It often takes a while to know who has died.
When Prince died a year ago, the shock-wave for fans was breath-taking, the air went out of the room, and for each of them there was something that went missing when they got the word: the promise of new music, a memory of concert or a night of dancing, a period of their youth now seemingly past all reliving, and probably a dozen or more other private things.
If it seemed impossible that Prince had died, it was because it was impossible that he had lived. About him it could be said that he could dance like James Brown, sing like Marvin Gaye, play guitar like Jimi Hendrix, write a song like Curtis Mayfield—and arrange it all, and play it all, and record it all for himself or other artists. He was the most astonishingly broad musical artist of our time.
And he did this over and over, for decades, to the point that no one could ever really keep up with all he did. I suspect the longer time we now have will allow us to discover, in his work, things that are still overlooked, ideas that he had that somehow weren’t understood, things we skipped over because we thought Prince should be doing something else.
Tonight, as I write this, I’m struck by one other thing: has there been enough recognition that Prince was in the vanguard of bringing women instrumentalists into the context of the rock band? Let’s propose a rock band gender integration variation of the Bechdel test: name a successful band with two prominent women instrumentalists before The Revolution that wasn’t a “all-girl band. (1)” Every example that comes to mind (and it’s not like there are hundreds of them) stops the count of women players at one. I can think of only two (2), and neither achieved a modicum of the cultural prominence of Prince’s band.
And he did it again performing with his late career power trio, 3rdEyeGirl.
That’s just a part of his career of course—but please, this isn’t some kind of rote identity politics thing, or merely a piece of trivia like “Name a band with two left-handed Canadians?”. This is half the human race!
With the Parlando Project I get to audaciously tackle the work of a lot of great writers. I use their words unashamedly and try to find something I can relate to you about their work. For some reason, perhaps because Prince Rogers Nelson embarrasses me as musician, I’ve been hesitant to post this episode, and to share this modest musical piece The LYL Band wrote and performed about his leaving.
But I’m going to do it anyway. The best parts of this piece “Mr. Nelson” are the work of Dave Moore: most of the words and the electronic piano part. You can dance if you want to.
(1) I exclude the “all-girl band” not to denigrate the talents of those who performed in them, or because a band somehow needs men to be valid, but because however intended, the result in the 20th Century cultural context was seen largely for its novelty value.
(2) The two bands I can think of: Joy of Cooking and the Country Joe MacDonald led “Paris Sessions” era All-Star Band.
Readers of these notes may recall a discussion of the theory that Emily Dickinson’s reclusive nature in later adulthood was caused by epilepsy and that her poem “I Felt a Funeral In My Brain” may have been describing the auras experienced around epileptic seizure events. I think it’s an interesting idea, a plausible one, but in I also warned against reductionist explanations for art.
Even recognizing that danger, I’m about to risk that sort of thing again, for what I think are good reasons.
Is T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” introduced to students later and less often now than it was in my youth? If so, I suspect this is because “The Waste Land” does not present itself as a friendly introduction to poetry. It seems proudly obscure. There’s no frank self-expression in it where a recognizable author/speaker tells us about their life and outlook. Instead, there’s a flurry of voices and characters that are barely, if even that, introduced. And there’s no interesting story, no fable or tale with a twist that carries us along. There’s a shortage of obvious similes, no “fog comes on little cat’s feet” to introduce metaphor.
In my youth, all these shortcomings of “The Waste Land” as a teaching tool were overlooked because it was a landmark in the rise of Modernism, that defining artistic movement of the first half of the 20th Century, and because it was full of the stuff that made up a Liberal Education: foreign phrases, cosmopolitan settings, wide-ranging cultural references to other literary works from across time.
And now? The odds are that if T.S. Eliot was to stand up at a Moth story-telling stage or a slam poetry event and deliver “The Waste Land” in whole or in part, that boos, snores, or some variety of non-pleasurable puzzlement would result. We are inured to a different kind of poetry, confused enough, bothered enough, by modernity and its incessant messages that Eliot’s fragments shored up against ruins seems to offer us no balm, no pleasure of recognition.
I’ll offer two keys, two aspects of “The Waste Land” that can allow you entry into it. The first is: it’s intensely musical. The imagery, outside of “The Waste Land’s” overriding dry vs. wet scheme, never strays far from sounds, and all those unintroduced voices are like new strains in a composition. No wonder the Parlando project is drawn to it, because we believe that one can appreciate poetry without understanding its meaning, in the same way that you can appreciate music without being able to somehow explicate it.
The second entry point, the one that risks being reductionist, is that this is a poem written by someone suffering from depression. Whatever voice is speaking in the poem, it is heard and reflected out the mouth of someone who feels it has all gone wrong, someone who cannot fully trust any other feeling other than that—other than the emotion of fear that that is the reality that any other feeling would mask. Although it must sacrifice the music, the incandescent reading of the “The Waste Land” by Fiona Shaw illuminates this aspect.
Today’s episode is just a part of the first part of “The Waste Land,” but it’s the part the begins in April, our National Poetry Month. I don’t know if Eliot intended to refer to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” prologue (our last episode), but it sure seems to rhyme. The opening of Eliot’s series of tales has, like Chaucer’s prologue, rain, flowers, journeys and travelers; and later in the poem Eliot will in bring birdsongs and churches. And Chaucer, who begins singing in Spring merriment, introduces at the end of the prologue the promise of “Strange strands,” and tells us that the pilgrims may be taking the pilgrimage because they have been sick.
One way to get experience is to seek it through the directed travel of a pilgrimage. Many religious traditions include the idea of a such journeys, and one side-effect of a shared destination is the mingling of travelers from diverse setting-off points along the trail.
In the Middle Ages, in England, one pilgrimage had the greatest potential to bring a diverse group together, the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Canterbury where the sainted Thomas Becket had been assassinated. A series of stories ostensibly told by various tellers together for this trip became the great early work of English literature: Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”
April is National Poetry Month in the US, and though this celebration’s founders give no exact reason for April being chosen, two widely known poems explicitly start in April, and whether it’s cause or effect, I think of these poems when I think of April and National Poetry Month. The oldest of these, is today’s episode “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.” Which begins:
“Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote”
Now I know I’ve let slip too many typos in these notes before today, but that’s not a particularly bad day at the keyboard—instead, it’s Chaucer’s version of English as spoken in the 15th Century. It’s a challenge to read this in the original pronunciation, though I once was delighted when a skilled classical music DJ mic checked at 5:45 AM one morning with a perfect rendition of this Prologue in Middle English. I’m not going to attempt the same; today’s episode uses a modern English version for clarity, and in consideration of my thicker tongue.
Musically I’m not in the Middle Ages or in Canterbury for this piece either. I’m going to use the 12-string guitar once more. There is no shrine here in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, but for some reason three of best players of this troublesome priest of an instrument came to prominence here: “Spider John” Koerner, Leo Kottke, and Steve Tibbetts. For this episode, the 12 String’s musical tale is told in the character of Steve Tibbetts—or rather a modest imitation on my part using Tibbetts’ distinct stringing of the 12 string, which uses octave strings only on the two lowest courses of the 12 string with unison string pairs on the rest.
Here’s another piece by Dave Moore. Dave plays almost all of the keyboards on the LYL Band music you hear here, and without his contributions I’d get tired of hearing my own voice all the time myself. Today’s episode “Experience” started out intended as a poem, as Dave explains:
“My friend Ethna mentioned the Common Good Books poetry contest, which paid cash, on the theme of experience.
Naturally the next word in my mind was prurience, which in this version I ‘eschew.’ although I changed the printed version to ‘avoid.’ Still, I love the roll of ‘eschew prurience.’
I set out to state that every moment is an experience, and most of them are accidents, which constitutes the glory of the show. But - But seriously...
When I brought this lyric to a LYL session, I draped it around a tune, trying to see how the words spilled over the dam. Thus edified, I tinkered with it some before submitting to Common Good.
Of course, I lifted ‘life is but a joke’ from Dylan's ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ but it worked so well in the stanza (is it a chorus?) of philosophy. I chose to leave the ‘do’ and ‘done’ lines as ironic music which states the case.
So, am I experienced? Conclusively, I can say yes or no.”
Experience is an interesting topic for this book store’s contest. William Blake titled one of his collections of short lyrics “Songs of Experience,” after which I cannot think of the word without thinking of Blake—but Blake also put much store in the auguries of innocence. Ralph Waldo Emerson toured the country as a speaker, but his contemporary Emily Dickinson famously constricted her travels as she grew up. Emerson’s mind worked best traveling widely, as in his essays. Dickinson mind produced compressed words pinned in a matrix of her famous dashes, and it’s Dickinson’s poetry that we are more likely to turn to today. “Like a dream, experience is being where you are” Dave says.
The most popular TV show of my youth was a strange yet derivative series called “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The basic device of this comedy was as old as Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals, and as common as 19th and 20th Century perennials like hillbilly plays, Ma and Pa Kettle films and even minstrel shows.
They all work the same way, and the joke never seems to grow old: rural folks are stupid, prone to exaggerating for comic effect all errors in human logic. They are above all inexperienced, leading to all kinds of misunderstandings; and they are peculiar in their language: misuse of words or odd pronunciations are rife. Abstractly, this is the ore of comedy gold, but culturally these traits are being applied to an “other,” a group that can safely be made fools of to demonstrate the audience’s superior understanding.
One trap of that kind of comedy: the dumber the writer thinks the audience is, the dumber the writer believes he must make the characters, until they lack all worth, delight and surprise. While one could worry about such authors violating political correctness, the worse danger to the authors’ career is for the audience to figure out that they are being played for rubes through a play about fools.
I was young when “The Beverly Hillbillies” was going strong, and living in a very small town in a rural state, but I found this show funny. I never occurred to me that my own inexperience might be blinding me to the idea that I could be part of this bumpkin class, at least in some people’s eyes. My little town was progressive, proud of its school, and besides I didn’t think like those silly folks, I knew full well that richer folks’ houses could have a swimming pool in the back yard and that they were called just that, not See-Meant Ponds.
But my youth and my small town were a course of inexperience. I was forever mispronouncing words and authors' names because I had never heard them spoken—I had only seen them written on the page. I was, and yet wasn’t, those stock comic characters.
Is there any value in small towns? I believe there is. I’ll give you one example before I move on: in small towns there is no surplus of conscripts, everyone needs to do their part. Slacking doesn’t mean someone else does it, it means it doesn’t get done, and there’s no escaping that knowledge. I’m afraid that in my old age and life in a big city, I’ve become just such a slacker.
And there’s one other value to such a youth: going from a smaller, less varied place to a larger and more diverse one gives an eye a very sharp lens to look at things. I’m not sure movement the other way works as well. If one looks in the big end of the telescope, everything you point the small end at looks tiny and indistinct. It’s no accident that a very large group of writers follows that biographic path from town to city.
All this leads to today’s piece, “The Lake Street Testament,” which is an urban story through and through.
The path of a long build up like this to a short ending is another comic staple: the Shaggy Dog Story. Earlier here you’ve seen me write about the essentially comic dimensions of the human condition, particularly when talking about Leonard Cohen, Mose Allison, and Phil Dacey. This piece takes that thought into this religious season and puts it on Lake Street, which is a main commercial east/west street through the center of Minneapolis, as urban a road as exists anywhere.
Monday night here in Minnesota it snowed. As I took my pre-teen son to school in the morning, he looked at the inch of fresh snow on the spring ground and said “Mother Nature is drunk. Shut her down!”
I rode my winter bike to breakfast that morning, and the trees overhanging the street were shedding overnight ice chunks that their budding branches were rejecting in the morning. As this shrugging hail fell on my ski helmet’s hard shell, it bounced off with a “ping!” like marbles or ping pong balls, and popped onto the icy street like broken ornaments. A few hours later, in the late afternoon, I rode again to the grocery store in considerable sunlight. The streets were dry and I was in shorts and a T shirt.
Minnesotans have a well-worn phrase for our edition of the book of nature. It’s not a hand-bound collection of poems like our New Englander Emily Dickinson’s, but a play script: “The Theater of the Seasons” we call it. Famously, we try to hide emotions here, but we sure do enjoy a little drama with our weather forecasts, keeping an eye peeled for news of storms that can kill or injure you. Sitting in the upper Midwest we can receive weather sweeping up from the Gulf of Mexico or dropping down from the Northwest Territories. So, particularly in Spring and Fall, the Theater of the Seasons plays in repertory here in Minnesota.
Today’s short audio piece is called just that: “Theater of the Seasons,” expanding on that phrase a bit. I think you’ll enjoy it.
I find it a wonderful “Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet” co-incidence that one of Christina Rossetti’s sonnets and one of David Crosby’s songs share a title, “Triad.”
David Crosby is a musician and songwriter who first came to prominence in The Byrds and then as part of another triad, Crosby Stills and Nash. When I first came upon his songwriting many years ago, I was attracted to his distinctive abstract melodic and harmonic sense. Almost no one before, and few since, wrote music for songs that sound like his did then, with the exception of some Joni Mitchell tunes. Lyrically Crosby styled himself as unconventional as well. His “Triad” is a blissful ode to free love—well at least free love as long as David Crosby is the one explaining how things will be.
Christina Rossetti was a pioneering British 19th century female poet. Her biographical triad was that she had two brothers William Mitchell Rossetti and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, also writers, who went on to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Hmmm, “Brotherhood”—I wonder if girls get to join? Not officially, though she was used a model in some of their paintings.
Christina Rossetti’s “Triad” is a not-so-happy look at romantic love, and the writer is none-so-sure how it should be either. Rossetti draws her portrait of three women who once sang together. One the stereotypical harlot, one the blue spinster, one the smooth compliant wife. Each of them finds the dead end of the limited paths available for passionate women. Conventionality decrees the hot harlot is shamed and the cold virgin dies for love, but Rossetti steps outside conventionality to tell us that the “temperate” spouse grew gross in her compromise until left with the devastating line droning “in sweetness like a fattened bee.” How much has changed since Rossetti’s Victorian England in this regard? Some things, not all things. New Rules are still rules, look at who makes them.
Musically here with our "Triad", the LYL Band somewhat refer to the psychedelic vibe of Crosby’s musical style to accompany Rossetti’s sad and lovely words.
Minnesota goes wild in spring when it finally gets warm, and so today, which promises to touch 70 degrees, will surely display this. Like the day described in today’s episode, I’ll probably go for a bike ride with my young son, and we’ll ride on The Greenway, a several mile reclaimed railroad cut that runs, as time does, east and west through the middle of Minneapolis.
Raising a child as a musician, writer, and sometime bohemian brings extra questions. Do you want your child to follow the most conventional and unquestioning path? Certainly not. You encourage him to question things, even allowing that this will encourage him to question you. You look at your own life backwards as you look at his coming forward, and wish him adventures, but only so much. You know there will be hardships and wrong choices, but you hope only enough to be instructive. As an artist you may worship art, but you’re not sure you’re comfortable with him adopting all the tenants of that religion.
Today’s piece “Biking on the Greenway with My Son and Bob Stinson” speaks of this from the seat of a bicycle.
Bob Stinson was the animating force in The Replacements, an ‘80s punk band that never tried to split the difference between insouciance and not giving a @#*&. As a guitarist he was an anarchist, and the band accidentally worked like the NY Dolls, the Kinks, or the Rolling Stones, with a great front man who had the lyrical wit and the staggering lead guitarist who embodied the music’s soul.
The Replacements’ front man, Paul Westerberg, was quickly indicted as a fine rock’n’roll songwriter, which damaged the band because songwriting implies loitering with intent to commit James Taylor. The band rebelled by making sure that a regimented presentation of a set of songs was not the aim. On any given night, this could be inspiring or a shambles: Dada or do-do. Being blotto on stage to the point you couldn’t hide it was almost a requirement, and for no member of the Replacements more than for Bob Stinson.
Eventually the dichotomy demanded an ostomy and Bob Stinson was asked to leave the band he founded. Things did not go well for Bob without his artistic outlet, and chemical dependency played out its run until he died, his body worn out at 35.
Self-destruction aside, you can see that as path of purity. Chasing after success and an ego-driven desire to rise above others can harm too. The addict and the monk believe they have two different gods, but they have the same scourge. Negation and creativity; the not this, so this can emerge, is part of the religion of art.
Music, Minneapolis, and life are different now 30 years later, and that’s the place my son now lives in. Somewhere 30 years on from today will be the place he will live in, no longer young, if he survives rebellion and conformity, if he finds the balance between the worship of the self and self-destruction.
William Butler Yeats, when he spoke admiringly about the ubiquity that songwriters like Rabindranath Tagore could achieve, had already made his forays into setting his poems to music. As a sometime playwright, and a founder of the Abbey Theater in Ireland, he was already familiar with the dimensions performers can bring to words. Around the turn to the 20th Century he began to forthrightly seek to combine his poetry with music. Working in collaboration with musicologist and luthier Arnold Dolmetsch and performer Florence Farr he had a psaltery (a stringed instrument like a lyre or small harp) constructed, and Farr (a fascinating figure in her own right) then performed Yeats poems with it.
Yeats and Farr’s performance style was not a conventional art song setting of the poet’s words sung to a melody. Yeats explicitly rejected that (even though his words have often been set to melodies in the years since). Rather he thought the words were best chanted or intoned in a rhythmic and somewhat elongated speech. Such performances are controversial then, and I would suppose they would be controversial now as well. George Bernard Shaw called Farr’s chanting “A nerve-destroying crooning,” but Ezra Pound and other early 20th century modernists took note, and they were influenced by these performances to add a more incantatory and musical element to their poetry.
Now let us break in our story for about half a century.
In the late 1950s an actor and folk singer Burl Ives recorded an album of Irish songs, and one of them was “The Wondering of Old Angus”, a Yeats poem sung to melody that Ives claimed he learned from Sara Allgood, another actor who had performed with the Abbey Theater group and would have likely known of the Farr performances. Around the same time, another folk singer, Will Holt began singing the Yeats poem to a very similar melody, using Yeats’ title “The Song of the Wandering Aengus.” Then in 1962, Judy Collins, having learned the song from Holt, made it the title song of her album “Golden Apples of the Sun,” which is where I first heard it.
No one seemed to know where the tune Ives, Holt, and Collins used came from. Those knowledgeable in traditional Irish tunes do not recognize it. Some credited Holt for it. However, early in the 21st Century a man named Bill Kennedy writing in the folk-song forum mudcat.org linked the tune to a transcription made by Dolmetsch accompanying a Yeats essay “Speaking to the Psaltery” re-published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1907. The tune there of course was not meant to be sung, as Yeats discussed in this essay, but it is recognizably the one used by Ives, Holt, and Collins in their singing renditions.
So the tune may well be Yeats’ own, or perhaps it was composed by Farr or even Dolmetsch. Since the words are Yeats’, I’m going to call it, and make him the composer; and if so, that makes Yeats yet another singer-songwriter (along with Tagore and Dylan) to have won the Nobel prize.
But he didn’t sing it, nor did he intend the words to be sung. Since we at the Parlando project are working in something like the same vein, here’s a version, using more or less that tune, but chanted not sung.
When it was announced that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature there was a substantial reaction asking if songs could be literature—no, that’s not right, I’m mischaracterizing much of the reaction I read as if it was an honest inquiry into this question. No, the reaction I read was more of a conclusion that songs could not be literature, and so this Nobel award to Bob Dylan was a break with tradition, a loosening of standards.
This is complex subject, one I’ll probably return to, as I have much to say on this; but missed in the hoopla and questioning was this fact: Bob Dylan was the second singer/songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 1913 Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize, the committee citing:
"Because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West."
In 1913 when the prize was given, Tagore had only one such work they could be talking about: “Gitanjali,” a 1912 collection of his song lyrics that Tagore had translated himself from Bengali into English prose poems.
Tagore is a fascinating man and artist, with achievements in so many fields that you might think I’m making him up. He wrote every kind of literature, started a university, seriously pursued modern painting, and gave Gandhi the title “Mahatma.” But he was no dabbler at songwriting, having written over 2000 songs. He’s even the only composer to score a hat trick for national anthems, having written the national anthems of India, Bangladesh and Siri Lanka. His songs are so pervasive in Bengali culture that his thousands of songs have become their own genre.
Poet William Butler Yeats wrote enviously in his introduction to Tagore’s “Gitanjali” of the power of songs:
“These verses will not lie in little well-printed books upon ladies' tables, who turn the pages with indolent hands that they may sigh over a life without meaning, which is yet all they can know of life, or be carried by students at the university to be laid aside when the work of life begins, but, as the generations pass, travelers will hum them on the highway and men rowing upon the rivers.”
This spring as I read Tagore’s “Gitanjali,” I hoped to find there on the page what is promised in Yeats’ introduction and what would normally be guaranteed by such acclaim. I failed at this. I couldn’t find it. The English of the prose translations seemed so archaic, the expression stilted, the voice vague. From accounts I’ve now read, this seems to be an acknowledged problem; and it appears that, for whatever reasons, Tagore purposely framed his translated work in an incomplete way. In the longer term, I will seek some of the newer translations. In the short term, I stood back and remembered something.
Song. These are songs.
Not only are they missing their music, but songs, like plays, are works for individual voices and talents to embody. Their creators are not claiming the real, complete thing exists on the page, that they are performing them mutely with ink on the white page. No, they expect, demand, that someone step in them, surmise their meaning, fill the blank white space with emotions, and speak them.
All art is like this really. Songs admit it. Songwriters generously say: I need you to fill these things, your humanity is better than any of my approximations.
So, today’s episode is the second of my attempts to bring something to a piece from Tagore’s “Gitanjali” using his original prose translations, as that’s all I have for now. With the last episode’s “Light” I tried to meet Bengali music partway, but this time I’m staying firmly in the Western side, maybe even a bit on the Country and Western side. As I read this piece on the page I heard it as sounding like one of those weird Lee Hazelwood arrangements from a few decades ago, but since I was producing this myself, I had to sing the Nancy Sinatra part as well.
If you wonder about the floating lights ceremony mentioned in the song I call “Maiden with a Lamp,” it may be this one.
What is lost when poetry is translated? Robert Frost thought it outright: “Poetry is what is lost in translation.” Those who’ve read my notes here on the Parlando project know that I hold that poetry is words that want to sing. Those sound effects of the flowing sound of words, the call and response of rhyme, the beats of the dancing syllables—all that music can hardly be asked to make it past the visa-check at the translation station on languages’ borders.
In recent episodes I translated two poems from classical Chinese. As a non-Chinese speaker, I could not even hope to convey what musical effects the originals had. To better see this as English speakers, let us look the other direction, and think about what Emily Dickinson’s “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” would lose if we were to translate it to classical Chinese?
Would Dickinson’s easy music carry over? In English we have the movement of the common meter/ballad meter in her poem, a beat that is ingrained in those who sing common Christian hymns or know secular songs using this meter in the folk and popular music fields. Since this is a common form in our culture, we are primed to move to this meter, and rich associations may arise from other times we have felt the same beat. And that is most likely lost in translation.
There’s a pun in the first line. The sun “rose” and is pink. Puns won’t likely make it across the border.
Dickinson rhymed her poem. Translators sometimes choose to create rhyming poems in their destination language, but adding this degree of difficulty to the task may cause other defects in translation as the rhyme is sought.
English sometimes has an advantage when one translates to and from it, because it is the language of a much-invaded island, which was then taken up by a polyglot country across the ocean. English as we know it today is full of words with Latin and Germanic origin, echoes of French, Spanish, German, even Dutch. Occasionally, puns or even rhymes can be saved when the foreign language has these connections. And metric rules for accents and syllables can be somewhat portable across the European range.
But what if we were to translate from English to classical Chinese? I’ll take an audacious shot at Dickinson's first verse, the English gloss from the ideograms resulting might go like this:
Tell Sun Rise
Towers Wet Purple-Quartz
Hills Unpinned Hats
Soft Talk Inside
Well, there’s something still there isn’t there, even if we as English speakers see the losses. What remains is Dickinson’s attention to an ordinary event with extraordinary details. And there’s some musical structure remaining: parallelism, theme and variation that doesn’t rely on beats or syllables that can still peak through.
Today’s episode is an English translation from the original Bengali by its own author, Rabindranath Tagore. Despite having attended school in England, despite familiarity with English as a resident of a then colonial province of the British Empire, despite some rumored editorial assistance from renowned English language poet William Butler Yeats, and despite Tagore’s well-attested to genius, “Light” was published in English in 1912 as a prose translation.
Paradoxically this may be due to the original’s musicality. I’ll have more to say on Tagore next time, but for now just know that Tagore was a composer and songwriter, and that his songs are widely known and appreciated by millions of Bengali speakers.
So, to try to restore some of the impact originally present in this piece, I composed and played a rather dense musical accompaniment for Tagore’s translated words. I did this in ignorance of if Tagore had his own melody for this poem in Bengali. Besides animation and illumination of his English prose, I aimed to combine some of my appreciation his native region’s music and Western electric guitar based music.
This LYL Band performance of “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” is a bit imperfect. Alternative Parlando Project reader Dave Moore takes the lead here, but he and I are singing instead of our usual recitative, and we’re caught at the top of our range as well. So, yes this leads to some imperfection—but this lyric is so perfect that perhaps it can carry us along anyway.
I suggest you listen to this piece now and then read my discussion of what I see in it afterward. Dickinson, like a good melody, doesn’t require understanding before enjoyment.
“I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” begins with a homespun 19th century village dawn, and the singer starts right off almost bragging that they can tell us how the sun comes up. As proof, Dickinson unleashes a string of lovely, singing metaphors for sunrise, looking down from the dawn only once to let us see the squirrels running about as if with the news of the day. She concludes this section with finest simplicity: “That must have been the sun!”
Isn’t that a strange way to sum up dawn? It comes up and it’s already past tense, like Meng Haoran’s morning in the last episode, and Dickinson comments on this common splendor as if she’s a surprised alien from another planet who has never seen the sun. Her boast that she can tell us “how the sun rose”—something she and all of us should already know, set in nothing more special than a prosaic town—becomes instead a small, whispered, apprehended wonder.
In the second section, Dickinson shifts gears so smoothly that no matter how many times you read or hear this poem you will never notice. There is a little engagement of the gears as she says of sunset “I know not,” unlike our first gear’s “I’ll tell you;” but we’re soon on to a rural scene with the sun rays like children climbing up and then down a stairway over a hedge or fence row (a stile). At that point, there’s a bustle in your hedgerow as the dusk becomes a grey robed “dominie,” a strange and archaic word perhaps even in Dickinson’s 19th century, and a sure stumper for any modern English speaker.
A dominie is a Latin word meaning the leader of a congregation, a minister, a pastor—and ‘pastor” is derived from the word for shepherd—and that’s just what our grey dusk becomes as it leads the children of the dawn, now dusk, away like a flock, closing the bars, closing the gate, so that they cannot return.
Some readers are so charmed by Dickinson’s first section that they feel it is pedantic to think that this sunset section is describing a passage to death, “The undiscovered country from whose bourn, no traveler returns,” so no wonder that Dickinson moved from “I’ll tell you” to “I know not.”
That dominie seems so removed from the pleasant village of the first section, so foreign. Another subtle word choice contrasts the two sections. There’s only 88 words in this piece, and five of them are colors. “Rose” puns for dawn pink in the first line and then dawn is “amethyst,” a word for both purple and a semi-precious stone. The sun ray children are “yellow”, and our strange dominie is dusky “gray.” The stile sunset stairway that the sun ray children are climbing is “purple.” So out of our five colors, one of them is roughly the same color. In the first section, it’s semi-precious and wondrous, but in the second it’s just purple—a ruling, royal color perhaps—but those sunset ray children’s steps are ruled over not ruling, not shining like the amethyst steeples of the dawn.
Imagine a world where what you thought was poetry was entirely different. A world where short poems could be as celebrated as longer literary works. A world where the most admired poems could be clear as can be about what is happening in the poem (the poem’s plot) with no elaborate obfuscation in the language; and yet the meaning, the thought and feelings the author means to convey, may remain allusive enough that the poem’s meaning seems to change over time as your experience grows. Imagine a world where poems can seem to have no metaphors at all, poems that don’t so much interpret the book of nature, but seem to be a page from that book itself.
That’s what Chinese poetry seems like to me.
It’s a refreshing change from the Western canon. I can see why a grumpy modernist like Ezra Pound, who wanted to sweep away the rot of his culture, would find it influential. Or why the forefathers of the “beat generation” in the western United States looked further west than California for a way to apprehend reality on the page.
I’m no scholar of Chinese poetry. These are the feelings of someone who likes what he reads and finds lessons in translating it.
For today’s episode, I’m going to go over how I work on these translations with the aim of stripping away the mystery. I’ll use a short poem by Tang Dynasty poetry Meng Haoran “A Spring Morning.” It seems to be a good first task for Chinese translation, and the original poem is apparently known almost to the level of a nursery rhyme in Chinese.
I do not read Chinese, however, it’s now possible to find glosses of many poems literally translated from the original ideograms. Here’s what “A Spring Morning” looks like when each of its lines five characters is translated into an English word:
Spring sleep not wake dawn
Everywhere hear cry bird
Night come wind rain sound
Flower fall know how many
The first problem is there is no punctuation, nor anything like English syntax. Still that’s an interesting way to approach a poem, where in English we are often trying to find the word to fit our flow of thoughts and music, but in working from this gloss we have the words, or at least “a word,” but need to find the flow instead.
I decided to render the first line as: “I slept late this spring morning, awaking just after dawn.” keeping the season (spring) and the more specific time of past the daybreak moment. I added late, which is not in the glosses’ words, because I thought the poem needed some reason why past the dawn was significant when I connect it with the third line.
The second line required less thought: “From everywhere I hear birds calling out.” The main choice here was the word I’d use for the sound of the birds. “Cry” used in the gloss has connotations of sorrow in English (not always, for example “war cry”) and I didn’t want to tip my hand toward sorrow in this line. And in Spring I know these bird calls, they are in fact just that: birds calling out for potential mates, birds setting up their territories, birds that want to say something to other birds.
The third line I write as: “Last night I tossed and turned in the sound of the wind and the rain.” This gives a reason for why the poet slept late, adds a note of drama and, in a particularly personal choice I made, alludes to a traditional English song refrain “Oh no, the wind and the rain.”
Now the final line: “Who knows how many petals have fallen?” Here seeing other people’s English translations helped, as it otherwise might not be clear that this is a question. In a vacuum one might render this as “I know how many flowers fell.” And that ending has validity, essentially saying “(in such a storm as last night) I know for sure how much my lovely spring blooms are going to be damaged.” Others who know more about Chinese idiom have chosen to make this a question, so I’ll trust that, and this makes the concluding thought more like “(I’m worried about the damage of Spring storms. but it was night and I was asleep) and no one can change the way Spring does this, blooming and storming, so it’s a mystery to you and me.”
Overall, notice how this modest four-line poem, suitable for children, encapsulates a sophisticated thought, one that young children wouldn’t need to understand yet. It shows us Spring, as a sleeper sleeps past the now earlier dawn, through a rain storm that grows and destroys (compare our nursery rhyme “April showers bring may flowers” meaning “you might get wet, but it’s good for flowers” vs. this Chinese storm), alludes subtlety to the love and war of birds, and concludes with a wise line that says our ability to comprehend this cycle of growth and destruction, change and renewal, is limited. To a child, that last line may mean no more than the thrust vectors that allow that “a cow jumped over the moon;” but to an older adult, it reminds us more, that we will never know.
I’m often attracted to Chinese poetry, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the deceptive simplicity to the images, that hardly seem like images at all if one expects the showy metaphors used by many western poets. The concision of many of the most admired Chinese poems can be shocking. And to me there seems to be a radically flat broadness to the way some of the poets consider society and politics. Like a lot of my favorite UK folk songs, the tales of royalty and servants, peasants and generals, saints and drunkards seem to treat them all with the same even diction and consideration.
From what I read, Du Fu is highly regarded as poet in Chinese culture. He wrote in the 8th Century, about the time someone in Europe was compiling Beowulf between long drinks of mead out of cups made from skulls. Du Fu’s time was a chaotic one, with the Chinese kingdom falling into rebellion and civil war. “Spring View” is his response after his side had lost the battle and he was in disgrace.
In translating Du Fu’s poem “Spring View,” I thought of our own times, particularly here in the United States, three months now into some kind of change. Alas for Du Fu, I became so enamored of seeing our own current events in his lament that halfway through I started to get more “free” with my translation, until by the time I reached the final line, I chose to conclude on a different thought altogether from the original.
Last night my computer news feed informed me that Chuck Berry had died. As with any 90 year old of a certain fame, the obits with their career summaries were already considered and ready. There were many elements the obits needed to include, and they did their job.
Around 40 years ago I wandered into a group of Minnesota poets who called themselves The Lake Street Writer’s Group, because they all lived, as I did then, within a few blocks of this main Twin Cities east/west commercial street—but what attracted me to them was that they had considered The Chuck Berry Writer’s Group as a leading alternative to that name.
I was then (as I am sometimes still) and obscure little poet. I like my works short, but I don’t require them to be all that clear or straightforward. I like them to play with words, both in the sense of assembling and using words in new ways; but also in the sense that they play with words in the same way that musicians play instruments. Chuck Berry was a beautiful example of that.
Tomorrow is the first day of spring. Here’s an example of my trying to do that. We know how to write the traditional spring poem. Spring! New beginnings! Happy blooming flowers! That’s probably the most welcome and acceptable way to write a spring song, because the world needs hope—but is it the only way?
What does spring’s beginning really look like? A few episodes back I presented Boris Pasternak’s “February,” where he described a winter thaw not as a promise of Easter Bunny spring, but as a mucky, crow-ridden, rotten-fruit invocation of tears. Early spring is the cyclical end of dying, but as the wheel reaches March 20th, death is still palpably there to be ended.
For death, Spring is change—and how do we often react to change, particularly change that is imposed on us externally? I decided to tell that slant, to speak from those winter corpses at spring’s beginning. After all, we don’t choose spring, it’s decreed to us by nature and any ruler of nature we believe in, and nature is not a book only of triumphs, it’s full of predation and predestination.
John Renbourn, the English guitarist, and the subject of our last episode, once introduced a song in concert by saying he was now going to play an English song, “It’s a nice little melody—alas, there are just not that many good English ones.” As we said last episode, John’s repertoire was vast, so he had many musical traditions to draw from and could pick and choose. I mention this only in passing today, because when it comes to music, musicians accept no borders.
In the US today we have an odd holiday, St. Patrick’s Day, where we broadly and vaguely celebrate—well, not missionary saints. Instead many engage in an approximate celebration of Irishness, where amongst the dyed green rivers and dyed green beers, the “Kiss me I’m Irish” T-shirts, and the saucy leprechauns on everything, there is some occasional notice given to Celtic culture.
Alas, I have nothing prepared to be dyed green. I expect we’ll revisit Irish writers’ words soon enough though.
Instead I have a piece by the LYL Band’s keyboard player and alternate reader Dave Moore titled “He Hit Me First.” I think his words speak well enough for themselves, so I’m not going to add much here to them. When I asked him if the words were written about a particular incident, he told me that it was inspired by working on a book collecting some of his father’s sermons. Looking over a pre-publication proof of that book, and the sermons Dave decided to include there, I don’t see where Dave used any exact words from his father, Lester Moore, but I do see how Lester Moore’s inclination and approach informed it. Here’s a few words from a sermon Lester Moore delivered in 1981:
“Christianity conquered an empire that was more cruel than Hitler’s Auschwitz. And it was done by Christians who were willing to live the love that God gave them in the model of Jesus.
I sometimes wonder why it is that we still fail to see this. Christians who offer love in today’s world are called ‘soft-headed.’ But what happens when we bluster and threaten in today’s world? Are we nearer peace today because we speak in militant tones?
Psychologists tell us that we get a REACTION equal to the ACTION in the emotional world just as we do in the physical world. When we shake our fist at someone, we get a fist right back. So, who is soft-headed?
Love does not turn its back on evil. It does not pretend that evil does not exist. Love stands firm and insistent. It is disciplined and ready to sacrifice. It cares about what happens to people, whether it has to do with freedom or hunger or health or hope.”
This is a complex subject, and I’ve only given Lester Moore a few words for his position. Knowing the action/reaction pair he speaks of, I anticipate one response, something I could summarize as “That’s all very nice, but in the real world, you may want those fists, that military, those soldiers to protect your music, poetry, and preachers.”
I will note only that Lester Moore earned a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Silver Star serving in WWII, before he took up the ministry and eventually gave this sermon.
A perennial question asked of songwriters is “Which comes first, the music or the words?” Here with the Parlando Project, the words often were written centuries before the music; but with the pieces where I write both the words and music, the method is for the music to come first with the words.
By that I mean, I tend to compose the words first, but the words emerge for me as melodies do, as a series of sounds that may precede any idea of their meaning. And even when I sit down to write “about” something, the improvisation of their melody can lead me to change what I am writing, even in the end, change what I believe I think about something.
While it’s a good assumption that my methods may come from my visceral attraction to music and poetry, this sense that the act of writing shapes, even reshapes, the thought is a common finding among writers. Have you ever thought yourself, “I didn’t know what I thought about this until I wrote about it?”
So where do melodies come from, whether they are melodies played on a string or melodies played on words? The answer, after millennia of human thought and knowledge gathering, is “We don’t know.” That area of knowing that it is, but not knowing why, is the genesis of myth.
The classical Greeks and their Roman inheritors ascribed these creative incidents to “the muses”—nine goddesses that could engender music or poetry in humans. Their stories told of the bad ends that would come to those who would mock the muses by claiming they could practice the arts without them.
This sort of thing gradually fell out of favor. Shakespeare in his 38th sonnet claims his beloved is as good or better a muse as one of the nine classical muses, and by the 19th century his humanistic idea that another human could serve as a muse to an artist became the common myth.
So, what use then is this old myth, the idea of an inexplicable outside source that informs artistic expression? Here’s one use I’m attracted to: it lets the artist relax a little bit about their efforts. Ever try to be inspired? That rarely works. Even the inspiration tricks that worked once, twice or twenty times may wear out and bring nothing. Have you ever been impelled with an idea, shape, thought, or melody when it’s inconvenient and unexpected? Ever beat yourself up when the ideas and expression just won’t come? Using the myth, the metaphor, of the muses you can get a handle on these things. This does not mean you don’t work at art. This doesn’t mean that discipline isn’t a valuable artistic trait. This doesn’t mean you sit on the mountain top and dawdle. Worshiping and honoring the muses just means if you sit on the mountaintop and nothing comes up, you might try the valley next time, but that nothing is not your fault. If you look for inspiration 365 days a year and it only comes around a dozen times, that’s a dozen more times than it would come if you never looked. If you look for inspiration only a dozen times a year, it will take 30 years to do what you could have done in one.
That is a long introduction to today’s piece “To John Renbourn, Dying Alone.” John Renbourn was very good British guitarist and singer. Beginning in the 1960s, and with a small and wondrous circle of his contemporaries, he was fearlessly eclectic: blues, jazz, traditional British Isles folk music, American Appalachian ballads, 19th century broadsides, Asian music, modern singer-songwriters, or Renaissance tunes—all that could show up at a John Renbourn concert, or on one of his recordings.
Two years ago this month, he didn’t show up to demonstrate once again his amalgamation of music at a scheduled date in a Scottish club. He was not mocking the muses—it was soon found that he had died alone in his modest home.
The day I heard the news, I hoped his suffering had been brief, or if not brief, useful. I thought of him like Frost’s solitary man in “An Old Man’s Winter’s Night” or my father imagined in “A Rustle of Feathers,” or my own dear friend John who had died alone at home a few years earlier. I thought of John Renbourn and wished to apply this myth, this lie, of the muses to this man. An artist like John Renbourn, who informed us with his art, listened better to the muses than most any of us.
We’re going to drop back into questions of death and life for a little bit with this one.
Arthur Koestler was a novelist and public intellectual who lived and wrote about some of the greatest issues of the middle of the 20th Century, and his breakthrough work was his novel “Darkness at Noon.” Let me be honest here: I know of Arthur Koestler, but I have not read Arthur Koestler. I’m not sure how much of Koestler this piece’s author Dave Moore has read either. Perhaps that is of secondary importance, as this song isn’t so much about Koestler’s life or his works, but is instead about his death.
By 1983 Koestler was in his mid 70s and was suffering from serious and incurable illnesses. With apparent deliberation, he decided to commit suicide, writing his suicide note in the summer of 1982. Nine months later, in this severe but promising month of March, he decided to go through with it.
Later that same year Dave Moore wrote this piece, and the LYL Band would perform it with our usual sound at the time, which featured somewhat distorted Farfisa organ, organ bass keys, and loud discordant guitar. My understanding of “Arthur Koestler’s Death Song,” as we performed it then, was it was about Koestler’s intellectual and philosophical approach to this choice, and the hubris that implied. Of course, we were Thirty-Somethings considering the choices of much more esteemed old man.
The performance of “Arthur Koestler’s Death Song” you will hear here was recorded almost 30 years after this. It’s a solo piece I recorded as part of a collection I put together then to showcase some of Dave Moore’s writing.
A key part of the story of Koestler’s act is depicted in one verse. In March of 1983, Koestler’s original suicide note of the year before now carried an addendum. His wife, 20 years younger and in perfectly good health, was going to join him in taking the barbiturates and alcohol that was his chosen suicide method. “I see my wife sitting across from me. She’s going to join me in death.” The verse starts.
Please allow this to disturb you, because it should.
I’m no psychic. I cannot know what went into that decision and what was in his wife, Cynthia Jefferies’, mind, but I do know all too many relationships where the spouse of the artist, the intellectual—even if that thinker is an avowed proponent of freedom, liberty, and equality—is reduced to the role of servant and subservient.
“Arthur Koestler’s Death Song” lays out the facts and lets you consider the possible motives. It assumes you will be an active listener, one who can not only form your own answers, but your own questions.
I’ve been on the serious side for the last few episodes, but this time it’s going to just be a late night, late winter jam called “Bar Tryst, Late Winter.” I wrote the words to this one—at least I think I did.
Do you know the story of how the song “Me and My Uncle” came to be? It’s a great cowboy song, recorded and sung by many people, including The Grateful Dead. Sometime in 1964 or so a songwriter named John Phillips who had toured to no great acclaim during the American Hootenanny pop-folk era in the early Sixties got a royalty check for writing this song. Seems Judy Collins has recorded it on a live album, and his first thought was to set the record straight. He got in touch with Judy Collins and told her that the writing credit must have been a mistake, that he didn’t know anything about any such song.
Collins then proceeded to tell the surprised Phillips that they had both been at an after-concert party in 1963 where a heady mix of intoxicants were present. During this night she had heard him compose this song on the spot. Luckily someone had run a tape recorder during the party, and from that tape she had learned the song.
Well, Judy Collins was not involved in my story, but it’s more or less the same. Sometime early this century I was looking through some old notebooks from the 1970s where I had written some things, and there on a page in my handwriting was this piece. Not only had I had no recollection of writing it, I had no recollection of any night like it describes. It’s possible I imagined the scene it describes. It’s even possible that I didn’t write it, but why would I transcribe something of that length in the midst of other things I was writing?
Shortly after rediscovering it, I recorded this live take with the LYL Band and a drum machine. The guitarist I was playing with at that time was Andy Schultz who pulled out a lot of improvement in my playing as we wove lines between the two of us. Like the composition of the words used here, I can’t always tell when I listen to recordings from this time which of us played which guitar line back then.
Our last episode featured words by Phillis Wheatley, whose story I first heard about in a graveyard.
I was taking a walking tour in Boston, and there was a lot for the guide to talk about as we strolled through the Granary Burying Ground near one end of Boston Common, the cemetery where many of the instigators of the American revolution are buried. That’s where I heard Phillis Wheatley’s story.
There’s no tombstone for Phillis Wheatley there, and no record of where she was buried, though it could have been there. So, we don’t even know her graveyard, but we know her story.
Only a few days after wrapping up the work on the Phillis Wheatley episode, I happened to catch Viola Davis’ Oscar acceptance speech. Like David Harbour’s speech earlier this year, it compressed an artist’s calling into a few well-chosen words, and so, I set about creating today’s audio piece.
I recast Davis’ words a little, turning it from her own pledge, to an artist’s pledge than we all can take.
There are only a few words here, but the opening sentence announces itself strongly, while going—to my take on it—in two directions. “There’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered—and that’s the graveyard.” In that magnificent sentence, we may think of all the potential that’s totaled up short in every graveyard: potential lost due to life’s duration, lost due to injustice, lost to just bad luck, potential never reached for the many human failings. One of the most common of those human failings is to just not try, and when we fail to try, the graveyard is where that potential will end up.
This direction, where the sentence could go, is not where Davis takes us however. She reminds us: there, in those graveyard lives, is that precious struggle, the part-ways reach, all the somedays that someday may see victories. We should “exhume those stories,” she says.
And then Davis’ makes a daring statement. Art “is the only profession that celebrates what it is to live a life.”
Can that be so? Certainly, historians and social scientists collect and analyze information about lives too—but perhaps they must step beyond that role to light the footlights that art does. Art is the transference of the emotions and the perceiving inner being between people. Only at that level of communication can the celebration of what it means to live a life be reached. That’s what we do when we create art, or when we consume it actively.
Davis repeats her specific charge to artists, as she praises the creative acts of August Wilson, the writer and playwright: art’s radical empathy empowers and obligates artists to tell other people’s stories.
Writers listen to her here, listen to her evoke August Wilson: even your story is not your story. It’s your great-grandparent’s story, perhaps it will be your great-grandchild’s story. The graveyard, the grocery store and the stars are full of stories. Allow them to ask you to tell them.
I’m going to tell you a very sad and very wondrous story. A little over 350 years ago, when America was still a colony of England, a young girl about 7 years old was abducted in West Africa by men who took and sold human beings for profit. This enterprise then shipped her across the ocean along with other abductees. This business, a very profitable and respectable business of the time, was slavery.
The way this business worked then, those who were deemed useful for labor would be shipped to the West Indies. There some were put to work as slaves, and others were—to use the term sometimes applied to the harnessing of wild horses—“broken,” so that they could be more useful as laboring slaves. In this case, with this ship, it took those that were not figured to be the good laborers— the odd lots and freight salvage of their cargo—and carried them on to Boston in the American colonies.
Our 7 year old girl was one of those less valuable pieces of cargo. And when she arrived in Boston, she was also sick, and so she was sold to a family for a very low price, because the ships master figured that if he didn’t sell her quickly she would die and there would be no profit in her.
The family that bought this girl treated her unusually. They named her Phillis, as that was the name of the ship that carried her away to America, and as was the custom, used the family’s last name Wheatley for her as well. They taught Phillis Wheatley to read and write English, and then as she showed extra facility with language, they allowed her to extend her learning. By the time she was teenager she was reading not just the Bible, but Greek and Latin classics and the works of the leading English classical writers of the time. And something even more remarkable happened: she started writing like these men.
Nothing like this had ever been seen. An American, in the far-off colonies, writing like an educated Englishman. No, an American woman—wait, not just a woman, an African-American woman, a slave, someone’s property, writing like an educated Englishman!
Did the business of enslavement of Africans, the thing that brought this girl to America, arise because of a belief in the inferiority of black Africans? Or did the widespread belief that black Africans were mentally and spiritually inferior become widespread because it allowed otherwise moral human beings to take part in this repulsive practice? Whichever, Phillis Wheatley, this young girl, had become a wondrous rebuke to those ideas of racial superiority.
In 1773, only 20 years old, Phillis Wheatley once more crossed the ocean and traveled to England, met Lords, Ladies, Counts and Countesses. A book of her poems was published there, the first book of poems by an African-American ever published. She was even going to meet King George, but she had to return to Boston before a date could be arranged. Back in America, as the foment leading to the American Revolution began, she wrote a poem to King George, reminding him that she was his loyal subject, but it might be wise to reconsider things like the Stamp Act that were riling up the colonies.
Yesterday, February 22nd was George Washington’s birthday, and three days ago I celebrated the holiday that replaced Washington’s Birthday with a piece based on a poem written by the teenaged Washington. After the Revolutionary War broke out, and Washington became the commander of the American forces, Phillis Wheatley wrote a poem and sent it to General Washington. Washington wrote back that he was impressed by her “great poetical talents” and suggested that if it could be worked out, he would “be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses.” Alas, as with the King George, this meeting with the General (and slaveholder) never happened.
So here is Phillis Wheatley, a person who was abducted, torn from her family and home, sold for a pittance as damaged property, shipped across an ocean to a new land that speaks another language. She owns nothing, she herself is owned. And what then does she obtain? Poetry. The ability to speak fluently in the voice and art of this land of exile, and for a time, a measure of fame for this accomplishment. Is that enough?
I look at her words now, over 350 years later, and the style she wrote in is so mannered, often encrusted with the gilded and blushed Georgian portraits of Roman myths. I told you at the start: this story is sad and wondrous. We know, it is our obligation to know, the sadness of slavery, committed by humans on other humans. The wonder of what Phillis Wheatley was able to accomplish fades somewhat with time. As a small gesture to that wonder, today’s episode uses a lyrical evening pastoral "Hymn to Evening" that Phillis Wheatley wrote, wrapped in some music I composed and performed.
Here a piece "Frances" based on a short, incomplete poem written by a teenager who went on to do other things. You can tell he’s a clever young man. He’s infatuated with a neighbor girl, but there’s no such thing as texting yet—no such things as telephones either. Thankfully, love songs are a well-established technology, so he sets to work on one.
To make sure that she knows he’s serious about her, and not the other young ladies he’s been seen cavorting with, he decides it’s not just going to be a poem, it’s going to be an acrostic. The first letter of each line will, if read downward, spell out her full name.
If John Lennon had wanted to write “Oh Yoko” as an acrostic, it wouldn’t have added much difficulty to his verse. Alas, our teenager’s object of affections is Frances Alexander. Well it could have worse, if he was a teenager who wanted to write a love song to the New Zealand singer who performs as Lorde, and wanted to use her full name, he’d have to write a 27 line poem to Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O'Connor.
He only needs 16 lines to prove his love.
He gets to line 11. Gotta start with “X.” He grabs onto Xerxes, the famous Persian leader and general to fill out his acrostic, but one line later he runs out of gas and just drops the poem before finishing.
Didn’t finish the poem, didn’t get the girl, but our teenager like Xerxes became a famous general and eventually his country’s leader. He’s got a birthday coming up on the 22nd, but they celebrate our boy George Washington’s birthday as a US holiday today.
A couple of episodes back I mentioned that we’d meet Yeats “rook-delighting heaven” again as we visit some more expressions of the month of February. Well, here’s one, Boris Pasternak’s “February.”
Coincidently, it appears that Pasternak wrote his “February” within a few months one way or another of Yeats’ “A Cold Heaven.” And both poets put ravens in these poems, though Yeats’ crows show up early, and Pasternak’s drop in near the end. Though Yeats wrote his “A Cold Heaven” in more temperate Ireland, it resonated with a Northern Midwesterner like me with its burning ice and unwarming sun. Pasternak, presumably familiar with a colder climate more like my own, sets the thermostat on his February to an early spring melt; but this is a muddy, sodden spring. His black spring holds cold rains, mud, and slush—more like a real early spring than a happy-butterflies-and-wildflowers May spring.
I’m not fluent in Russian, but the challenge of translating this lyrical poem from Russian to English has attracted many. As I recall, when I tried to put together the text for this performance, I used several of those as gloss, tempered with Internet translator apps fed the Russian. I know nothing of Russian diction, so I aimed for an informal American diction, and unlike some translators, I didn’t try to keep the original poem’s rhyme scheme in English—after all, I knew I’d be supplying music for this.
I believe the music I choose here, bluesy rock’n’roll, while American, is fitting. I hear Pasternak here singing the Russian Blues: blues like unto our great American music of endurance, and rock’n’roll that cares only to seek the state he speaks of in the last two lines “The more haphazard, the more true, the poetry that sobs its heart out.”
So I’ll be putting this episode up, and then I’ll go out in our haphazard too-early spring February myself. I too will head out past the noise of city church bells, past the cars, biking to the edge of my city where I’m going to buy George Saunders sad new novel.
Today’s episode is dedicated Renee Robbins, who once was lost on the edge of Moscow herself, the last passenger remaining at the end of a bus route. She found her way back long enough for us to know her.
I decided on my own that Yeats’ piece in the last episode was about February, but I have some other pieces that say, right out, in their own words, that they are about our current month. Here is one, “2ebruary.”
Earlier this month I saw Jim Jarmusch’s film, “Paterson.” This movie succeeds, in its modest and appropriate way, to do something impossible: to film poetry, or more exactly, the composition of literary work. It does this two ways: by having a writer, its central character, portrayed as a regimented, routinized person, grounded in a particularized working-class city and job; and then by having him compose “aloud in his head” his work against this background.
This is a wonderful choice. The city, the routine clock of the days, the job, become the metrical, musical background for the flowerment of the writer’s consciousness that becomes the poems.
Though the movie is set in the New Jersey city of it’s title, the filmmaker refers often the “New York School” of poetry, using the poems of Ron Padgett to stand in for the work of the film’s main character.
The New York School uses a lot mid-20th Century Modern ideas, combining them into various combinations, depending on the individual writer associated with the movement. Some of it can be obscure and abstract, taking off from the same ideas that launched abstract expressionism in painting around the same time. But some also find a tenderness and wonder in the abstract patterns of urban existence, a Pop Art with a depth beneath its surface able to hold a beating heart. At a point in the film, the main character opens his noon lunchbox to eat, and to write down the intermediate state of his morning’s writing aloud in his head, and there like a Thermos, nestled above an orange and a sandwich, is Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems.” It has to be there.
O’Hara wrote in a great many styles, but this slim chapbook features several poems that someone once called his “I do this, I do that” poems. where O’Hara walks about, seemingly composing aloud in his head amidst daily tasks. These are my favorites, because, like “Paterson,” these poems seem to be about their own grounded creation in a city of routines, reflected inside the moist, encased, flowing mind of their writer.
Today’s episode “2ebruary” takes off from that Frank O’Hara mode, as I often like to do, though I’m an old man, writing in another century, in the Midwest, not New York City, and my old joints creak best on a bicycle.
“2ebruary” is a short bicycle journey thinking of history, and past the events that are turning into history that we can still change. I take a pause, as every American should, to note that American culture is made from those who came here carrying something from elsewhere. And Midwestern culture? For many, those packing trunks are hardly great-grandparent’s-age-old, at the eldest.
At one point in the journey, I note those that had no trunks when they came to America, they had only their chattel bodies and souls—and even of those two things, the former had been appropriated by others for handy profit. What could they unpack? Well for one thing: the largest and grandest part of our American music. Our history is short compared to many nations, but it contains mighty things like this. We who are joining that history, already in progress, can turn it one way or another. Which way do you choose to turn?
We’ve already met Irish poet William Butler Yeats with a brief poem earlier this month. Now his words return with a piece suitable for the aftermath of Valentine’s Day, for “A Cold Heaven” is the tale of a rejected valentine. It’s also fitting, because Valentine’s Day comes in the midst of late-winter. February, as Margaret Atwood put it, is a “month of despair, with a skewered heart in the centre.”
Here in the northern Midwest it was a “seasonable” 19 degrees F. this morning, and hardy ice has outlived any soft covering snow. There is a promise of a thaw this weekend, but that will only recall mud and the detritus of what the snow once remembered inside it.
Critics from more temperate climes praise Yeats for his oxymoron here of “ice burned,” but up north we know that’s just what happens to skin in the cold, with no need for poetic intercession. And my back yard, my cities’ parks, and our central greenway have been home to that “rook-delighting heaven” he speaks of as well. Strange isn’t it, that the bird of death is so smart, so intentional, so sure, and yet inscrutable.
In “A Cold Heaven,” Yeats’ winter and his death-omen birds lead to a missed and misunderstood, “crossed” love; and he takes the blame: if not for the season, for the failed love. Like so many, and without the succor of chocolate or flowers, he is left in the rejected lovers worshipful, davening stance, “rocking to and fro.”
But he is a poet still! “A Cold Heaven” breaks itself in two with an image that is also a pun: “Riddled with light.” Yes, we Northerners know that winter light. Brighter than summer, and paradoxically the sign of a piercingly cold day. He knows his love’s in vain, and yet no amount of blame that he can assign himself—even if he exhausts “all sense and reason” to catalog that blame—can account for the failure of his love. What can solve this “riddle?”
Yeats begins again, with a majestic “Ah!” only to take us on a short ghost story, the spirit of his love in purgatory, in bardo, naked as a corpse or as a lover, wandering and asking why clear skies, clear answers, seem like punishment.
So to all those whose valentines were not accepted yesterday: peace. Such riddling has no end to its depths. I know this: that hole is too deep to be plumbed, just know that it’s deep. The correct prayer for such things is unknown.
As a performance, “A Cold Heaven” had some challenges because Yeats makes use of enjambment, where lines break in the middle of sentences; and where the meaning too, often forks, seeming to mean one thing before the line break and another afterward. Since I like to let the lines “breathe,” so that the music can interject, and so that the words’ impact can sit a little bit before the next line, I resorted to repeating a few words. There are also a couple of other audio tricks in the piece. The string parts, particularly at the beginning have a “backwards tape” articulation where the sound swells from louder to silence, in the reverse of the normal decay of strings, which I hope signifies the drop into the past in Yeats’ text.