Long time readers here will know that one of this Project’s ideas is “Other People’s Stories.” I’ve chosen to make that one of its principles for a couple of reasons. First, the Internet is full of folks telling their own stories, and this is fine (after all, to me those would all be “Other People’s Stories”). I wanted to do something different, to focus on how you and I experience a variety of words from a variety of writers with a variety of outlooks. The second is that I’m rather uncomfortable with promoting myself. That one’s complex.* Like most writers or composers or artists I think my own work has value at some percentage over half the time. Which then, mathematically, allows that I doubt its value, or my handling of its value, or the costs of declaiming its value to the universe a bunch of the time too.
No one creates without the first thought. It would be impossible. And no one who cares about what they create, about their audiences, or about how much craft and care can be devoted to any art; without seeing the faults, the missed communication, the needs for just one more revision or tomorrow for any work.
Many of us create instinctively, because we have to — but sharing that work is a choice. I’m nearing 600 Parlando Project audio pieces presented here. I could have presented at least half or two-thirds of that easily with things Dave or I wrote, but I made a different choice. It’s less conflicted for me to publicly look at, to be honestly surprised and delighted at Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Sara Teasdale, or Du Fu; and then to share that with you.
But there’s a problem with “Other People’s Stories.” I’m likely not understanding everything those authors intended.** And they’re their stories, their visions. I’ve talked recently here about how when I translate a poet who wrote in another language how I want to honor their work and transfer accurately their particular powers, and yet then become tempted to break off into something their work makes me see through my own eyes.
A long prolog to presenting today’s piece, one I wrote and titled “Ethna’s Dream.” Ethna is Ethna McKiernan, a poet who I used to meet and talk about work with once a month or so, along with two to four others. Ethna cared and crafted her work over decades, and in her life did other useful work: running an Irish heritage book and art shop, working with the homeless. She’s currently in hospice, comforted by family, and the reports are that she’s now mostly in an out of what appears as sleep.
I couldn’t call Ethna a close friend. I always sensed a distance there. I think often of her none the less these days, and of every rudeness, awkwardness, or self-dealing on my part around her; and those or any number of things could have caused that. The very fact of writing a poem about her death, her dying, that mostest personal thing, seems problematic.
So, when you listen to my piece “Ethna’s Dream” you now know all that. This is not a poem about those things I’ve discussed in prolog, or at least I hope so. Instead, my intent is that it’s a poem about what we should treasure of that sharing of the unconscious that we have with artists (including those whose main art is just living). What I present in “Ethna’s Dream” is not a romantic, imaginary, sentimental metaphor in my own mind — though it may attract or repel you if you see it as such — it’s more at the essences of what we do, share, and take with art.
There’s references to Bottom’s speech in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Am I prettifying myself up with pretentiousness, or comparing myself to the foolish play character? I wrote it, and yet I can’t tell.
*One problem, leading to one fear, is that when offered the chance to promote myself I see myself as overdoing it, and coming off as a self-absorbed narcissist that runs on too long about the arts I work in, prattling about the obvious and the obscure in equally embarrassing ways. If you’re still reading at the footnote stage, you may have forgiven me for that.
**Beside just plain embarrassment of ignorance, we now more often talk about cultural appropriation in regards to this. The travesties of cultural appropriation are real, but my belief is that they should, must, be risked.
Life events are conspiring again to keep me out of my studio space to record new pieces — but it just so happens that I have this rocking Blues recorded back in 2007 with the LYL Band that’ll contrast with our pensive Frost meditation on work from last time. Today’s audio piece was made from Frost’s short poem titled “Fragmentary Blue,” now recast as “Fragmentary Blues.”
Unlike Carl Sandburg or Langston Hughes, I have no idea if the 1914 vintage Robert Frost had any experience or appreciation of this Afro-American musical form. A quick search found nothing, even though Frost’s lifetime overrode The Jazz Age, The Swing Era, and even early rock’n’roll.
But as poet Langston Hughes soon discovered, the lyrical expression of the Blues was a vital format worth picking up. A first draft of this post included a long aside about the importance of this Afro-American Modernist form, but on second thought I’m going to take less of our time today so that we can focus on how Frost’s poem can be expressed through that form.
JFK: When you wrote “Come on mama, to the edge of town/I know where there’s a bird nest, built down on the ground” were you talking about what I think you were talking about? (wink wink). Frost: No, you’ve got me confused with another bucolic poet, that’s Charlie Patton — but I believe that’s a philosophic statement about how erotic desire is both natural and elusive. Patton was tuned in open Spanish for that one.”
Blues lyrics often used a stanza format of three lines: one a statement, the second a restatement that may be the same, nearly the same, or subtly varied while still gathering intensity via repetition; and then a third line which can go in any direction the writer/poet/singer wants to take it, though it usually rhymes with the ending of the first two lines. It’s a variation of that ancient and simple poetic scheme the rhyming couplet, but with that repetition allowing for something extra in the balance. And there’s often an element of call and response in the lines: that choral rock, and roll back that Sophocles, Skip James, and Pops Staples could share.
So, let’s go back to our 1914 Robert Frost poem “Fragmentary Blue.”
Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?
Since earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet) —
Though some savants make earth include the sky;
And blue so far above us comes so high,
It only gives our wish for blue a whet.
Not in Blues stanza form. Instead, ABBA, and I don’t mean the Swedish pop group.* But Frost has made the center two lines in each stanza a sort of parenthetical, so that lines one and four are natural couplets and the middle two lines are already couplets that can stand by themselves. This means it was easy to turn “Fragmentary Blue” into “Fragmentary Blues.”
Why make so much of those fragmentary blues?
Why make so much of those fragmentary blues —
When heaven presents us sheets of a solid hue.
Here and there a bird, or a butterfly.
Here and there’s a bird, or a butterfly,
Or a flower, or a wearing stone, or an open eye.
There’s some savants say the earth includes the sky.
Some say, some say, that the earth includes the sky —
And the blues so far above us, it comes on so high.
Since earth is earth, it isn’t heaven yet.
Earth is earth. It ain’t heaven yet.
It only gives a wish for blues a whet.
So there you go, via show not tell, we rock up Robert Frost in the Blues form. If you read the two sets of words closely, you’ll see something has changed. Frost’s “blue” on first reading seems a stand-in for beauty, while the Blues treats its namesake emotional dissatisfaction as something less than beauty. But, consider again. Frost’s poem says we miss the immensity of natural beauty in our all too earthward human act of trying to possess its emulations. That difference, that dissatisfaction — that’s the Blues. My adaptation only brings out that subtext more overtly. You can hear the LYL Band express Frost most blues-wailingly with the player gadget below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will play the performance. Most of the better guitar notes here were played by Andy Schultz who played with the LYL Band for a few times, and Dave Moore will once more hear himself back when he could pound and roll on the (plastic) ivories.
*Is it too late in their career to suggest that they produce a trans-Atlantic Carl Sandburg tribute record? I’m available, and you need my audience of dozens to hundreds of listeners.
Around America people are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, a sort of remembered harvest festival, now a family get-together mostly celebrated by eating as most Americans are separated from farm work by some distance and decades. However, back in 1914, American poet Robert Frost was close enough to that work to write a masterful and closely observed poem about harvest time that I’m going to present for today: “After Apple Picking.” While I hope you’ll listen to my audio performance with my original music below, here’s a link to the poem in case you’d like to follow along with the text.
This poem is full of sensuous detail. Encountering it — even if you don’t do farm work — you should feel the completion and weariness of the poem’s speaker who is falling asleep at the end of his harvest season. The poem’s farmer has been working in an orchard, and that place is full of the scent of apples. In a fall orchard such as this, much of this scent may be from fallen apples which, even as they start to rot, give off a sweet musk. And it’s frost time, not just the poet’s name on the poem, but the livestock water-trough has a frozen sheet on top, so the picker has been racing against a loss of the crop. In a piece of rural surrealism, the farmer has, that morning, picked up a plate of this surface ice —which would be thin, wavy, and fragile — and looks through it as if they are magic spectacles at the morning frost on the grass. This lasts but a moment, the magic glass will disintegrate in his hands, but that’s of no matter, there’s work to complete.
While falling asleep his body is still weary, his feet are sore from standing on the round ladder rungs, but as dreams approach his mind once more magnifies and intensifies reality like the view through the wavy ice sheet, and he’s haunted by apples, by his job of picking and inspecting, his rush against the end of season frost.
As the poem moves to its conclusion the farmer seems to imply that his work to gather the crop before it’s lost is like unto the work of salvation. We might remember and notice that the poem started with a ladder pointing “toward heaven.” And those apples that touch the earth are held by it and not offered heavenly worth.
Frost ends his poem whimsically, not with an angel or a prayer, but with a small rodent, the woodchuck, which hibernates (“his long sleep”) in the winter. As the farmer falls off to sleep, he wonders how long a rest he has earned.
How big a slice of apple pie do you want? Stand back, I’ll cut you a piece.
When Frost wrote this poem about a third of Americans were farmers and farm workers. Now, most of us have other labors. Our harvests may not be food, we may not be tied to the cycle of seasons as exactly. My wife will be getting time off from working in a medical clinic, where she works to gather as many as she can, and Thursday she’ll be making a meal for us and her mother with dementia. I’m working past midnight to bring you a presentation of this poem. Our labors are many, they may make us weary, but perhaps, yet, we can be thankful for them.
My audio performance of Robert Frost’s harvest poem “After Apple Picking” can be heard with the player gadget below, or with this highlighted hyperlink. My music today is percussion, piano, cello, two violins, horn, and harp.
The poet and writer Robert Bly was unavoidable here in Minnesota, and to some degree that may be true elsewhere. Today would be the day this week I would have to record something new, but I’m going to write this instead on the week of his death.
I moved to Minnesota from New York in the mid-1970s, and Robert Bly was unavoidable even then, at least within poetry circles. Minnesota is used to single degrees, and it soon became clear to me that one didn’t need to reach a balmy high of 6 degrees of separation to connect a lot of the poets here to Bly.
Now as a younger man I was a big again’er, and so I was often moved to do by what I was in opposition to. Bly was this too, and he retained this spirit well into his middle age. I recall the first time I saw him read and then speak on more general cultural topics at a writers event. The reading was intriguing. I recall he spoke his poems in a Yeatsian* sing-song chant and I believe he may have strummed a mountain dulcimer haphazardly while intoning his poems. That sort of thing is not universally attractive, then or now, but I admired the attempt. The poetry held my attention while not bowling me over. I’m not entirely sure (memories of other Bly readings blur into my memory of my first) but he may have spent time in his reading speaking about the matters the following poem would be a distillation of. In effect a Bly reading sometimes seemed to be roughly in haibun form, prose talk containing associations and context, to be followed by a shorter lyric poem. In the mid-20th century this reading style was an again’er move, for the predominate public literary reading was flatter, trusting the words alone, or the persistence of memory from studying them on the page before or after, to bring forth the impact. The Beat poetry** with jazz thing still existed then, but this wasn’t quite that, and the Beats were still assayed plausibly as a faded popularizing fad with inferior poetry by many. Over the years my fondness/acceptance of Bly’s reading style continued, though I never wanted to sound like Bly reading.
Part of what might seem too much at a Bly reading, perhaps part of why he chose to explain the human connections not always overt in the poetry which followed, was that he really seemed to want us to treasure the words. That could seem vain or self-important — but of course he, or any of us poets, are only borrowing the words.
The video looks like it may be Bly reading around the same time I first heard him.
Later in the event series where I had heard him read, I heard him talk about culture. I recall the core of his talk that day was about how young people (he may have been restricting his subject to young men, even though this was years before Iron John) had this narcissistic irresponsibility and lack of order. He called those suffering from this syndrome “Boy Gods” and he said these two words so close together that I wondered if this was a new word I hadn’t heard before: “buoygaadz.” Anyway, I wasn’t having this. Yes, nearly all writers, and more nearly all poets, have a sliver of un-endorsed self-regard for their thoughts and work.*** And we don’t generally know what to do with what skills we have, but at a young age drawing on our own lives isn’t just narcissistic, it’s also largely what we have any grasp on so far in our short years.
So, my again’er back was up. Maybe it wasn’t me he was talking about? Didn’t occur to me. I’d been working full time since I was 20 first in nursing homes taking care of folks Bly’s parents’ age, then in urban Emergency Rooms where people had no where else or no choice but to come. I didn’t need some writer with writing prizes giving me tough love, it was my day job to provide some pretty tough love to some needy people.
That’s often what happens when two again’ers meet. How much did I misunderstand? How much was Bly wrong? As an old man I’m not sure. That again’er part of me still arises, even in old age; but now I’m prone to doubt that there’s one way and one understanding — which was always part of my being against stuff that claims there was. Similarly, I was never attracted to Bly’s denomination of a men’s movement, though some others who seem a decent sort of person in my estimate were. I have no understanding of that part of Bly’s lifework, and so look elsewhere if that’s what you’re looking for. Also missing in my accounting today will be that there was, even more so in the older Bly, a sense of general good humor about our less than murderous follies.
Skip forward some decades and into a new century. Partly from examining closely the early Modernists (who wrote differently than most Modernism that followed) and partly from a renewed interest in how the classical Chinese poets expressed poetry, my poetry became more like Bly’s without any direct intent on my part to write like him (remember, my first impressions of Bly’s poetry were: nice enough, but not impressive or something I needed to copy.) If you’ve listened to some of the hundreds of examples of various performance styles I’ve used here combining poetry and music, I don’t think you’ll find me sounding much like Bly reading — but he is one of several whose courage in trying different ways to make verse work aloud inspired me.
And then, as readers here will know, I started to do more translations. I did this to expand what I presented here, and also because I think it’s a great way to get inside other ways poetry can express itself for my own writerly benefit. In the course of doing that, I would run across works that Bly had translated. My first thoughts? “He put stuff in there that wasn’t in the poem. And he makes them all sound like Bly poems.” Well, there’s my again’er again! I told myself that I want to honor the poet I’m translating — and sure, I can’t move the exact word-music over, but it should remain their poem, not mine. Oh, I still think I’m trying to do that, but I’m failing into doing what I see in Bly’s translations more and more. I’m not sure how I’ll eventually feel about this failure on my part. I’ll say only this (in example) if you think you’re reading Rumi by reading Bly, you’re not. You’re looking over the shoulder or between the ears of Robert Bly reading Rumi. That may be a fine location, just don’t hang the wrong sign on it. Ah, but as with the poetry we write, we’re only borrowing the words.
Have I been too dismissive or hard on the man who has just died, and who earned his honors and esteem and perhaps deserved even more? And who am I to cast this as if Bly and I are peers in any estimation! I worry that I might give some readers those impressions, but no, my intent is to say this in gratitude to Bly; and then to say this to you: if you, even partially, progress by opposition know that opposition may be like a pair of powerful magnets with poles repelling — they may snap around in your intending hands, together.
**While in New York I’d heard Ginsberg sing poetry; and though his pitch sense had issues, he was singing in full voice. Though I left New York before the hip-hop explosion, Gil Scott-Heron was a thing, and again, the cool, sly Beat infused (in both senses of the word) Scott-Heron thing wasn’t what Bly was doing. Bly then was always slowing the flow down, sometimes elongating the words almost like a stage hypnotist. The Last Poets sounded more like drill sergeant chants compared to Bly. Ken Nordine’s“Word Jazz” had moments of that slow, hypno-suggestion groove, but it also had rhythmic variety. Later Bly chopped with a raised hand while reading, chopping also the words off at their feet with more variety in tempo.
***Often fighting with a stubborn bit of self-destruction or outright self-hate. Many artists think they know what they’re doing maybe 51% of the time, and then “I don’t have any idea about how to do it” fills the remainder 49%. The former pride lets us work, maybe even impress the results on others, the later portion calls us self-deluded. Some self-medicate trying to dampen down one portion or the other, but the drugs, drink, etc are not accurate enough.
It was difficult to return to work on new pieces for this project yesterday. November was blustery and very gray, the whole world seemed to shiver. It was weather to huddle up, as curled and still and hidden as one could be. None-the-less I rode my bike to breakfast, and when I rode past a small pond I could see three ducks on the soon to be frozen water. I wondered; did they miss the migration memo? Are three enough of a formation to make the long southward flight? Are they waiting for a greater flock to gather that I suspect won’t be coming around?
Having completed my Kurt Vonnegut series, I am reminded of a whimsical concept his made-up religion Bokononism introduced: the “karass,” a term for a group of disparate people strangely linked together without their knowledge that yet still seem to be working with a common purpose and unknowable goal.
If so, poet Robert Okaji and I may be in such a flock.
Ostensibly independently, Okaji and I both find creating American English translations/adaptations of classical Chinese poetry rewarding. We even often use the same source of literal glosses of the poems since neither of us understand the language those poets wrote in. Okaji’s practices have informed some of what I do with translation in that he allows himself to extrapolate English poetry from these old poems where his or the modern American reader’s understanding might otherwise be puzzled, unsure, or unmoved.* This weekend I read one of his adaptations, “Sheng-yu’s Lament (after Mei Yao-ch’en)” and was struck, as he apparently was, by the depiction of grief and loss.
Okaji’s version is quite good, but I still wanted to try my own adaptation. I approach translating classical Chinese poetry like I approach translating from French, German, or Spanish. My primary goal is to understand first what the poet wants us to see, to sense — the imagery. With poetry the “word-music” is highly important in the original language, but generally I do not try to transpose the sounds or even the sound-organization of the original language into English. I do like to retain something of what I call “the music of thought” in the original poem, the order and arrangement of the images in the poem’s journey.
I always start wanting to honor the original poet, the original poem, but despite that I often get carried away with a desire to change the way the poem ends to something that occurs to me from the experience of the other poet’s poem. This may be a failure, a fault on my part, and so when I do that here I try to cite what liberties I took. Okaji has a concise way to handle this issue: he calls his adaptations into American English “After…” which gives one license to do what the muse wills.
I started out thinking about how to render the first word: “heaven” in the gloss, a word carried over by Okaji. Best as I understand Chinese culture, the term “heaven” often carries a connotation closer to the concept of “fate,” and I actually used fate in the second draft, and then reverted to heaven in the final version. I decided I needed the listener to be firmly in the experience of mourning and grief, and to a Westerner, heaven does that. My next problem to solve were two lines both plain and puzzling: “Two eyes although not dry/(Disc) heart will want die” Interestingly, they rhyme in the English gloss, and early-on I decided to make that into a refrain. The narrator seems stuck, and refrains are a great device to show that situation. Okaji plays his “after card” here, with the very fine “my heart slowly turns to ash” that may not be in the original but adds vividness.
I wanted to bring forward Mei Yao-che’en’s image in the next set of lines — that there are things that seem elusive, that we think of as gone, but they still exist —and there are objective, work-a-day methods to go into the depths to retrieve them. I was unable to find out any additional context for the Sheng-yu whose lament the poem is said to be reflecting. Given my own age I read this poem as an older man, a widower who has now also lost his son to death, although given the historical dangers of childbirth it could be a tale of a woman who died of childbirth complications and then the infant too dies. The poignant specifics of the pearl sinking into the sea asks for allusive meaning, pearls coming from oysters on seabeds, and so a returning, perhaps a child-soul coming forth and then returning to where it came from. Or given my old-man framing, a widower throwing a dead wife’s jewelry into the sea. If the story of Sheng-yu was known to Mei’s readers this might be understood more specifically, but lacking knowledge I let this specific mystery remain.
Mei’s lines “Only person return source below/Through the ages know self (yes)” are hard to grasp. Okaji made his estimate, and I made mine. My aim was in part to underline that this section is a contrasting development of the supposedly lost things in the depths of the earth or the sea.
Okaji’s adaptation ends strongly, and it seems to me to be a more likely accurate translation of the poem’s final line. While I like my solution to the next-to-last line, I decided to go with a much odder final line. In my choice, inspired by what I felt in Mei’s original poem, and from being an older person with many grievings — the dead whose immortality is, in part, made up of my remembrance of them — is that I do not have to dig down deep or dive deep to see them, that they are with me. In the thin depths of a mirror I find them, and that my fate is to join their fate soon enough in my passage of years.
Musically I wrote an entire other tune for this, a bit more R&B like, which I abandoned early in my attempts to record this. Instead, I returned to my thought of some unusual colors associated with the Velvet Underground, and particularly John Cale,** the Welsh viola playing member of that band. I created another spare and eccentric percussion part inspired by Velvet’s drummer Maureen Tucker’s inventions, and then laid down an electric bass line that anchors the melody. My guitar part came next, not R&B at all this time, the atmospheric arpeggios perhaps subconsciously connected to Chinese string instruments. The top instrumental lines are a cello and viola.
You can hear my performance of this lament with either this highlighted hyperlink or where available, this graphical player gadget you may see below.
**Two early John Cale solo LPs The Church of Anthrax and The Academy in Peril, like his settings for Nico recordings in the early Seventies, aren’t to everybody’s tastes but hearing them opened my mind then to different ways to combine orchestral instruments with modern songwriting and electric instruments. If you want to explore them now, I’d suggest starting with 1972’s The Academy in Peril which is the most accessible.
Let’s complete our series honoring American writer Kurt Vonnegut on the 99th anniversary of his birth with another piece taken from his novel Cat’s Cradle. In the world of this novel there’s an imaginary religion created called Bokononism whose elusive founder writes psalms and prayers that reference Caribbean musical styles. Even though Vonnegut never set music to them, he seemed happy that others did during his lifetime.*
The LYL Band, the loose organization of herded cats that Dave Moore and I have played under for about 40 years, performed several pieces using Bokonon’s psalms and other short passages we’d read in Vonnegut’s novels three days after his death was announced back in 2007. I wrote the music for these in that interim and did the vocals when they were performed “live in the studio” within two one-hour sets. As I mentioned in other episodes of this series, the performances aren’t perfect. For one thing, Dave is creating his keyboard parts on the fly after maybe hearing a quick run down and with nothing more than a chord chart. Given that I’m not a very good chord/rhythm player that’s a testament to him and what decades of playing together will do for a band. Another problem was that I was suffering from cold/allergies that day and my vocals had issues with congestion and phlegm.
I recorded those two sets, though I thought it a shame that my phlegm issues reduced the quality of the performances. Over the years since 2007 I’ve listened to those performances, and I found that I either had become inured to their sound or that the emotional moment of us honoring Vonnegut overcomes that.
“God Made Mud” was the next to last song we did that day.** It’s probably the best of our Vonnegut Memorial stuff in terms of my vocals. “God Made Mud” appears in Vonnegut’s novel as the text of “The Last Rites of the Bokononist Faith.” The Bokononism that Vonnegut invented is used in the novel in various ways to satirize human nature and our search for meaning. For some readers — oddly enough, atheists and secure believers both — those insights into belief are the emotional core of the book. For those in non-Abrahamic religions, there are echoes of Buddhist teachings, intentional or otherwise, mixed in there too.
But by the time Vonnegut gets to “God Made Mud” the sincerity of the final human situation, the miracle and the limits of our lives, completely overcomes the satire, and removed from the novel’s plot it moves me. It moved me then as we were performing it in the week of its author’s death, moved me later in consideration of other deaths and thoughts of gratitude for lives, and moves me again this autumn as I consider death and the approach of death by folks in my circle.
Click this highlighted hyperlink to hear the LYL Band’s performance of “God Made Mud” — or some of you may see a horizontal player gadget below this paragraph to play it. One last thing before I go: if you appreciate what this Project does and you think you know someone or some audience who might also appreciate these varied combinations of words and original music, help it continue by sharing links to the audio pieces or posts on social media or elsewhere. I almost never have the time to do that, and I’m bad at it anyway, so a good deal of this effort’s audience comes to it this way. Thanks!
* Oddly, most of those settings that I’ve heard make no reference to Caribbean musical styles implied in Vonnegut’s imaginary Bokonon texts. One of those styles, calypso, has lost most of its currency in North America, but in today’s piece I used a reggae feel as a reasonable substitute.
Even before I was interested much in literature, I developed a love for history. Today’s Veteran’s Day post will only briefly touch on literature, and instead offer a slice of history. Older readers may think they know all this, or know it better than what I’ll write today. Some younger readers won’t care, but perhaps a few will learn something they didn’t read or hear elsewhere. As with any short piece, I’m going to need to leave out many things. While this post was not written intending to be a puzzle, I noticed that one thing was left out of this Veteran’s Day post. By that I don’t mean some opinion or judgement, or even some biographic item — I mean a particular significant historical Veteran’s Day fact that I expect few will notice is missing. When I reveal it late in the post, I’m also thinking you’ll take that elision as something to consider.
So, a bit over 50 years ago there was a war going on, the Vietnam War. The way it was presented then: our great geo-political rival had invaded another country and we were morally obligated to resist that aggression. This doesn’t seem to have been the case, at least not in any way that could be simplified as such. Another summary would be that Vietnam had invaded Vietnam, as it had been doing since the days of WWII, seeking to become an independent country. In the course of things, they succeeded, and now are one of those more or less unremarkable governments around the world that may be good or bad to their citizens in some mixture that we don’t generally concern ourselves with.
This obligation eventually led to a considerable number of American troops fighting in South-East Asia, but luckily the post WWII Baby Boom had raised a bumper crop of what were considered prime fighting age 20-year-olds. I was one of them. Even though this was a war, there were only so many troops that could be used. The amounts that could be used were filled to a significant degree by draftees, young people conscripted (other words: forced, obligated, duty-bound) to serve in the military, and since there was a war going on, some percentage of those draftees would be asked to kill other people or to be killed themselves.
To a surprising extent, this was not remarkable then. I can imagine how many living adults now find that odd, what with present controversies about wearing cloth masks and getting vaccinations — as not only were these conscripted men plausibly in for the kill/killed experience, they were also vaccinated forthwith and forced to wear entire uniforms. And yes, in certain training situations they were instructed in how to put on masks.
I can say that as a teenager in that crop of draft-age men then, I thought about this, and remarked on it. Others in my cohort did too. But there were whole days when one didn’t think about it, and instead thought about sex, fun, school deadlines, the price of a pizza, the general meaning of life and what that meant for you personally, and so on and so on. Still, it was an issue considered by the young.
But no, in general the adult country was fine with this, and even to observable empirical level it was not the biggest deal for a lot of my immediate cohort. You see, I was in college, a small one in a not very big town in Iowa, and because only a certain number of troops were needed, college students were given “deferments.” They didn’t need to serve while in school, and if this was a political post one could get into why that might be so. I’ll also add that dropping out of school, or failing out, or being short of tuition funds, or just deciding to take a gap year — those things would make the draft imminent for a college student — but for college 20-year-old men it wasn’t a next Thursday kind of worry, though it could be a next year one.
Now I and a few of my friends did think this was a bad thing, the war, the draft — oh, and a lot of other stuff: racism, what recreational drugs were legal, female students having “hours” where they had to be back in dorms by a certain time each night. The “we should do something about this” group was probably around 5% of the student body at my college in 1968.
Then in the spring of 1970 something happened that surprised me. The President made public (as if it was a new decision rather than a more substantial incursion that couldn’t be kept secret) that US troops were going to invade countries next to Vietnam. To those who had been paying less attention, this seemed a sign that this was maybe going to be around a lot longer, like past graduation, with more draftees needed. Opposition to the war on college campuses had been growing for about a year, and this gave it another bump, and on an obscure Ohio campus, Kent State, this boiled over (as it occasionally had elsewhere) into disorder and vandalism which wasn’t enough to cancel classes, but was enough for the National Guard to be sent in.
Something happened, likely a confused Guard squad, and the Guard opened fire, A bunch of students got shot, some were just walking between classes — because again, whatever disorder this was, classes were in session — four died.
Of course, I was appalled, but did that surprise me? Not greatly. Even in my youthful life there had been the drumbeat of the civil rights movement martyrs and assassinations of Presidents and Presidential candidates. In my crowd the fatal Chicago police shooting of Fred Hampton was considered duplicated multiple times against the Black Panthers. And in 1969 there had been a shooting death in the People’s Park confrontations.
Here’s what surprised me more. Not only around the country, but in my little Iowa college, much larger numbers of students thought something had to be done right now about this. One by one colleges and universities suspended normal operations and any number of alternative actions were taken that spring. This was called a strike. Here’s something little remarked on about male students choosing to do this for what was then an unknown duration in 1970: it could’ve led to them becoming subject to the draft.
There are no pictures available of my 1970 memories, so the guy on the left will have to stand in. The statue on the right is a clue to this post’s subsidiary riddle. The Nov. 11th born veteran Vonnegut tried to speak between generations.
Ad hoc organization coalesced at my school and as I recall the one concrete action to “really do something” was to try to garner support for a federal bill that would restrict funding or expansion or authorization or some other matter regarding the war in SE Asia. The bill had been co-sponsored, or co-authored, or supported by one of Iowa’s Senators, Harold Hughes.*
Let me stop for a moment and get to a reason I’m writing this on a Veteran’s Day. Sometime, maybe a generation after these events, it became a commonplace that Vietnam war opponents, or college students, or hippies, or leftists, or some Sixties group hated soldiers in general. “In general” is a dodgy term, but I think it’s meaningful in this matter. I spent time with all those supposed soldier-hating groups, in both Iowa and New York (two fairly unlike places), and I never heard anything like that, not once. And it would have seemed so odd to me personally, that if I had heard it, I think I would have remembered it. And it wasn’t reticence or propriety that would have masked those feelings. Expressions against police were so common that I couldn’t count them then, much less now. And fairly soon, as early as 1971, I was running into ex-Vietnam era soldiers who could be put in those loosely defined groups above themselves.**
Back to working with this newly motivated group of Iowa college students who naively thought they had to do something right now about this expanding war. We were going to go door-to-door asking for folks to write letters in support of this bill. Now who takes point walking on a patrol, or even boring days painting what doesn’t move, or for that matter being under a napalm attack — this isn’t on that order (well, maybe the middle one is a little), but for some reason, I have memories of the few days I did this before leaving for New York. I believe now what we were doing was essentially meaningless, if the best we could come up with at the time.
In our door-knocking in town we might run into what was later called “The Greatest Generation.” Most said little to our spiel, but a couple of them, men, wanted to set us straight as to what we didn’t understand. Well, even then I suspected there were things I didn’t know, and now I can drop the suspected and replace it with certainty. The one I remember most vividly responded with a statement that I didn’t know what it was like to watch your buddies die.
I try to replay him saying that through the fog of the years. Although there was anger in it, I think it was a sincere personal statement. I often think since of what did that statement, however incongruous, mean? Did he mean that I should watch my buddies die? That that would be enlightening, educational? I don’t think so, no more than it was his considered opinion that such an experience had been worthwhile or ennobling for him. What he meant, putting my most empathetic interpretation on it, was that a certain sacrifice and commitment added something to one’s opinion on national matters.
More broadly though, his generational experience was why there was not a great deal of concern then, other than a slowly growing one among those of draft age, for the idea that young men could be conscripted to possibly kill or be killed. The Greatest Generation had faced the same sacrifice, and so this was normalized, not even Great yet, unexceptional. In the case of WWII good wasn’t a question, necessary was the question.
In those times, some in my generation eagerly latched onto WWII veteran Kurt Vonnegut’s books (and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 as well) to portray everything else around the necessary part of WWII. They were our cross-generational allies in seeing and saying that war needed extraordinary necessity. Vonnegut even wanted to connect us 20-year-olds with his Dresden POW book Slaughterhouse Five, subtitling it “The Children’s Crusade” which had been a nickname for the 1968 US Presidential campaigning by folks often too young to vote for anti-Vietnam-war candidates, and which he then applied to the 18-20 year old range of his WWII cohort.
OK, what Veteran’s Day historical event did this old man leave out of the above story, dealing as it did with differences and connections between men serving in the Vietnam War era and those who wanted to end that war, and between 20-year-olds and the WWII generation then in middle age? I completed an entire first draft and didn’t notice it myself. And I’m not alone. American Veteran’s Day stories in 1970 and up until now almost always leave it out. It’s the Korean War. As with WWII, few living veterans of that war are left now, but it occurs to me that the fervent man at the door in 1970 could easily have been a Korean War vet. And in historical analysis, that war had as much or more to do with the missteps of the Vietnam War as WWII.
The musical piece today is another song from birthday-boy Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Cat’s Cradle” in which his trickster guru character Bokonon muses ontologically. You don’t have to look up the word to appreciate this little song. Player gadget below to hear it, and if you don’t see that, you can click this highlighted hyperlink.
*I knew all those details then, even if I don’t remember them now. Harold Hughes is a little-remembered figure these days. Capsule description of Hughes: imagine if Johnny Cash had been a governor and then a U. S. senator. As to the general student feeling, I think it was close to how some people felt in the post-George Floyd murder reaction. The watchword was “We’ve got to do something.”
**Some of you may find this striking, The precipitating event of the college strikes of 1970 after all was men in military uniforms shooting and killing students, In this era, various acts were taken against what was considered part of the recruitment and processing of soldiers: draft boards, recruitment offices, ROTC buildings, that sort of place. I can’t know everything, but I never heard any of this characterized as “let’s go get those soldiers” and was more at “let stop more from being conscripted as soldiers.” Given human nature someone somewhere in 1970 may have said or thought that, but speaking of my experience: war-fighting soldiers were what we young men at that point increasingly feared being forced to become. Opinions differ on the nobility of those thoughts then and now, but we might have thought of cops differently if we knew that folks like us, and potentially us ourselves, might be forced to put on a police uniform.
Celebrating Kurt Vonnegut during this week that will mark the 99th anniversary of his birth allows two things to cross and connect, for he was born in 1922 on what would have been called Armistice Day then and will be called Veteran’s Day tomorrow in the US. Two decades later as a 20-year-old, he enlisted in the Army, served in WWII, and was rather famously a prisoner of war incarcerated in the German city of Dresden when it was subject to a massive firebombing raid from his own side.
As one might imagine that experience impressed itself mightily on Vonnegut, who as a writer eventually dealt with the matter in his best-known novel Slaughterhouse Five. But that was not his first novel to deal with WWII. That would be 1962’s Mother Night.
The short plot summary for Mother Night is that it concerns the story of an American who was in Nazi Germany during the war, and who tells us that all-the-while working with American undercover efforts he made fulsome fascist propaganda broadcasts. This situation gives us all kinds of resonances: with important American Modernist Ezra Pound for example,* with America’s own fascists, and with anyone who has ever found themselves working (for whatever reason) with a cause that they themselves feel they are not in alignment with.
The novel’s protagonist wrote “The Great Machine” in the novel as a poem explaining how he and his beloved German wife had done what they felt was necessary to survive, and once again the novelist while in character allowed Vonnegut license to write poetry.
Abstracted from the novel, and as a stand-alone poem, it mentions nothing of the fascist double-life theme of Mother Night however. Heard in this way, as the LYL Band performed it during the week of Vonnegut’s death in 2007, “The Great Machine” speaks instead to refugees trying to escape violent situations by whatever means they can muster. In such events it’s not uncommon for the “you really must understand” class of commentators to mention that the refugees should not be fleeing but should stay and try to counter the violence in their own countries. I don’t know if it’s absolutely required, but such commentators almost never seem to have been in similar situations themselves. In the saddest reportage in Vonnegut’s poem, it says that most people do not, in fact, flee in these situations, but ignorantly or fatalistically accept becoming victims of The Great Machine that is History.
After our first two installments of our Vonnegut series it’s gotten darker here, but you can hear The LYL Band’s performance of this poem found in a novel with the player gadget below, or by clicking this highlighted hyperlink.
*Living during the war in Italy, Pound (who had been attracted to outsider political ideas, not just fresh approaches to literature) made propaganda broadcasts for the Italian Fascists. Pound, as with several other Axis broadcasters from Allied countries, was arrested at the war’s end and faced charges of treason, with a possible death sentence. American literary figures helped lobby to have Pound instead declared insane, reducing his culpability. British humorist P. G. Woodhouse was in Germany during the war and made Axis broadcasts, which his literary admirers and defenders characterized as not propagandistic.
It’s easy for us at this remove to forget how close at hand these issues were when Vonnegut was working on his novel. WWII was as close as September 11 2001 and the wars that followed are to us now in 2021. Oddly though, American fascism, which had been a considerable issue during the ‘30s and ‘40s and is again now, was considered something of a comic non-entity in the 1962 world of his novel.
On to Kurt Vonnegut novels I have read and admired, as we continue this week’s Vonnegut series. In 1963’s Cat’s Cradle Vonnegut created one of the most elaborate satires I have ever read or heard of. What’s the target of the satire? I’d start to list them, but how much time do you have? What’s that you say?
“Busy, busy, busy…”
Well, let me talk a bit about Bokononism, a fictional religion created by Vonnegut as a Dadaist philosophical framework for this novel. I thought it a clever satire as a young man, but now as an old man I admire the richness of its contradictions and insights. Bokononism (named for its living, but elusive founder, Bokonon) is rich in meaningful/absurd contrasts. It’s said to have been invented by the West Indian sidekick of an accidental American imperialist* as an opiate of the masses for an impoverished Caribbean island nation. But not far under the cover of its optimistic and panegyric lies are sharp observations of life and how we think we make sense of it.
Instead of the Psalms of David, Bokonon wrote calypso songs. To many readers now calypso is but an obscure genre of Caribbean Afro-American music, but in the years immediately prior to Cat’s Cradle it had had a fairly significant US commercial visibility. Here’s a complexity in this calypso moment: to the typical US listener at the end of the 50s the music was “read” as carefree and only moderately exotic and absurdist.** But to calypso’s originators on their colonial islands, it was a sly comment on oppressions and troubles.
Creating such a song-writing character was an excuse for Vonnegut to do what many novelists stuck on silent pages would love to do: dress up and pretend to be pop music performers, even if only in a novelist’s imagination. Cut Kurt some slack: that pretending allows us to use Vonnegut’s sensibilities in the short formats the Parlando Project prefers.
Over a decade later, this lyric escaped from the novel, and what was presented as the trickster guru Bokonon’s scriptural “53rd Calypso” in the book had a second life as a song lyric under the title “Nice, Nice, Very Nice.” It made the American hit parade charts with this song by Ambrosia in 1975. Taken that way, it either can seem a simple, pleasing song; or a good reason in 1975 to form a punk band, without delay.
These guys wrote additional lyrics, sing better than I do, and were more concise in explaining Bokonon’s motivation for his religion “I wanted all things to make sense/So we’d be happy instead of tense” Still, I formed a punk band.
Simple isn’t without complexities. All we have is one quatrain and a short refrain — “Be Bop A Lula” is epic poetry compared to this. That one verse is a diverse catalog of the lowly and the high, the brave and the mundane, and the refrain wishes to claim they are part of the same “device” which rhymes with a repeated judgement that this is “nice.”
On one level this is a statement of shared humanity, and our connection. As complicated as the character of Bokonon is, I don’t think his creator Vonnegut would doubt the truth of that sharedness — but the “nice” and then too, the “device” part? There is the complex part of Vonnegut’s world-view.
Vonnegut portrays a world where kindness, love, and altruism are possibilities – no, necessities. Everything that is not those things exists too. We are all in a net of “butterfly effects” — even then in the novel’s 1963, even more so now in 2021. Is the world “nice?” In moments and pin-points it is. Let’s acknowledge that. In totality? “Busy, busy, busy” is said to be what a Bokononist says whenever they try to consider the complexity, the world’s intended and unintended awe of incomprehensibility. The implication: too complex to understand, to control.
At this point, in an earlier draft of this post I then tried to synthesize these things in my conclusion, but I don’t believe the book ever does, and certainly this little song that I present today doesn’t. So, let’s move on. Busy, busy, busy.
This song, performed in the same live set, back in the week of Vonnegut’s death in 2007 by the LYL Band, is unusual among the several musical settings I’ve since heard for it — I actually aimed for a calypso feel for the melody and groove, while others don’t. These 2007 performances I’ll use this week are each imperfect in some way, but as we approach the 99th anniversary of Vonnegut’s birth, it’s my hope that they still express some of his spirit.
*The very idea of accidental or coincidental imperialism is rich in itself. Even the minor threads in Cat’s Cradle are often like that.
**Just as I’m not much of an expert on the novel and its expressions, I can’t allow anyone to think of me as some expert on West Indian musical genres and political movements. But I am old enough to recall a bit about how the music was used and understood by white-Eurocentric-American culture circa 1960 — roughly, a darker-skinned Jimmy Buffett kind of thing. Some may recall a signal use in the goth-comedy Beetlejuice where the uptight urban sophisticates in a New England farmhouse were possessed and cursed to sing “Day-O (the Banana Boat Song),” which had been a big US hit in the late 50s. It’s an extraordinarily silly scene. I laugh at it. Vonnegut could (should) draw laughs too, but he is using a deeper, darker, slyer take on calypso.
Calypso’s use first by the American pop music industry, and then by white US filmmakers, as well as Vonnegut’s use of it in Cats Cradle could be viewed as cultural appropriation — I’d guess because it is. How would actual people of Trinidad/Tobago view Vonnegut’s reflection of their adaptation of African songcraft in a new colonialist world? I’d expect the opinions would vary, but I haven’t found anything on a simple web search.
I’ll let them judge Vonnegut in that regard. I’m an American musician, so I will not throw the first Rolling Stone from a country whose music is unique significantly because of kidnapped Afro-Americans. I feel that restricting art and tactics that oppose oppression only to each group who could claim ownership and a first, best understanding of them reduces the powers of resistance.
Today I’m going to start a short series here celebrating Kurt Vonnegut, a writer generally filed under “novelist” on bookshelves.
Most of the words this project uses started out as poetry, and poetry is a form of literature. So, one might assume that I’ve read a lot of novels. I haven’t. I’ve set no ban against the form, and I’ll read one or two a year, but the ones I read aren’t usually considered great literature. Essays, poetry, poetry collections, biographies (and less commonly memoirs), non-fiction accounts long and short, historical and current — my reading dance-card is full, and at my age I’m not sure I’ll ever rebalance my reading investments.
As he aged, Vonnegut apparently fell out with the conventional ideal of the novel too. Even some of his earlier novels had elements in opposition to long fiction either literary or popular as generally considered, and so his reputation as a “great writer” or as a “best seller” were both constrained.
Luckily for this project, which likes to combine words with music in various ways, and prefers short, condensed forms of expression for that, Vonnegut is very quotable. Fictional characters who are quote collections and makers of short speeches are not the stuff of literary esteem, but then the results have other uses. Today’s piece is an infant-baptismal litany that a character in one of Vonnegut’s earlier novels* proposes to give, and it’s become one of Vonnegut’s most remembered and requoted passages.
The performance here, and probably the rest in the series to follow, was performed live in one-take by the LYL Band on April 15th 2007, the week that Vonnegut died, and these presentations are taking place in the week of the 99th anniversary of his birth. All these performances are imperfect in one way or another, but at least for me I still hear the emotions in-between the notes as Dave Moore and I made note of a departed writer’s spirit. Today’s piece was the first one we preformed that day.
*The Vonnegut novel this passage appears in is God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which I must confess I haven’t read. I say that just as a matter of honesty, not as a review or recommendation which I’m obviously not qualified to give. I suspect I’d like it when and if I get around to it. For counterpoint, here’s a review, contemporary with the novel’s publication, from the New York Times were the reviewer proves a maxim that I often repeat here: “All artists fail.”