The Most Popular Parlando Project audio piece this past spring is…

Here’s something I’ve noted in the years I’ve been doing this: these quarterly Top 10 lists advantage pieces posted earlier in the season since they have more weeks to accumulate listens and likes. So it was quite an achievement for D. H. Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale”  posted near the end of February to make it to number 4 in our last-winter countdown, but it happens. After all, this time, “They Say Life is Precious”  released in the middle of May this year, made it to that 4th position in our spring’s list.

Still, past the earliest days after posting there’s a predictable drop off slope. Listens are “front-loaded” as people notice it as a new post or podcast, and after that it’s mainly the explorers and those who find things from a web search. I am gratified that many of you check out our archives and listen to the nearly 350 audio pieces we’ve already presented, but the sheer number of pieces means that the long-tail listenership tends to be spread between those hundreds of pieces, making repeat appearances in the Top Ten rare—but we have one this time, one all the way at the top.

And it’s that D. H. Lawrence piece, “A Winter’s Tale.”  I can see how: a large number of folks were still discovering and listening to it in March, and after the expected dip in April, more people actually listened to it in May than April. But I don’t really know the why.

D. H. Lawrence’s poetry* is not exactly forgotten, but he’s still better known as a novelist—but that could help if the interest in novelists is greater than that for poets.

Was it the music I wrote and played for it? My music for “A Winter’s Tale”  was rather explicitly ‘80s related, what with the piece’s arpeggiating synths and big reverbed drums. I do rather like what I accomplished there, both the recording and the ideas of the musical arrangement still sound good to me, and so perhaps they did to you. One memory I have of doing the piece was wanting to remember to make use of silence. I always need to remind myself to do that, and too often I don’t obey. Listening to Mark Hollis’ music as I wrote and arranged this piece may have made that reminder stronger this time.

Shakespeare-Hollils-Hendrix-Lawrence quadrent

OK, some of you guys must have helped make this spring’s Number One.

 

 

Was it the title? Shakespeare** seems to be a reliable boost to interest over the years (sort of like putting Jimi Hendrix on the cover of a guitarist magazine), and Lawrence’s title is shared with a Shakespeare play. Was it Lawrence or Shakespeare drawing those later listens, or the combined power of both?

Like I said, I don’t know why, but thanks for listening and reading this spring! There’s still a fair amount of In Real Life and studio re-organization putting pressure on the amount of new music I can put together, but I still hope to be dropping new audio pieces this summer and writing about my experience with the words.

So here it is, as we approach summer, the enigmatic story of D. H. Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale” that’s just a click on the player below away.

 

 

 

 

*I’ve called Carl Sandburg “The Forgotten Imagist.” His early poetry uses the Imagist rules, but despite the way he wrote, Sandburg as a person doesn’t “read” as an Imagist: an immigrant’s child who wasn’t seen in Paris and London, and who wrote often about the world of work and those who sought and were bound to it, he doesn’t seem the aesthete (even though he was, in part, that). D. H. Lawrence too doesn’t inevitably get called an Imagist, even though his verse shared some Imagist characteristics and he was published in the movement’s anthologies. Lawrence was never viewed as a theoretician or leader in Imagism, and socially he mixed with poets like Edward Thomas and Witter Bynner who were outside the movement. Is he too a forgotten Imagist, or just “Imagist-Adjacent?”

**One measure of Shakespeare’s strength to draw listeners is a piece I did taken from Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night”  which I still find embarrassing. After seeing what friend of the blog Weekesgaehl could do with her actual acting chops I figured I’d give it a go with a short scene from the play to frame a song found in it. The song turned out just OK, but my “acting” lead-in makes me cringe. Tragic fate and the draw of Shakespeare made sure a whole lot of people listened to that one—and continue to listen to that one—sustaining my embarrassment.

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The Parlando Spring 2019 Top Ten Part 3

Now we’re nearing the topper-most of the top in our tip-top count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces this spring. Wait—did I just turn into a mid-20th century radio host? Out! Out! Commercial spirit! Timeless poetry knows no acne creams, Yardley scents, Thom McAn Beatle boots or white Levis. Well, maybe some of the music knows them—but honestly, it interrogates those pop intentions and asks us to re-evaluate that intent in the context of greater artistic accidents consciously or unconsciously evolved from the Modernist revolts of the last century.

No, no. Not that either. I mostly just want to make things that haven’t existed before, mix the known and the unknown, like and contrast the unlike, let poetry talk to music, and let music not shut up but talk back. As I do this, I look at things you and I and many others have looked at before and see if they’ve changed. And then sometimes I look at those poets whose names and poetry were writ in water.

It just so happens that our next three pieces in our count-down are from such writers, poets unknown to me, many literature students, and likely to you.

4. They Say Life is Precious. One of the principles of the Parlando Project is “Other Peoples’ Stories.” I don’t dislike memoir, self-narrative, words intended to establish or confess one’s selfhood. I couldn’t, or I’d have much less poetry to choose from to present here. But I feel that’s well served elsewhere, not just in literature but in blogs, podcasts, and social media. So, if and when we want that, we can find it. In the words of a wise boss I once had, it’s “ubiquitous everywhere.*”

What I do instead here is to encounter some other person’s words, see how they sound in my mouth, and ask myself what I hear, feel, and think when they are enthroned there.

I could suppose it’s a failure of a kind that a performance of one of my own poems is in this Spring Top Ten then. And indeed, I usually fall to using my own words when I find I’m behind in getting things posted because the research into the other writers adds to the tasks of writing, playing, and recording the music. “Well” I say to myself “At least I know that writer already.”

An unsafe assumption. We don’t really know ourselves effortlessly.

My favorite part of the music I did for this was the combination of bowed contra-bass with an upper register fretless electric bass part. What does that sound like? Listen below.

 

 

3. Everyday Alchemy. One of the things I love about this project is when I go crate-digging after poets I’ve never read and that I expect you haven’t either. Coming across this poem by Genevieve Taggard was one of those moments.

This is such a poem of sorrowful balance, yet it’s 11 lines contain a piercing analysis of society and its arrangements of obligations that are increasingly out of balance the farther down the chain one goes.

I’ve often spoken about the Confucian Odes  here, designated by the Chinese sage and his school as required instructional material for government functionaries. The Odes  are not, as educational poetry aids today might be, mnemonics of components, checklists or causes; but like “Everyday Alchemy”  they are mostly accounts of daily life near the bottom on the pyramid, a pyramid where the giant blocks of limestone are not lifted by alien magic.

If I were Confucius again, I’d select this poem as required reading. Anthology editors now, or of the future: include this poem! And in the meantime, you can listen to my performance of it with the following gadget.

 

Taggard's Bookplate

EX ARBOR, now dead with its ghost-pale sheets under a bookplate

 

 

2. Poppies on the Wheat. I reviewed the latest attempt at making Emily Dickinson cinematic this spring. TL;DNR: a mixed bag. The film had a consultant who’s a Dickinson scholar, something I’m not, and it’s likely they’ve read more and know more detail about Dickinson that I do. I wanted to cheer them on (forza Dickinson!)  and there were moments in the film where I could. But there were also moments, some of the funnier moments viewed (as intended) as comic bits, that made me feel like they were leading the viewers to misunderstand some of the characters I’ve covered in “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.”

I imagine the film creator’s response: “It’s a movie! Dramatic license! Evenhandedness isn’t entertaining!” Yup. Still felt unfair. It’s only after the movie that I’ve read more about and from Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the literary-connected “Preceptor” sought out by Dickinson who is thought to have misunderstood and underappreciated her genius. He’s used in the movie as a comic personification of The Patriarchy and White Privilege. The author of the second most popular piece this Spring, Helen Hunt Jackson gets one scene in the movie, where she’s portrayed as a vapid sentimental sort who Higginson prefers to the artistic rebel Dickinson.

Yes, that’s one of the reasons we so admire Dickinson, who is never sentimental, even if the 19th century seems to want and need sentimentality so badly. But that charge, of sentimentality, was also a sledgehammer used against most women writers of the age. The same slack I’d expect the film-makers would ask for in presenting their matter in the way present-day movie audiences might absorb it, is what I’d ask them to apply to Helen Hunt Jackson negotiating with her audience in her time.

Jackson’s “Poppies on the Wheat”  is a Wordsworthian sonnet whose argument in itself is a debate between practical commerce and the sentiments of memory and semi-wild beauty. Musically, it reflects a mood on my part this spring to put more focus on acoustic guitar. You can hear the result with the player below.

 

Helen Hunt Jackson defiant

Hard to tell personality from a picture, but those eyes and the start of a smile make Jackson look like she’s  about to dispute something or share a delicious secret.

 

That’s all but the most liked and listened to piece this spring, and I can tell you it was a run-away winner. Words from a famous poet or unknown one? Well, it’s sort of both. I’ll be back soon with that announcement.

 

*He laughed right after he said it, thinking it a fit pronouncement from the Department of Tautology Department.

The Parlando Spring 2019 Top Ten Part 2

Before we continue with our count-down of the most liked and listened to audio pieces this past spring, let me remind newcomers what the Parlando Project does. We take words (mostly other people’s, usually poetry) and perform them along with original music in various styles and sounds.

I really try to honor that intent for variety. My musical and singing limitations cannot be overcome just by intention—but the idea is to test limitations to see what will bend or break, not to treat them as barriers to be looked at from a safe distance off.

7. Water. One of our post series this spring I called “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.” I had the obligatory exposure to Dickinson during my education in the mid-20th century. My impression then was that she was treated as an approachable poet of the second rank. I think the shortness of her poems was part of that presumption of approachability, and that contributed to her subsidiary ranking too. And yes, the filter of gender stereotypes and prejudice had to be a factor. Common anthology poems like “Because I could not stop for death”  added a little gothic touch to our genteel high-school textbooks, and in my college life she got a place in American lit, though much less in more general literature or poetry courses.

But when you dive into Dickinson deeply you may find that the modest surface level of a Dickinson poem, which seems a homey back-lot pond, is rather a deep and mysterious well, and that you’ll run out of breath long before you touch the bottom of some of her little poems. If you’re curious like me, you can’t help but wonder: “What did Emily Dickinson think she was doing?”

So, this spring I looked at some of her models, confidants, and influences, and chief among them must be Transcendentalism, the hard to pin down American movement centered in Dickinson’s own region and time whose instigator and leading prophet was Ralph Waldo Emerson. I had fun in my original post on “Emerson’s Water”  by comparing Emerson’s fame and influence to Oprah Winfrey—but really, you’d have to add to Winfrey, Malcom Gladwell and the Dali Lama to get the range of Emerson’s influence.*  I was going to add some Robert Bly in there too, but though Emerson wrote poetry and influenced poets up to and including Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, Emerson’s own poetry was not even wholly esteemed by other Transcendentalists.

Emerson’s poem “Water”  is still worth hearing, as many of you must have found here this spring. Back in The Sixties, when I first encountered the Transcendentalists’ story, I could see connections to the Hippie culture, and now in a generally more practical and materialist time I still see linkages. The Midwest had exceptionally widespread flooding issues this spring, and Emerson could have written “Water”  this year to address that. What’s Emerson got to say about water? The player is below.

 

Charles-Temple-Emily-Dickinson-silhouette

I could use this silhouette as metaphor for trying to understand Dickinson from what surrounded her. For the more mid-20th century among us: look at that chin and hear Charles Gounod’s music.

 

 

 

6. He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. William Butler Yeats is another familiar word-musician who supplies words to the Parlando Project. Perhaps I came closer to Yeats because I’ve ended up hanging around some Irish-American poets** once I moved to Minnesota, but if one is interested in musical sounding poetry in English, with things to consider beyond the inviting sound, eventually you’ll turn the corner and Yeats will be there.

The poem’s romantic closing lines are among several of Yeats’ that are well remembered by readers—memorability being one of the great tests of poetry. Hear those closing lines, for the first time or again, with the gadget below.

 

William Butler Yeats with cat

It was a classic battle of wills. The cat would not get up until Yeats agreed to get the cat food, and Yeats wouldn’t get the food until the cat got off his lap. Both were found and rescued in an emaciated state.***

 

5. May-Flower. From the roots present in Emerson, to the flower as expressed by Emily Dickinson herself, here’s the fifth most liked and listened to piece this spring.

Let’s return to the question of Dickinson’s intent. There some thought that this was written as merely a riddle-puzzle, that the reader was to guess the genus of the bloom from the clues in the poem. If that so, if that’s all, then it seems to me that Dickinson failed as a riddle-maker, as the clues don’t seem to determine the exact flower (and Dickinson, the avid botanist, would have had the knowledge to have done that). I decided to take her text and drill down to the mystical essentials she wrote of instead.

This is not the first time I’ve written of the psychedelic aspects of Dickinson. I can’t quite do the differential diagnosis on her eye problems (for which we know she needed medical attention) or decide on the theories that she may have had epilepsy or another disorder that could have caused auras and visual disturbances, but Dickinson often seems to be asking us to see differently, more intensely, as I believe she does here.

What kind of singular mind can toss this off as a riddle?

Hear my performance of “May-Flower”  with the player.

 

 

 

*All of these pop-culture comparisons understate the influence Emerson seems to have had in American academic life, also largely centered in New England at the time, but I don’t think they understate that Emerson’s readership in America’s 19th century extended deeply into the general literate class.

**Perhaps the most directly connected to Irish culture of them would be Ethna McKiernan. A footnote is not an adequate way to draw attention to the news that she has a new book, but she does.

***This is a joke, and only this footnote is serious. And don’t link to yesterday’s post for your homework as a cite that Carl Sandburg taught O’Hara, Baraka, and Wilbur about the building trades.

The Parlando Spring 2019 Top Ten Part 1

It’s time for the seasonal tallying of the pieces presented here that received the most listens and likes from you during the past three months.

We presented 36 or 37 pieces in that time, including our increased posting activity during April’s National Poetry Month, but the most notable event for me during this interval was May, which became the most active month ever here for both blog visits and audio piece streams. I’m grateful that you’ve lent this effort some of your attention, and that goes double for any of you that helped spread the word about what we do here informally or through things like Facebook and Twitter.

As usual we’re going to follow the count-down format, moving from the 10th most popular piece as determined by your listens and likes and moving up to the most popular one.

10. Sweet Thames. It was a close finish with Charlotte Mew’s “The Trees are Down,”   but one part of our ongoing annual April serial performance of “The Waste Land”  made it into the Top Ten. “Sweet Thames,”  the portion that kicks off that poem’s longest section “The Fire Sermon”  was the part that made it, while the rest did not. Perhaps the listens/likes were lower because I warned our audience that “The Waste Land,”  and particularly “The Fire Sermon”  part of it, is not light entertainment, and things only got darker as “The Fire Sermon”  continues after this. “Sweet Thames”  may seem to have jaunty parts, particularly the catchy Mrs. Porter section near the end, but even that has dark undertones as it was sung by the ANZAC troops heading for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in WWI.

I did like the music I composed and played for it though, mixing some buzzy synth lines with American delta-blues style slide guitar. Listen to it here:

 

You could think of Dr. Tearle’s 3 minutes of video here as the trailer if “The Waste Land” was a film. Definitely not a date movie then.

 

 

9. Smoke and Steel. Frequent visitors here know my love for Carl Sandburg, and the Sandburg piece that made our Spring Top 10 was a selection I took from the longer poem that is the title piece from his 1920 collection Smoke and Steel.

I found Sandburg’s extended metaphor of our working lives as smoke incredibly moving, something that a few of you must have agreed with. Musically, the toughest part was the piano part, the song’s musical hook. It’s not a complicated part, but I had to record it in two passes on my tiny plastic keyboard due to my naïve piano skills. Here’s the gadget to hear it.

Carl Sandburg on the work site

Sandburg greets Richard Wilbur, Amiri Baraka, and Frank O’Hara at the start of a 20th century poetry symposium. “All poets must wear a hard hat and steel-toed boots before entering the typewriter area.”

 

8. The Aim Was Song. Robert Frost’s ode to the genesis of poetry gave me an excuse to break out with an unapologetic electric lead-guitar song. The poem’s text talks about wind being shaped by the mouth, which may have clued me into using one of the oldest electric guitar effects devices: the wah-wah. The wah-wah is a foot-treadle pedal which when moved sweeps a frequency-band emphasis. The sweep of frequency seems to be changing the note as it sounds, like a jaw-harp or a horn plunger-mute. The player gadget for “The Aim Was Song”  is below.

Wah Wah Frost

Wah-Wah Robert Frost

 

Next time we’ll continue the count-down with numbers 7 through 5.

Thoreau’s June

We’ve already heard from Claude McKay and Thomas Wentworth Higginson on the month of June, and now it’s time to turn to one of the foremost spirits of the mid-19th century American Transcendentalist movement, Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau is well-known for being in the activist, live-the-ideals, wing of Transcendentalism, though readers here have been introduced to Thoreau’s contemporary Thomas Wentworth Higginson—more than a footnote in the Emily Dickinson story—who also spent considerable time living those ideals.

Henry David Thoreau

Collect the series: Unfortunate Hair Stylings of Important Personages

 

Thoreau and Transcendentalism’s major domo Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in the same town in Massachusetts, and one of the most striking things for me when I first visited that town, Concord, was to think that in a matter of a few blocks there lived Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott—all in this place not that much larger than the small farming community I grew up in. What a town that must have been in those years!

Transcendentalism is a little hard to put a finger on exactly as a movement because it was interested in and had change-convictions about so many things. Higginson in his 1899 collection of memoir pieces Cheerful Yesterdays  calls it “The Period of the Newness” and speaks of “The Sisterhood of Reforms.”

My current working-definition of Transcendentalism is it is the belief that there is a primary knowledge to be obtained from the deep study and meditation on the structures and methods of nature, as opposed to the accumulation of received and conventional truths about it. Thoreau the Transcendental activist helped to pioneer this, often writing about his direct experience of nature. His thought process also caused him to develop political ideals, including Civil Disobedience to unjust and violent government actions, famously inspiring Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Thoreau didn’t just inspire Gandhi and King with his writing. The first story I ever heard of Thoreau recounted the tale of Ralph Waldo Emerson visiting Thoreau who had been jailed for refusing to pay taxes as a protest against the Mexican-American war and its support of slavery.

Henry, what are you doing in there?” Emerson asked across the jail door bars.

“Waldo, the question is, what are you doing out there?” Thoreau replied.

But here’s one lesser known thing about Thoreau, the deep naturalist, writer and political activist: he was also something of an engineer. Between writing and other activities, he was active in his father’s business, a small factory that made pencils. A chief problem at the time was the formulation of the graphite used in the “lead” for these indispensable writing instruments. Thoreau’s father’s pencils, like other American pencils at the time, used a too soft binder that led to a crumbling point and blurry line. Through study of European pencils (and one suspects a little lab time on his part) Henry David Thoreau, Transcendentalist writer, philosopher, and activist figured out a clay formulation to mix with the powdery graphite to produce a much better American pencil. Profits from the sale of these pencils and the underlying technology* were largely what supported Thoreau’s writing career.

Not to make too fine a point of it—and King and Gandhi might have found other inspiration, and Thoreau other funding—but the 20th century Afro-American civil rights movement and the independence of the Indian sub-continent owe something to a thing as prosaic as a better pencil design—monumental things that literally come from a feet of clay.

Today’s piece is a short meditation taken from an entry in Thoreau’s Journals for June 6th 1857. Adding to the above connection, when Thoreau was writing his nature observations in the field, he most likely was doing so using a pencil of his own design. Note too that at one point engineer-Thoreau talks of the revolution of thought connected to the revolution of the natural cycle of seasons as if they are the meshing of a gear train.

Thoreau June 6 1857

Handwriting as bad as mine! The page from Thoreau’s journal containing today’s text.

 

Written as prose, it has a flow that I could find to recite and accompany it with music. The piece’s chordal part I played on an electric 12-string guitar recorded in the manner Roger McGuinn and the engineers on The Byrds recordings devised in the Sixties. Instead of the John Coltrane-inspired lead 12-string melodic line of something like “Eight Miles High”  I played an acoustic guitar with an E-Bow, a magnetic invention that drives a guitar string to vibrate and produce a flute-like sound. As I read a little about Thoreau this week, I came upon the information that he was also an avid flute player, so it seems appropriate.

The player gadget is below. My apologies for being away from this blog and blog activities so far in June—you know, life and things.

 

 

 

 

*Here’s more about Thoreau and his pencils. I first heard the story on the radio series “Engines of our Ingenuity”.

Memory of June

As promised, here’s a love poem, one written by Claude McKay the Jamaican-born poet and writer who worked for many years in the United States. McKay sort of bridges the gap between Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Harlem Renaissance for Afro-American poets.

Like Dunbar, Fenton Johnson and Anne Spencer, his poetry was written early enough to be included in James Weldon Johnson’s pioneering 1922 The Book of American Negro Poetry.  Like Dunbar, McKay could write a smooth metrical/rhymed poem in the 19th century style, but like Fenton Johnson he often set his poems in distinctly urban settings: the northern U. S. cities that were the terminus of the Great Migration of southern Afro-Americans during the 20th century. Alas, also like Fenton Johnson and Anne Spencer, his published poetic work seems to have fallen off by the late 20s, though McKay’s prose career continued throughout the 30s.

Claude McKay

Claude McKay

 

One of the poems James Weldon Johnson included in his anthology continues to be one of McKay’s best known, his sonnet “If We Must Die,”   a passionate ode to desperate self-defense that doesn’t once specifically mention the white race-riots, lynching and other terrorism that was a cardinal problem for the civil rights movement between the abandonment of Reconstruction and the middle of the 20th century. I find this an interesting choice on McKay’s part. I’m certain many readers of “If We Must Die”  understood in McKay’s time exactly what he was writing about, even to the specifics of it down to names, places and horrific details. But that’s not in the poem itself, unless you count the “O kinsman” address in the 9th line and the external knowledge of who that might be defined via McKay’s skin color. Is McKay’s choice intentional? By omitting his race and context, which his readership largely knew anyway, he’s saying self-defense isn’t a thing to be granted to or earned for Afro-Americans somehow, but a fundamental human right to be self-asserted. McKay had many other poems in which race is mentioned after all—makes it seem all the more to be a choice.

By choosing to state this universally, “If We Must Die”  has even engendered an unverified factoid that Winston Churchill quoted this poem in a speech during the most desperate days of WWII—but all that is in war and ugly violence, and I promised you a love poem, and “Memory of June”  is that—though it has one somewhat ambiguous phrase that might make it part of a struggle.

Here’s the text of McKay’s “Memory of June:”

Memory of June

 

Did you spot it? You should know I’m not about testing you; you are to only score yourself here. I didn’t see it the first time I read it either. Do you think it’s the phrase “your brown burning body” celebrating mutual Afro-American love and desire? Well this is poetry, a pleasure, not bomb-defusal, feel free to hold for that. It is a pretty poem, a romantic one, isn’t it?

The subtle, ambiguous line I eventually noticed is earlier: “For one night only we were wed.” McKay is now widely assumed to have been gay, though he never “came out” and nothing I’ve read so far tells me why this is now assumed as known.*

Let’s assume this is so. It is also safe to assume that few readers of the poem when it was first published in 1920 knew this, other than those in McKay’s intimate circle. Now the course of love is complex. Many nights of love are singular for many reasons. And Afro-American couples accrue special challenges. But McKay chose “wed,” the thing that gay couples were officially denied until late in my lifetime.

McKay might well be using the same tactical move as he used in “If We Must Die”  in a different context, one where a then more secretive circle would read this poem differently from the common reader.

So here we are in June, a traditional month for weddings and also gay Pride month, and I present Claude McKay’s “Memory of June,”  a love poem, not another poem about war or violence. Except love isn’t simple, and good love poems aren’t.

The player to hear my performance is below.

 

 

 

 

*This sort of ex-post-facto outing without a diary, journal or other unpublished manuscript that would be easily cited if it existed often comes from gossip or oral history—two names for what is largely the same thing, but gay history has fewer paper records to rely on. So, evaluating that isn’t simple, and McKay isn’t notable enough for this to be something I can find quickly.

The Greatest Generation, or Thomas W. Higginson lands on Omaha Beach

I appreciate the attention readers here give to what I present, and so I’m going to warn you: this is a longer piece covering some historical topics that have not been as popular here as others. I plan to be back soon with a shorter post and  I promise a love poem set to music. Thanks for your attention and spreading the word about the Parlando Project. I value that!

Today is the anniversary of the WWII allies’ D-Day invasion of Northern Europe, and as each anniversary gets later the tributes to the sacrifices and courage of those who waded onto the beach amid the gun and cannon fire grow more glowing.

As one of America’s diverted poets once said, it is “altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.” And I say this knowing that this will likely be one of the least-read posts here. The audience for a blog about encounters with poetry and music is not a martial audience by and large. Even a poem like Slessor’s “Beach Burial”  recently presented here—a poem that is about war, though not really about battle or courage or warrior feats—will end up being one of the least noticed, read, liked, and listened to.

I speculatively assign that response—and the lessor response other stark war poems have received—to a number of things: that old battles are yesterday’s newspapers—or as we might say these days, just newspapers; that one of the things we might look for in the arts is a respite from, or at least a beautiful decoration for violent and horrific events. I’m casting no shade on you who have paid with your attention to what we do here for that—or your other judgements on the work we present. After all, I make those judgments myself all the time for my own reasons.

So now, having sincerely bowed to both those who were in the water on June 6th 1944 and you, dear reader and listener, I will diverge.

There is no Greatest Generation,* never was. Too much is assigned to generations, and if widely shared experiences and common events current to lifetimes has some glue to hold an aggregate together, extending “generations” to inner character and intrinsic resources of their membership, virtues and vices conferred merely from birth years is simplistic nonsense that should never be relied on.

I suspect wiser users of the term would correct me and say they do not mean that when they use the term, they mean the great things the WWII generation endured and did. Yes, I join them, there is value in noting that.

But one thing that literature teaches us, by doing its basic trick of letting us experience someone else’s life, is that the good and bad in human character and the challenges brought to bear on us are not unique to time and place. Are the challenges of WWII greater than the challenges of those of the trench soldiers of WWI that this project has featured? Are the privations of the Great Depression, followed by another World War and the following challenges of nuclear peace after great destruction worse than the challenges of 19th century American slavery followed by a Civil War followed by the continuing existence of a continent-wide republic after such trauma?

An Internet discussion mentioning these things often leads to claims and counter-claims of greatest evil: slavery, colonialism (which should include our “internal” American colonialism inflicted on our indigenous population), The Holocaust, Stalinism’s mismanagement, gulags and secret police, Pol Pot, and other evils whose incidental lack of notoriety should give them no cover. I’m sure there are appreciable differences in them, things philosophers could construct evaluative frameworks on. Don’t bother to comment or look for a poll feature to vote on the Greatest Evil or any generation associated with it. This will not be my point.

My point is: you, particularly the younger of those that read this, are the only generation that matters. If I need a silly name for you, a souvenir hat to show that you belong to this, then I’ll swallow my pendant’s pride and call you “The Greatest Generation.”

Do I want my own son, or you, to advance into shore batteries over an open beach or to try to hold Little Round Top without ammunition left? Do I wish it to be necessary to risk mobs, the bullies of privilege, or jail to secure basic freedoms? No, of course not. Nor can I be sure you will figure out what level of forgiveness and generosity vs. justice and retribution will succeed in the peace that all wars fail into. I would rather you figure out how to secure the things warriors were putting their lives in bond for without the war.

So why do I include these poems about war here? Here’s one reason, a personal one: I too often hear that arts and poetry in particular are a trivial activity, the first thing to be dispensed with when “reality” comes to call. And the arts in general, it’s said, aren’t they about vanity? Well, some of those warriors wrote, made and listened to songs. There were readers in foxholes. Call it pleasure, hope or need, some will hold onto poetry and music in any extremis.

And even the arts skeptics give us this: they pull those things out, music and poetry, for the funerals and anniversaries. Can we also realize that some of us hold to these things in life as well?

And here’s the more general reason: reading and listening to literature may remind you that those who pushed forward and those who opposed every good and bad thing are not historical figures, they have no powers or weaknesses because of the year they were born, no more than you do. They lived and died in their Imagist instant, just as you do, weighing duty, possibility, weakness, strength, love, hate, pretense, modesty, anger, resolve, justice and mercy. Seeing, doing, maybe not knowing. Literature shows us that all these things existed in each generation, gives us the evidence of what they feel like, how they exist, side-by-side.

That’s sort of like a poem may be. Those soldiers heading for the beach, like the words alone in a poem could not know fully what they meant. I do not mean by this a romantic claim that art or poetry equals their indominable authorial intent. There’s no measure of their last full measure, something we use art to teach ourselves. And anyway, as a working method our diverted poet settled that issue in his Gettysburg Address too, but chose to do it in his orated poem.

That said, now let me justify the post’s title. I’ve continued to read Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s writing this week, particularly his 1899 memoir, Cheerful Yesterdays.  Higginson is mostly known today as a footnote—kind of like the record company guy who passed on signing the Beatles—as the man in publishing who Emily Dickinson reached out to with a handful of poems and who then corresponded with her over a period of years when she was writing her groundbreaking poetry. Why didn’t he know right away what was on offer literature-wise with Dickinson?

I’ll confess I started his memoir in the middle, and I will now go back and read the start. From its “cheerful” title you may not have a good handle on its matter. It’s both breezy and polite and gripping and harrowing, a strange mix. I knew Higginson was (among other things) a slavery Abolitionist, and because of what he calls “The Sisterhood of Reforms” that he was involved in other social movements, including Feminism/Women’s rights. It’s in the middle, where I came in, that I learned about just what kind of Abolitionist he was.

Abolition included Fabian elements that sought to corral this basic evil legally and eventually end it, non-violent radicals and self-described “agitators” who put their lives on the line but would not morally take another’s life, and the “by any means necessary” crowd. The later was were Higginson lived, at least after 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act. He was part of (seems to have been a principle in, though he characteristically refrains from claiming leadership) the Boston Vigilance Committee that sought to prevent captured slaves from being returned to their masters as that law required, and he grippingly relates his first hand participation in trying to prevent the last government-assisted attempt in Boston to do that, which includes his plan for a lightning strike by a cadre including himself on the city jail, where the enslaved man was held. The plan counted on an agitated mob in the streets as cover—a crowd who would be motivated to cause a ruckus by his own rable-rousing speech at Faneuil Hall, from where he would dash to the jail to lead the break-in!

Following chapters detail his organizing and gun-running during the “bloody Kansas” guerilla war fought around a plebiscite to decide if the new state would allow slavery, and his joining the John Brown/Harper’s Ferry conspiracy that he says was portrayed to him at first as an armed extension of the Underground Railroad, where a coordinated “jailbreak” of slaves would be accomplished, but which due to lack of funds and organizational ability became what was to be the opening battle in a general slave rebellion which disastrously failed. Particularly in the Brown story, Higginson’s quick-moving/hit the highlights narrative style seems an odd fit with the material. He’s sometimes ambiguous about Brown, and from his vantage point decades after the Civil War and Brown’s execution, he remarks that Brown’s outlook and mental state may have been compromised by Brown’s years in the struggle—but the events say that at the time he was putting himself at risk of felony imprisonment or even a charge of treason with only the surety of his faith in Brown and the necessity of his cause. During much of these activities, Higginson mentions that he was armed, and though he never mentions firing at anyone, presumably he wasn’t carrying pistols for sport.

If your vision when you have read the tale of Higginson in the Dickinson saga is of a rarefied literary critic whose wars were “laid away in books” you’ve understood him too quickly.

When the Civil War breaks out in 1861, the 38-year-old Higginson is raring to serve. He begins working to recruit soldiers almost immediately.* Within a year, he’s tasked with leading the first Afro-American regiment in the U.S. Army, which he takes up gladly.

This explains the oddest part of his rambling, Polonius-like  1862 “Letter to a Young Contributor”  magazine article that is often thought to have inspired Emily Dickinson to write Higginson. Near the end Higginson launches into a discussion of war as a subject for writing and a vocation for writers.

No doubt, war brings out grand and unexpected qualities, and there is a perennial fascination in the Elizabethan Raleighs and Sidneys, alike heroes of pen and sword. But the fact is patent, that there is scarcely any art whose rudiments are so easy to acquire as the military; the manuals of tactics have no difficulties comparable to those of the ordinary professional text-books; and any one who can drill a boat’s crew or a ball-club can learn in a very few weeks to drill a company or even a regiment.”

This seems like a combination of distain for the difficulties of military command (from a man who had already risked his own life and engaged in concerted acts which led to the death of others) and a bit of a backhanded and Americanized version of “The battle of Waterloo was won on the fields of Eton” line. But at the time this article was published, that was what Higginson was preparing to do. He was heading to South Carolina to take over that regiment of freed slaves.** Read in that knowledge it seems a bit like he’s trying to psych himself up for the task, or that someone has told him those things to convince him to go forward with the commission.

So, the first thing my wife asks when I tell her I’m reading Higginson’s memoir, is one you may be asking too. “Does he mention Emily Dickinson?” In this 1899 memoir, he does not. Due in some part to Higginson himself, the posthumous 1890 original edition of a large chunk of Dickinson poetry was an unexpected, multi-printing success, but this didn’t make Dickinson what she is today: one of the giants of American poetry. The “unexploded bomb” of Emily Dickinson took almost a century to explode slowly. She’s just one author he worked with, and since he knew many of the literary figures of the day, Dickinson wouldn’t be the only notable to mention. He knew Longfellow and Emerson, spent a day with the reclusive Tennyson, all persons of unfathomable fame then.

Suppose a 20th century music figure who knew Bob Dylan, had met all the Beatles, and worked with Stevie Wonder, while also having run with the Weathermen, the Panthers, fought with Che Guevara and was a co-founder of Ms. Magazine, was to write a memoir in 1999. How assuredly must there be a paragraph in that imaginary book that started. “Oh, by the way, one time, Joni Mitchell*** wrote me some letters. I wrote back asking if all those open-tunings were really necessary?”

But even without hypothetical metaphors, it does say something about the attention Higginson spent on an unknown woman poet’s poems in 1862. We might say, with hindsight: too little. But with the above context, we may be surprised at the attention he did  pay.

Back to metaphor: instead of taking the usual story of the boneheaded critic and the revolutionary artist, we might ask if someone was training to parachute into occupied France in 1944 to work with partisans,**** why would he care about poetry? Higginson apparently did.

If you’re a buff about 19th Century American history and culture, particularly the Abolitionist circle around Boston, Cheerful Days  is a brisk read and is available in the books section of archive.org. As I mentioned in introducing it, its tone is somewhat incongruous considering the deadly American crisis at its center, but no matter how much Higginson may be trying to shape his story modestly and discretely, it still gives insight to the times. I say that even though if you don’t have a basic understanding of the events leading up to the Civil War if may be confusing to you in places, as Higginson assumes some common knowledge of things his cohort lived through.

 

*Military recruitment at the start of the American Civil War was a much more localized and “free-enterprisey” kind of thing, and his connections with armed slavery resistance and the Kansas war meant he already knew who was ready to take up arms.

**Not yet citizens, not yet even really “freed” as the compromise taken at this point in the war before the Emancipation Proclamation was to treat slaves who crossed the lines as “contraband of war,” a term, however dehumanizing, that prevented them from being returned to their masters.

***I use Joni Michell pointedly here. Like Dickinson, she was considered a niche artist held in limited esteem in the 1990s. and only decades later is she more fully recognized for the level of originality and effectiveness in her work.

****Once more, I’m making a considered point here. Officers of Afro-American troops were not to be treated as prisoners of war, but to be summarily executed by decree of the Confederate government. In his memoir Higginson says he didn’t think they’d really do that.