Visions of Cleopatra

“Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule.” This famous line from T. S. Eliot’s modernist epic “The Waste Land” —oops! I’ve become confused here. As part of our celebration of National Poetry Month this April, I’ve been performing “The Waste Land”  and dropping the mixtape here as I complete a section. We’ve completed the first part “The Burial of the Dead,”  and this week I moved on to the start of the second section.

That section, sub-titled “A Game of Chess”  opens with an elaborate descriptive passage with lines quoted from older literature, with paraphrases and references of stories dating back to Classical Greek. It’s opening lines are cribbed from Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra. The section’s sub-title itself is taken from an allegorical play first performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

Throughout “The Waste Land”  Eliot does this. He’s sampling. He thinks these bits will add flavor, perhaps even to those that aren’t as well-read and as he was in 16th and 17th Century literature. But this is also part of one of his tactics in his poem, to portray the specific malaise and suffering throughout Europe after the First World War and his own personal depression and chaotic marriage as something adrift in time, an infinity echoing inside the museum of Western Culture.

In this opening section he’s describing a woman in an over-decorated room full of upper-class bling and old-fashioned mannerist art that makes only sentimental reference to searing tales. As he describes this his syntax is convoluted, his sentences run-on, his poetic line breaks disassociating. And all this is in service of a segment when nothing, absolutely and intendedly nothing, happens.

As I re-encountered this section I had that flash of metaphor that I love. Metaphor is the powerful fusion that occurs when two things unite into one expression. Eliot’s room may be decorated differently, but the room seemed familiar, the language usage brought forth déjà vu, the air in the radiator pipes rumbled, the heat pipes just coughed.

How much did T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”,  or this section of “The Waste Land” enter into Bob Dylan’s toolbox? The two poets share some common influences from French poetry. Both love to mix highbrow and lowbrow references. Both quote and paraphrase other writers, though in Eliot this is usually considered scholarly, and with Dylan it’s too often taken as evidence of plagiarism. Sometimes Dylan is just Eliot without footnotes.

All I have to go on is a passing reference to reading and finding some value in Eliot in Dylan’s memoir “Chronicles,”  and the line in Dylan’s own waste land epic “Desolation Row”  where “The Waste Land’s”  editor and dedicatee Ezra Pound and Eliot are fighting in the (ivory?) captain’s tower. That’s plainly thin evidence. The flash of metaphor don’t care,  these two moments of decorated stasis feel similar enough to inform this performance.

Eliot on Blonde Crop

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins—and Shatzberg, I know it’s cold out here, but can you at least focus the camera…”

 

I got part way into this recording of the first part of the second part of “The Waste Land”  as illuminated by Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna”  before I decided I’d go with more than memory and listen to the canonical recording from the “Blonde on Blonde”  record. I’ll have to say that my memory-track of “Visions of Johanna”  is mostly a mashup of the various live versions performed solo with acoustic guitar and harmonica in 1966, where Dylan’s “you’ll like it, or you won’t” singing makes every word tell. Dylan had a hard time getting an electric band version recorded that same year, perhaps because a Rock’n’Roll song about stasis is a hard thing to make. On reencountering the “Blonde on Blonde”  version, I took some inspiration from it: the organ player who gets lost partway in, the importance given to the bass part, and the drums that follow the ebb and flow of the singing. I’m not trying to duplicate the record, just tipping my hat to its effects.

This is the sort of thing we do here, even on months that aren’t National Poetry Month, bringing music to poetry and illuminating poetry with music, reencountering familiar poems to see something new in them, finding lesser known poems and presenting them. We do that a little different each time, as a visit to our archives on the right side of the page will demonstrate, but to hear this part of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” performed, use the player below.

 

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Coincident of Douglass and Hayden

Yesterday’s post ran so long that I needed to improve it by removing some things that weren’t relevant to the story of Robert Hayden choosing a school of literary criticism to place not just his work, but his life, in context. But I love the minutiae I find when I’m researching these pieces. So here are some outtakes from yesterday’s post about Hayden’s sonnet praising Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass was not the name he went by as a slave. As with most enslaved persons, to the degree he needed a last name, the name used was from one of the families that had owned his. After his escape from slavery, it was suggested that a name change might help shield him from slave catchers that would kidnap and re-enslave Afro-Americans. He took the name “Douglass” from an immensely popular Scottish historical romance by Walter Scott, “The Lady of the Lake,”  where one of the main characters had that family name.

Sir Walter Scott was a huge cultural force in the 19th Century. His stories set in an idealized past of clans and medieval knights kicked off a revival of all kinds of Highlands Scottish culture. Alas, in another case of artists that cannot be held responsible for their fans, one far-flung example of Scott’s influence was his popularity in the American slave-holding south.

That’s right, Sir Walter Scott, and that romanticized Scottish past, is the reason that the post-Civil War terror organization styled itself as Knights of a Klan.

There you go, a renowned abolitionist and an infamous symbol of violent racism, both took their names from Sir Walter Scott.

I mentioned Hayden’s disagreements with those associated with the Black Arts Movement and some kinds of Black Nationalist politics in his later life during the 60s and 70s, still too large a subject, and one on which I lack authority. But since I was alive in that time, such things cause me to remember things.

To an under-recognized degree, mainly white radical movements in the mid-20th Century, admired, totemized and sought to copy those contemporary Afro-American movements. When I entered college myself in the 60s, my Irish-American Chicago-born roommate, a college football playing offensive-lineman with his knees already scarred from injuries playing for Lane Tech, kept a photo of John Carlos and Tommie Smith with their black fists raised on the Olympic podium. Within a year or two, that gesture would become a diversely popular gesture of radical protest.

Fred Hampton, the Chicago-based Black Panther killed in a highly questionable police raid was part of our conversations, a newspaper photogravure of his bedroom door scarred with dozens of bullet holes (all inward facing, the caption pointed out) was studied like a record album cover.

For some young serious musicians, Afro-American originated jazz and free-jazz were still examples of the highest forms of contemporary music-making. Some white musicians and artists sought to emulate the independence and syndicalist self-organization that Black Arts associated musicians had developed.

Sun Ra and the MC5 by Gary Grimshaw

How did Afro-Futurist Jazz  appear with hard-rockin’ punks the MC5?
Poster by Gary Grimshaw for a concert promoted by John Sinclair

 

For a moment, for a young white man in any area outside of a few urban enclaves to grow long hair was to a degree both real, and “that’s crazy, it’s not the same!” to become a voluntary Black person. Younger readers, let that sit in for a moment. Isn’t that a ludicrous thought?

I was there. Yes, surely there was much ignorance there, staggering naiveté. The term cultural appropriation hadn’t been invented yet, but surely this would be a cause to invent it. Yes, that comparison, that metaphor, was partly false, partly true.

Fifty years ago, in the Detroit area—where Robert Hayden was born and would spend much of his life—a white poet, arts-cooperative guru, and jazz-critic John Sinclair lead a small group to declare themselves the “White Panther Party,” issuing a manifesto that echoed the Black Panther party. Other than provocation, their chief asset was they had a rock band, which was better than the mimeograph most other movements could boast.

And so it was, that when I read of Robert Hayden, the poor Black kid, who struggled to attend Wayne State University during the Great Depression of the 1930s, a Black man who couldn’t volunteer, who’d have his own battles between the universal and the particular—when I read the name of that school where he went to learn poetry, a short, near-blind, unathletic kid, I thought of this performance by that rock band, the MC5, at Wayne State’s athletic field in 1970.

“Kick Out the Jams” is about irresistible musicians, but note, the crowd is 80% male.

Frederick Douglass

Today’s piece uses words by Robert Hayden, who was a 20th Century American poet who often wrote about that essential American subject, Afro-American history. He was born just before WWI, and was writing poetry both before and after WWII, during the rise of the New Criticism, which held that the poem exists as a thing created as a conscious work by an author but is best judged irrespective of who that author is.

Douglass and Hayden

Frederick Douglass used the power of the charismatic portrait as well as his  powerful words
Robert Hayden had to rely more on the words alone, but what words they are!

To the degree that this theory was actually practiced, it solves a number of problems. One of them are the issues of discrimination, old-boy networks, and literary log-rolling where who you know or where you are in the social and academic order pre-emptively decree the worth of writing. It helps deal with thorny problems, like having poetic Modernism’s great progenitor Ezra Pound becoming a Fascist propagandist during wartime. If it was still in vogue, it might assist in considering issues around artists in our time who’ve committed heinous acts or supported political opinions we judge to be beyond the pale.

There’s a saying: in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there is. Historically, the New Criticism as a critical movement didn’t consistently break down cultural barriers, though things like the post WWII GI Bill certainly did. Extra-academic movements like the Beats and their successors, and the Black Arts Movement did so as well. Great cultural shifts such as the civil rights movement have literary impact. In the end, the New Criticism seemed to restrict itself to giving students and academics a framework to discuss literature without the need to refer to the problems in their authors lives.

Perhaps too, it’s just easier to judge works based on friendship, affinity groups, or cultural and political stances. Even for an artist, how much can we live in an artistic world separated from the daily, inescapable effects of the political and economic world?

But let’s not be too unfair to the New Critics. They cared about the work as it exists, treating art not as inessential decoration for something else. They offered open structures, criteria that were open to any to master. When Robert Hayden, born in the crowded Detroit ghetto swelling with southern migrants looking for industrial work, mastered those structures, he (eventually) earned a place in the culture of his time. How did this play out as my generation, born after WWII, came of age? Let’s look at the tape.

15 minutes from a Robert Hayden interview in 1975.

This is a time capsule from over 40 years ago, yet it could be longer for all the patina of time. The monochrome of the film makes the impassive white interviewer, the smoke from his constant cigarette, and the later-life Hayden all look gray. You see the coke-bottle glasses on Hayden’s face, but not the tint of his skin that would have born him instant misjudgments throughout his life, misjudgments that he would have to have dealt with along with his art. You will hear him make the claim I made to describe him at the beginning of this: that he’s an American poet who will write about Afro-American subjects, and hear him begin to make the case as to why this distinction is important. I can clearly hear how important he believes this is.

Around 10 minutes in, he’s asked to engage with the separatist strain in Afro-American culture, and he offers his full-throated disagreement with what he thinks are their goals. That’s too big a subject to deal with here, but apparently at the point at which he was finally achieving some recognition for his poetry, some aligned with the Black Arts Movement saw him as an assimilationist. Some might view this part as a “damn kids, get off my lawn” generational moment.

Also, in the film Hayden reads two poems. One is probably his most well-known work “Those Winter Sundays,” and the other is today’s piece, “Frederick Douglass.”   In the later, using only the eloquent words in his sonnet, Hayden makes that argument that he could write a political statement timeless and yet incisive, and in the former, he writes a poem of gratitude to his foster father, an unpoetic man who made it possible for him to be a poet.

“Those Winter Sundays”  will be featured this month on Poetry In America on PBS. It’s a fine poem, and I’ll be interested in seeing what they do with that poem’s details, things that one needs to linger a bit to see. I, on the other hand, had already chosen to present “Frederick Douglass”  for my first Robert Hayden poem here. If you take the poems together, you’ll see two arguments for paying attention to Hayden. One the universalist for liberation (a political theory Hayden shared with Frederick Douglass) and the other the argument for gratitude to those, however imperfect, that helped us.

When I first read Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass”  this year I was immediately struck by the poem’s uncanny details, laid in-between the eloquent flow. It was written over 50 years ago, but it’s more current than that B&W film from 1975. Perhaps you’ll hear them too if you attend to them: freedom that can be beautiful and terrible, hunted aliens, metal statues more valued than lives made possible.

Here’s my performance of Hayden’s words about Douglass. Use the player to hear it.

Thanks to the publisher for permission to perform this. “Frederick Douglass”  is Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden. From COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT HAYDEN by Robert Hayden edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Company

The Burial of the Dead

Well, the rooks were wrong about Winter passing, at least for now. As much of Minnesota is covered with a foot or more of forgetful snow, with more remembering to fall over the top of us all day, it’s a good time to return to T. S. Eliot’s landmark of Modernist poetry “The Waste Land,”  the poem that, by beginning with the famous line “April is the cruelest month” is largely responsible for National Poetry Month being set in April.

The first lines of The Waste Land

Other than the “Dead” thing and the sinister Roman numeral,  seems normal enough;
but “The Waste Land” will soon get stranger and darker than anyone expected in 1922.

 

We’ve been performing it on the installment plan this month, following up on our performance of the first segment of it last April. But, it occurs to me that because so many of our listeners hear us via the podcast section of Spotify, which perversely doesn’t allow podcasts to be placed in playlists, that it might be good to combine what we have completed into one longer piece.

So, here’s the more-or-less complete first section of “The Waste Land”  titled “The Burial of the Dead.”   Eliot intended his poem to be musical, so even though it’s sprawling and includes many voices, it’s been fun to make audible the musical implications in it. As I do this, I’m reminded again of my first encounter with “The Waste Land.”  I didn’t understand any of it—well, that’s not completely true, I could extract meaning from a few lines—but the whole thing could just have well have been a symphony with notes in place of words. Even now, for me, “The Waste Land”  remains a hard poem to love, and unlike many poems and poets of our current scene, it’s not asking us to love it.

So, if it’s hard to understand, and hard to love, why listen to it?

Because it is a great poem? I doubt that would work. Because it was so influential historically? Well, that influence is now largely historical. It did move things powerfully one way, and then, after decades, things moved another way, in part in reaction to it. Because there are still fresh experiences to encounter in it? Now we’re getting closer. Art isn’t immortal only because it’s great in some ideal way, an art work’s immortality happens from our mortal human actions, our human reactions  to it, and some of those become richer when the work has become strange to us from a change in fashion.

But in the end, I ask you to listen to it consistent with our overall tactics here in the Parlando Project: listen to it as music first, do not worry at the overall meaning immediately. I hope I can illuminate some meaning with my performance and music, but simply to comprehend “The Waste Land”  as this suite of voices and moods is to comprehend much.

Here’s the player gadget to hear “The Burial of the Dead.”  Since it combines what had been four pieces issued separately here, it’s longer, at 13 minutes, than our usual stuff. If you’re looking for something brief, why not take a random walk through our archives for one of the more than 200 shorter pieces we’ve available.

 

Snow Storm on a Blank Page

Longtime readers will know that one of the principles for the Parlando Project is “Other People’s Stories.” I partly do this out of a contrarian streak, as the Internet is full of folks telling their own stories. Yet, obviously, I do not take my path due to a condemnation of personal stories. After all, without other’s stories, I would not have the ones I present and react to here.

I believe something additional happens in my process of presenting my encounters with other people’s stories. You, the valued readers and listeners here, add a third part to this. Do you see, what I see, as I am looking at, speaking someone else’s silent words; while you remain off to the side, with your ears at each side of your own mind and memory, your eyes parallel to your own mouth? No, you will see something slightly different.

Yet, this morning, let me violate my self-imposed principle, and write, as if this were a conventional blog, about myself.

I awoke today after a week that finally found promised 50 degree Fahrenheit temperatures to an utter snowstorm that had itself awakened from a night sky that fitfully dreamed rain, sleet, hail, and freezing rain. The wind outside had someplace to go in a hurry.

I am an Amateur of Velocipeaes by Leonara Carrington

Leonara Carrington dreams of bicycles with oversize tires

As a contrarian, I dressed and took to my marvelous Minnesota invention, the fat bike fitted with 4 inch wide studded and knobbed tires. A morning with few moving, yet full of noise. Snow crunching under the tires, wind restating its case more insistently over again, the typewriter of snow against my goggles.

Parked at the curbs, even the most fearsome cars were growing a white carapace, their windshield wipers stretched out, insect arms, quivering in the wind.

Windsheld wipers stretched out insect arms

“Insect arms, quivering in the wind”  wipers left out to keep them from being encased in ice

To be an old man on a bicycle is to know gratitude. Does a fierce April snowstorm tell a story? Perhaps it does. Is it beautiful, or a false and comfortable frightening that leaves others inside, deciding that internal pleasures are best this morning. But I wished to hear its story today, to see it. As I rode, the wind said yes and no in its one direction. The snow said music is frozen yet moving. The whiteness says color can only exist if you make it.

In the middle of the week I had driven two friends to the airport. They saw this sign “If you see something, say something.” I thought, isn’t that the fourth Imagist rule, one unstated by F. S. Flint and Ezra Pound? Yes, you must honor the thing and your reaction to it, using no word just because you believe you must use that word, and remember you are making music, not marching. But the first rule, which I understand now in the multitude of a blizzard: if you see something, say something.

Millay’s Spring

Yesterday’s Edward Thomas poem “Thaw”  had an irony, he had rooks, a bird used symbolically to represent death, as messengers of Spring’s arrival. Walt Whitman ironically used early spring flowers to start his Lincoln elegy, and T. S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,”  a long poem that we’ve been performing this April for National Poetry Month, followed flowered suit. Here’s a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay that tackles some of the same tensions that Eliot put in in his longer poem, but in just a few lines.

“Spring”  is Millay at her most Modernist. It’s free-verse, not the metrical verse, often in traditional forms, that she used elsewhere. Is she copying Eliot’s landmark poem, as many would try to later? No, “Spring”  was published in 1921, a year before “The Waste Land.”

One of the good things about doing this project is moving from looking for poems to use, selecting them, and then one-by-one grappling with how to perform and accompany them with music. This poem is so full of complex, multivalent perceptions that I think I could perform it many different ways. Because of the production schedule I’ve set for myself here, I almost never spend more than a week on the production of any one piece. That means I must decide things about the composition and presentation fast. In the absence of limits, this piece could have gone on in search of a more perfect version. I’m comfortable with many of the choices I made here, but one bothers me still.

I decided early on I would sing this one. That decision came from the text itself, it wants to express a variety of things intensely. Good actors (something I’m not, or not yet) can put great shading on a speaking voice, but the singing voice has more tools to bring to the expression of a text. I am under no illusion that my singing voice is strong or skilled, and I think a better singer could improve this. What you hear here is simply my honest attempt to do the best I could with a text that I grew to admire considerably as I worked with it.

Musically I once more found myself using several tracks of Mellotron, the primitive 1960s tape-sample “virtual instrument” before it’s time. The topline melody is carried by violins and the famous Mellotron flute samples that are an audio madeleine for anyone who listened to certain English bands in the age of groovy. Each note played on a Mellotron keyboard sets running a short length of tape playing that pitch recorded from the “real” instrument.

 

Some random dude shows off the cheesy rhythm machine no one used before playing something you may recognize.

 

I can’t afford the cost and complexity of an actual Mellotron, but I use a good approximation issued by MOTU a few years back. One thing I perversely appreciate about it is that, just like the real thing, any note just stops after 8 seconds, when the strip of tape in an actual Mellotron would come to its end. Avoiding this can force you into some odd playing techniques when used in a slower tempo piece. If you listen very closely in “Spring”,  I just let that abrupt tape end-stop happen for effect several times. For a sustaining note to end like that gives it a catch-in-the breath gasp effect.

 

For electro-mechanical nerds: the low down on how the real Mellotron worked, mostly.

 

One image in Millay’s poem puzzled me over the week I worked on it. “Life in itself is nothing…a flight of uncarpeted stairs.” I can find no one who has made any sense of it. The best I can figure out, knowing houses from Millay’s time first hand, is that while any stairs between floors of a properly furnished home would have likely had carpet runners, utilitarian stairs, such as ones to the basement would not be carpeted. I took that understanding, and had the melody fall down as the word “stairs” is sung.

Anyway, after all this talk about the utilitarian work of making these pieces, please take time to listen to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Spring,”  using the player below.

 

Thaw

I like to mix up our musical encounters with poetry here, using both well-known and lesser-known poems. Here’s one you probably haven’t heard before, written by a poet who is less-known in the U.S. than in his native Britain, Edward Thomas.

In 1913, Thomas was 36 years old and was scratching out a living for his family as a freelance writer on whatever topics could generate a check, but his real passion seemed to be as an enthusiastic naturalist. He liked nothing better than to walk about the countryside reading the book of nature, jotting down notes about what he’d seen. Then he met a similar no longer young writer, a 40-year-old American who wanted a career as a poet.

The American had not found his own country in agreement with his vocational desire, and so he had flipped a coin to strike out somewhere else: Canada or England? He knew no one in either place, it was just a hunch that someplace different might change his lot. The coin came up England. He took a cottage in the Cotswolds, near to where Thomas was living. The 40-year-old American poet? Robert Frost.

Over the next couple of years, the two men developed what would be the most significant friendship in their lives. Now Thomas had a companion besides his notebook on those nature walks. Although Frost had published only a handful of poems in periodicals at this point, Thomas saw his talent, a man who could write metrical verse so supple that it didn’t seem like poetic diction. In turn, Frost saw another poet in this self-described “hack writer” with his avocational notebook.

Thomas and Frost

Nearing 40 years old and yet thinking about poetry. Edward Thomas and Robert Frost.

 

Frost published his first two books of poetry in England, “A Boy’s Will”  and “North of Boston,”  and Thomas reviewed them enthusiastically, helping launch Frost’s literary career. And with Frost’s encouragement, Thomas’ notebook jottings became poems.

In 1915 Frost moved back to the U. S. where publishers would now publish American editions of his poetry. Edward Thomas, and his family, were to follow. The two poets were to live near each other in America and continue their fruitful friendship.

These two men, these two friends, who each could write tremendously concise poems in which a natural drama could play out in but a few lines, had one constitutional difference. Frost was reconciled to chance and fate. He would jump oceans with a coin flip. If lost on a road by a snowy woods on the darkest night of the year—well keep on driving that buggy onward in the dark. Thomas, on the other hand, believed that introspection and judgement, an ever-closer reading of the book of nature could discern the right choice. If two roads diverge (as they would when he and Frost walked the Cotswolds) your honor derives from making the correct choice from the inconsistent evidence.

Back in the USA, Frost wrote his famous, misunderstood, poem about those two paths and sent it to his friend, still tarrying in England, and Thomas became the first person to misunderstand The Road Not Taken.”  No matter how much we honor the author’s intent, the poem exists after it’s creator. Thomas’ outlook saw the undercurrent in the poem, that choice could be important. Thomas thought: if Frost was making gentle fun of that, no matter, that was the point.

Here’s a small, four-line poem that Thomas wrote about spring, “Thaw.” As often with Thomas’ poems “Thaw”  is set on a nature’s large stage, but it’s a very short drama. Winter’s snow, as it is here in Minnesota today, is half-melted. Crows are cawing in tree tops, as the crows I saw today on my morning bike ride to breakfast were too, speaking the inscrutable language of crows. I saw one swoop down and frighten a foraging squirrel on a lawn, the black bird somewhat larger than the squirrel—and then, larger yet to it when the rook spread its wings and hammered out its hard-consonant caw.

The squirrel hopped like something had exploded underneath it and disappeared. These natural decisions could be read if one picks up the book of nature.

In Thomas’ “Thaw,”  the poet has come to understand that the crows know spring is coming, they are nesting already, and their treetop kingdom, unlike the ground beneath the poet’s feet, is snow free. They have read the book of nature more perceptively.

In Frost’s “The Road not Taken”  the comic narrator will sigh “ages and ages hence” about not having read nature right, of having lost the experience the road not taken would have given him. Edward Thomas decided not to move to New England to live next to Frost. Edward Thomas decided, though he was nearing 40 years old, and with a family to leave behind, that honor and his sense of correct decision required that he enlist in World War I, then half-way over. Within a few weeks of arriving at the front, a German artillery shell, following the arc of nature’s laws for men’s unnatural needs, killed him outright.

Thomas had continued writing his nature poems through his boot-camp training, and presumably at the front. He was still seeking to find what it knows that he doesn’t.

You can hear my performance of “Thaw”  using the player below. In the middle section I tried to give the impression with electric guitar of the sounds of a flock of crows.

If you like what we do here, particularly as we celebrate National Poetry Month (#npm2018), you may want to let others know about The Parlando Project on social media or elsewhere.