead, let’s look from inside Fenton Johnson out at the world.
Will it be the same and different as Apollinaire, Sandburg, Rossetti, Tagore, Yeats, and Dickinson? Yes.
Early Fenton Johnson poems often start from a religious theme. This one, “God Is In the All Time” portrays things from a universalist perspective.
I beg your indulgence here, but once more I feature Carl Sandburg’s words in today’s piece. Variety is a goal here, so perhaps I need to take a personal no-Sandburg pledge for a decent interval. And, honestly, I wasn’t seeking another Sandburg piece when I read through a yearly anthology of American poetry from 1922 last week, looking for fresh public domain material. Reading it I came upon the interesting poem that is the basis for today’s piece.
Besides variety, I like to see connections, and “California City Landscape” is rich in that. As a poem it may not be as sharp and condensed as Sandburg’s Imagist poems that I like to call attention to, but it does bring to the table Sandburg’s youthful journalism. “California City Landscape” starts off like a feature story, and the story it tells is like ones written about gentrification in the 21st Century, even though it was written no later than 1922. The incumbent residents may be displaced. But like a poem, or a piece of carefully written prose, the reportage includes sentences which send a reader or listener off into entire dimensions of reality outside its moment in “the peace of the morning sun as it happened.” It was those things that arrested my attention as I read this in the midst of this old annual anthology.
It starts out with this anecdote about a second generation Irish-American goat farmer, connecting as it does to one of second-generation immigrant Sandburg’s great themes: American immigration. But how carefully barbed is the sentence Sandburg uses to sum up the changes this man has seen in California by 1922. He arrived in a covered wagon, and “shot grouse, buffalo, Indians, in a single year.”
If we were Tweeting: “OMG! He went there!”
But there it is in a sentence. An Irish American, coming from a nation that is widely despised, colonially oppressed, and mired in poverty and starvation, travels in a generation across and ocean and a broad continent, and in the process shoots (and presumably kills) indigenous Americans, an act linked as if it was like hunting for food.
I’ll admit, at first moment I thought it offensive, but I’ve read enough Sandburg to know his toughmindedness, his instinct to not sugar-coat. That Sandburg wouldn’t have included this detail as a thoughtless, bloodless, “Oh, those good ol’ days, when men knew how to handle a rifle” comment.
His next anecdote: two Japanese families, truck gardening for the growing city of Los Angeles. And once again, the undertone: immigrants whose race and culture is understood barely enough to be widely disapproved of in their new country. We don’t need to credit Sandburg with the gift of prophecy, but historically we may know what will happen in 20 years: the Japanese Americans on the West Coast will be taken from their homes by legal fiat and detained in makeshift rural camps.
So, a 95-year-old poem about a problem we might write about today (if our poetry would be politically engaged and socially observant): gentrification. And in talking about it Sandburg brings in racism and immigration from those, ah, em—what’s the Presidential term—oh, yes, less desirable countries.
And then the third anecdote: the McMansion of the Hollywood director, with the “whore-house interiors.” Here I’m not completely sure about Sandburg’s prophetic dimension. The epithet of whore-house décor remained even into my time in the second half of the 20th Century as a charge on nouveau riche ostentation, a term used without a direct linkage to sexual oppression.
That Sandburg the poet goes on to add “ransacked clothes,” an odd adjective choice that he could have intended as a knock against Hollywood costumers knocking off “real” European couture—but that sounds more snobbish than Sandburg could ever be—and he next adds the “In the combats of ‘male against female” line. From the era we know the director is male, and Sandburg associates this anecdote specifically with a struggle of “male against female.”
Maybe I’m missing an obvious alternative, but is Sandburg predicting a 95 year #timesup statement?
Finally, I love the last line, echoing a common Sandburg trope about modernity and timelessness: “How long it might last, how young it might be.”
The Parlando Project combines various words (usually poetry) with music as varied as I can make it. When I planned the Parlando Project I did not intend to post detailed examinations of the poems’ meanings.
After all, I thought, listening to music is a sensuous experience, and poetry, as it is musical speech, also has it impact when hearing it, independent of any final meaning one could extract from it. Of course, assuming the poetry is in one’s own language, it’s nearly impossible to escape meaning if one allows oneself to listen at all. Some words and phrases will mean something, even on first hearing, even with the most confusing and difficult poetry.
In the end, we may experience a difficult or elusive poem as if it was a set of flat-pack furniture, or a jigsaw puzzle, or as one of those plastic model kits that I bought and glued together in my youth. But in those cases, a wordless black and white sheet with numbers and pointed arrows inside the carton tells you this is to be assembled as a dresser or end table, and the puzzle or model kit has the beautiful color picture on the box top that tells you the pieces’ assembled meaning.
With a poem like Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” there is no picture of it complete, there are no assembly instructions. If you try to put it together, you may feel there are pieces missing.
The pieces, though, are beautiful, even left unconnected, even if we don’t know what the whole is to be. Slanted light on a winter’s afternoon with a heft like music. Shadows holding their breath. Heavenly hurt without a scar.
There’s no harm in going to the bottom of this post and using the player to hear my performance of “There’s A Certain Slant of Light” without reading the rest of this. There will be no test. There’s no correct answer. You never need to put down your pencil and close your test booklet. Dickinson didn’t write about what she intended with this poem, and intelligent readers have differed in what they found there. Some found an end-table, others a fine art painting, others a plastic 1940 Ford sedan built one of three ways. Some listeners will just enjoy the pieces. There’s a little piano motif I play in it: A, B, C, E ascending and then back to A again. What does that mean? It’s an arpeggiated A minor (add 9) chord, or it’s just a series of notes that sound “meaningful” in sequence without knowing the harmony.
As we near 170 audio pieces posted here, we now get our second set of Shakespeare’s words, but instead of one of his sonnets, here’s a short scene from one of his plays (Twelfth Night) which, by his design, includes a song.
The play’s title indicates it was an occasional piece for an English holiday that takes place on the 12th day after Christmas. I read that the traditional English Twelfth Night partakes of various “floating” winter/winter solstice traditions, some dating back to Roman Saturnalia, with much party-play acting of role-reversals, selections of short-term random royalty, eating, drinking, and song.
Here in modern commercial America, the extending of Christmas is via a prelude, with ever extended shopping days before the holiday; but in the past, Christmas was instead broadened after the December 25th date, with the “Twelfth Night” being the end of the “12 Days of Christmas”—yes, those same 12 days the famous listing song counts off. Given the dreary length of winter in northern climes, the holiday season was sometimes extended even further to February 2nd, Candlemas.
And it was on Candlemas, 416 years ago that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first performed. The play has a complex series of plots, but the one central to today’s audio piece is that of a young woman, Viola, who’s been shipwrecked in a foreign land, has taken to dressing as a man, Cesario; and while still disguised and cross-dressing, she has fallen in love with Orsino, an older Duke of the foreign land. Orsino is sad because he’s in love with Olivia, a local lady, who refuses his attentions. Only one thing keeps Orsino going in his melancholy: music.
As we enter into the play with today’s audio piece, the “meta” gets laid on thick. Orsino, though unlucky in love himself, seeks to give the “young man” Cesario advice in love. And Cesario (infatuated Viola in disguise as a young man) tolerates this mansplaining in hope that Orsino might someday see something in her/him. And in Shakespeare’s time the young woman passing as a young man would have been played by—well, a young man passing for a woman.
As the scene ends, Orsino asks for an “old song” to cheer him up.
The song Orsino requests “Come, Come Away Death” is so dour I wonder if Shakespeare is making more comedy against the excess of melancholy and the foolish suffering of unrequited love. It’s a cheery little ditty about refused love causing or requiring death, and the spurned lover wishing only that his grave be unknown so that there’s no chance his unresponsive sweetie will ever hypocritically mourn there.
Representative lyrics: “On my black coffin, let there be strown./Not a friend, not a friend greet/My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.” If Judas Priest had recorded this, it certainly would have been brought up in the 1990’s trial where the heavy metal band was accused of driving listeners to suicide.
But, after all, Twelfth Night is a comedy. No spoilers here, but despite multiple love triangles and more disguises and misunderstandings, fate is kind to multiple sets of lovers, something we can all wish for lovers this upcoming year.
Since Orsino in the play’s text asks for “Come, Come Away Death” to be sung, we know it was indeed sung with music in Shakespeare’s time, and there are several settings of it. The ones I’ve heard are in the Elizabethan style, usually for a high, plaintive tenor—and even when Elvis Costello sang it, it was in this manner. I went counter to this, taking a more rock stance, allowing the singer to mix some anger into his self-pity.
Today is the 140th anniversary of Carl Sandburg’s birth. Sandburg began his long and broad career as an American Imagist poet, political activist, and journalist, and he went on to add prize-winning biographer, folk-song revivalist, and goat farmer to his resume. If one was to make a list, he would be in a small group of American cultural forces in the first half of the 20th Century who created what we today call “Americana,” and helped make sure that this label could be applied, as it can be today, to a musical genre. I won’t have time to go into this today, but in 1927 he published “The American Songbag,” which is as important a landmark in the American folk song revival as “The Wasteland” is for high-art Modernist English verse.
I’ve spoken about Sandburg here a great deal in the past couple of years because I believe he’s too-little read, too-little considered in academic circles, and too-often misunderstood from the effects of this quick (mis)understanding and dismissal. To the degree that people encounter him in school or surveys of poetry, it’s for two poems. One, sometimes effectively used as an introduction to metaphor even at the grade school level, is his short Imagist poem “Fog.”
The other, better known as the Carl Sandburg poem, is his Whitmanesque “Chicago,” with its famous opening litany of praise for Chicago that is ever quoted whenever that city is to be characterized. Some things are odd about the case of “Chicago.” First, while folks remember and re-use it’s opening stanza of praise, they forget the three lines that follow it, which though stated in century-old language, is unmistakably as stark a report as any OG rap laying out hos, gangsters, and poverty:
“They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.”
Though “Chicago’s” Whitmanesque/expansive-litany style is one that Sandburg would continue to use at times, its prominence has overshadowed Sandburg’s sparer Imagist voice, the one that he used for the rest of the poems in his landmark “Chicago Poems” collection.
It’s easy to think that if Sandburg had spent time in Europe hobnobbing with its cosmopolitan demi-mode, if he had included more Latin and Greek in his poems, and if he’d kept his political commitment to something between Tory and crypto-Fascist, that he might have scored more academic cred in the second half of the 20th Century. And his more general popularity, like that of Edna St. Vincent Millay, is in danger of dying out after the death of the fire-starter without the hard-blowing bellows of academia keeping the embers glowing.
If that’s so, who does that leave to keep Sandburg’s poetry more broadly heard?
If anyone remembers Sandburg, particularly the spare, Imagist Sandburg, it’s musicians and composers. He gets set to music often, and his free verse often sings easily. And, it seems to me that musicians, rather than page-poetry curators, more often remember the innovative modernist in Sandburg. One of my favorite records of 2017 was Matt Wilson’s “Honey and Salt” which, like the Parlando Project, seeks to use a variety of music combined with Sandburg’s underappreciated broader pallet of literary expression in unexpected ways.
Today’s piece, a slightly remastered version of one I used to test streaming audio here before the official launch of the Parlando Project, is Sandburg’s “Winter Milk” as performed by the LYL Band a couple of years ago.
Once more I’m going with a fresh translation for today’s words. And once more, they’re from the French, as I take on Pierre Reverdy’s “Clair Hiver” in English as “Clear Winter.” Unlike my last French translation, Apollinaire’s “Mirabeau Bridge,” this one hasn’t already been translated a dozen times, though the one translation I could find was by no less than John Ashbery, so I’m still a bit audacious in taking my swing at this.
Like Apollinaire or Tristan Tzara, Reverdy’s work isn’t well-known in English, but even more than those two Paris contemporaries of his, he’s been acknowledged as a substantial influence on post-WWII American poetry. Reverdy’s been studied, cited as an influence, and translated by Ashbery, Kenneth Rexroth, and Rod Padgett. Others connected with the 20th Century “New York School” of poetry were inspired by his work too.
Indeed, it’s through Frank O’Hara that Reverdy’s name may be best known in English, for as O’Hara took his famous summer stroll in Manhattan in the lines of his poem “A Step Away from Them,” he takes care to mention that “My heart is in my pocket, it is / ”Poems by Pierre Reverdy.”
When Pierre Reverdy died in 1960, Ashbery asked O’Hara if he had any poems to contribute to a memorial issue of a magazine he was curating. O’Hara replied, deferring, “I just couldn’t stand the amount of work it would seem to take, since the minute you mentioned it I decided that everything I’ve written…has been under his influence.”
I used that O’Hara connection as my entry point into Reverdy and to my translation of “Clear Winter.” Unlike Ashbery, I’m not a French speaker, and my high school French classes have long worn off—but O’Hara’s voice in English is somewhat ingrained in me, and so I used that as a guide as I completed my Reverdy translation.
But now I’m not so sure that was the right choice. Reading a trenchant analysis of Reverdy by Kenneth Rexroth, I may have overdetermined the images in my first translation of Reverdy—but for better or worse, this is my tendency as a translator. I try to sense in the foreign language the experience the poem speaks of, and then to vivify those sensations and thoughts I find in that examination into English. That often takes the form of using clear idiomatic, contemporary English to sharpen those images. Often in this process, I’ll take imaginative leaps into the poet’s intent—and, well, sometimes when one steps boldly into what one thinks is a pool of light in the darkness, it turns out to be a large pothole filled with ditch-water instead.
If my suppositions are mistakes, perhaps they are at least vivid mistakes.
Reverdy, like Apollinaire, has been called a cubist poet, and like Apollinaire he knew many of the painters who formed that faceted multi-perspective style in the Paris of the first part of the 20th Century. As the style developed, found objects such as newspaper, tickets, and wallpaper were pasted into the paintings. To reflect this musically this piece uses some various audio loops for melodic elements—something I don’t usually do. This my attempt to show the cubist ethos of juxtaposed perspectives. That the loops should be unlike, yet somehow hang together, was the aim, and their repetitive nature is the analog to the cubist geometric forms.
That description makes my music for “Clear Winter” sound all high art, and I guess it would be in the early 20th Century, but some current popular music forms commonly do this. Electronic Dance Music and Hip Hop tracks love the unexpected intrusion of unusual sounds. So, though my performance of Reverdy’s “Clear Winter” is a short piece, I’d be glad to do an extended dance mix if the demand is there.
It’s a new year, and here’s a piece that is not representative of most of what we do here. First off, it’s a piece where I wrote the words, when one of the Parlando Project principles is “Other People’s Stories.” So, the words we use here are normally from others, often originally written as page poems by their authors. The Parlando Project adapts, recasts, and performs these pieces with various combinations of original music. Today’s episode, “There is Always Time” was conceived as a song to be sung from the start.
It’s been a busy last couple of weeks for me, so my ability to work on new pieces has been slightly curtailed. I’ve had this one done for a month, saved for just such an occasion when I’ve fallen behind in the work that goes into this project—and well, it does seem like a good piece for the day of New Year’s Resolutions.
“There is Always Time” is a “carpe diem” piece about dreams and desires deferred, so it’s perhaps the precursor to those lists of “shoulds” for the coming year.
Goals and focus are good things. Approximately three years ago I set out on just such a goal, to create and present 100 or so audio pieces combining various words and various music. I needed to learn a bit about how to syndicate these pieces via podcasting as well as how to stream them from a blog. Once I started this, I soon found there was even more to learn, more things that will ask to be needed by the work. Since the Parlando Project was launched in August 2016, we’ve exceeded the original goal, and we now near 170 audio pieces published.
Goals, focus, drive, desire to learn, audacity mixed with humility—all were necessary. However, I think today, as I present this piece, of Karen Horney, the innovative early psychoanalyst, who developed a concept as she looked at personalities and the goals they set. She called it “The Tyranny of the Shoulds.”
Who was the tyrant, the oppressor, who is in this phrase? Parents? Society? Government? Natural Law? Racism, sexism, ageism, gender roles? Well, they all could contribute to the tyrant’s powers, but in her formulation the mad dictator is specifically “The Ideal Self.”
Wait—what? The Ideal Self is what is going to get me out of those old-year patterns, get me doing those things that I need to do. The Ideal Self will make sure I commit to my art. The Ideal Self will fix those things about myself that keep failing. The Ideal Self will make me a better person, a better co-worker, a better partner, a better parent, a better son or daughter, and so on.
What’s wrong with that? Look again at Horney’s formulation: “The Tyranny of the Shoulds.” What if that Ideal Self behaves as a tyrant does? What if instead of being the loving, supportive partner, parent, boss, or teacher that we may or may not have had, the Ideal Self acts as a dictator would: the executions, the inquisitions, the scape-goating, the banishments, the wars of aggression, all waged by the Ideal Self against the poor Real Self, who beaten-down will eventually fail the tyrant or overthrow it.
So yes, seize the day, seize the year. Do more and better art this year. Love your partners and your families and your friends while they are here. Repair the world, slowly and little-by-little if you can be patient and brave. Clean out the closet. Ride your bike more. Learn a new instrument. Read more. But be the loving partner to that struggling Real Self. It knows it’s limitations, it’s failures, it’s shames, but it is only your Real Self that can do these things.