I’m going to ask you to not read these notes yet. Listen to today’s audio piece first at least once. It’s short, two minutes long, it won’t take long. The audio player is at the bottom of this post.
OK, now you’re back and you’ve listened to the piece at least once. Do you think the words were written recently? Do think it’s a satire, some kind of sly Machiavellian comment on a particular modern politician? Do you think it’s Donald Trump’s first draft of his recent speech to the Boy Scouts? Or perhaps is a secret litany of personal affirmations? It does at times seem like a twisted take on self-help.
So what is it?
It’s my quick and dirty attempt at a version of a section of the “Surrealist Manifesto” written by André Breton in the early 1920s. The Manifesto is sort of a grab bag, part a sincere plea for a deeper and broader application of imagination in art, part a catalog of examples of how unleashed imagination has already been applied, and part is indeed a parody of a certain genre of self-help, the kind published by occult gurus of the time.
Not the Boy Scout manual
My piece is taken from that parody segment, and I’ve departed from conventional translations in two ways. First, to disguise it, I removed one phrase specifically mentioning Surrealism, and secondly, I’ve chosen my own idiosyncratic translation of the phrase “Peau de l’ours” in it. This is a condensed version an old and French saying, “Don’t sell the bear skin before you have it.” (a French version of “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”) Breton may have been using that cliché to contrast with the religious campaign-promise of heaven, but he also could have been refereeing to a hedge fund of his time which used that exact Peau de l’ours” name. And critically, what the investor group bought (and later sold for tremendous profit) was modern French art. “Hedge fund” gave me both ideas in a way that would be meaningful to a 21st Century English speaker.
André Breton and perhaps the Surrealist Party’s first President, Donald Trump.
So Breton, as he often does in his pronouncements, is mixing the absurd, with recognizable satire, with sincere advice. But briefly, before I go, I ask you to think about a bigger question. What does it say that some modern artistic principles sound like they could be descriptions of Donald Trump’s (or other similar politicians) philosophy? Is it that Trump doesn’t have a philosophy, only that he finds excuses or rationalizations? For past politicians, we would say they lack a sense of irony, but Trump speaks ironically so often that one wonders if there’s a word for unconscious irony. Could it mean that the sincere iconoclastic individualism and commitment to their own personal freedom that 20th Century artists thought they needed as a corrective to disasters like WWI and a restrictive society and its expectations, is now leaching upward to more powerful men in conventional professions?
I promise you, we will end up today very close to the love song of the last episode, though we will travel a ways before we get there.
I’ve not featured any French writers yet with the Parlando Project, but as this summer has used the words of many 20th Century English poets, we may be overdue for that, as the start of that century found some of them looking to the French for some new ways to write.
French poets started to go “modern” before the British poets, around the same time that Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were making their own breaks with past practice in America, so they had a head start, and their avant-garde was way past the supply lines of conventional narrative and sentiment by the time the 20th Century really got rolling. The absurd casualties of WWI, largely fought in France and its neighboring countries, and so deadly to some of the generation of men doomed to fight in it, only accelerated the modernist direction away from the kind of meaning you might find in a political speech or battle plans.
This summer, 50 years ago, the Polish-French writer Guillaume Apollinaire coined a new word to describe a new way to approach the world in words: “Surrealism.” A few years later, his term was taken up by a group of artists who went about trying to practice a new idea, presented in 1924 as if it was a political manifesto, to write and create from:
“…The actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”
The Surrealists went on from there, going in various directions, becoming less an idea and more of a brand—but stop and think for a moment, that original idea, isn’t it powerful? The idea that there is a reality that we agree not to apprehend, not to speak of, that we constantly reframe our thoughts to, isn’t that idea political as well as aesthetic?
You take the idea of Surrealism, add music to it, and later that century you get Bob Dylan. You take the idea of Surrealism, apply it to the current reality, and you are woke, not from the dream, but to the dream that should not be denied.
Today’s piece uses the words of one of the French Surrealists, Paul Éluard. Éluard, like many of the British poets of this era, was another veteran of WWI. One story of his war service was that, since he was a writer, his military superiors assigned him to the office tasked with writing the official letters to the relatives of the casualties, and such was the efficiency of modern war that he sometimes needed to write 150 of them a day. After a year of this, he asked to be sent to the frontline trenches.
Jean-Luc Godard’s film “Alphaville.” “I love you” could be the ending.
I have exposed you several times this month to pieces about the horrors of war and slavery, but I also told you we must travel a ways to get to today’s piece. After the war, as a founding Surrealist, Éluard produced verse with strange images and seemingly arbitrary combinations—Surrealist tactics to break the conventions—but his great subject, against the night, pain, and suffering, was love. Perhaps after those 150-letters-a-day forced march, he too wanted to look to war’s opposite.
Paul Éluard and the beloved, Gala. Eyelids not visible in this picture.
“L’Amoureuse” (The Beloved) is one of Éluard’s most famous early works, and uses my English translation of his words. The LYL Band performance of it was recorded live several years ago. To hear it, use the player below.
I said I would change things up last time, and by stepping back a few years, today’s piece does that.
How much different is “She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night” from the last few posts? First off, we’ve left off from war. This is a love poem. Death appears in it only briefly passing—so fast it passes, as it can in a poem, you might not even notice it. And rather than being a piece by another poet, the words here are mine. We live here at the Parlando Project with the idea of presenting “other people’s stories,” but I also want variety, so I’ll make the exception this time, and present part of my story.
One of the modernist/Imagist ideas that Ernest Hemmingway liked to use in his early stories was to leave an essential detail out of story, and then to strive to write it so well that the power of that detail would become present subliminally.
In a classical aubade lovers are always awaking in a field and forgetting to check for contact dermatitis
“She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night” is an aubade, a traditional form of love poetry. An aubade features lovers awaking at dawn, and the poet lamenting that their night is over, so they must now part for their un-enchanted days. What do I think is different in my aubade?
Sixteen years ago, my wife died after a short and painful illness, not yet 44 years old. I cannot tell you all that means, but one thing I experienced in my grieving process was the question of where one goes from that stopped thing. After all, you are definitively stopped, you have no momentum in any direction, unlike in the normal flow of life. You can stay stopped, or move off in any direction.
I moved, and was moved, in the direction of falling in love again. There are some difficulties in that direction, knowing of love’s inescapable impermanence. Like the lover in an aubade, I knew now, deep in my soul and body, that love means that parting is intensified.
In the end, “She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night” is a love poem that hardly mentions death. I was trying to do that modernist/Imagist thing. Is death still there?
Alas, the other thing that I left out, is that other person, lying beside the speaker, stuffed with dreams no doubt with all the richness, sadness and choices of their life. My love poem fails, as some do, in that respect. Can it remain unsaid my partner chose to move, and move me, as well?
Today’s piece is musically a bit different as well—there’s an antique 20th Century beat box rhythm used for one thing. To hear the LYL Band perform “She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night” use the player gadget that should appear below.
Here is one more war poem from WWI, this one by another soldier poet, Wilfred Owen.
Beside living with the trauma of his war service, Owen was another poet caught in the revolution as English poetry moved from old modes to newer modernist verse. Like his friend Siegfried Sassoon, he was a decorated soldier who came to broadly distrust the case for war. Unlike Sassoon, Owen did not take the risky public stand against the war while it was being fought; but also unlike Sassoon, his fate was to die at the front of the war. Owen’s war poetry was largely published after his death, with Sassoon’s assistance and promotion.
Wilfred Owen: poet, soldier, witness to warfare
If WWI was billed as the war to end all wars, the anti-war poetry Owen and Sassoon wrote also spoke to universal themes. At least to what I’ve read, their poetry is not an argument against specific issues of their war, rather it’s an angry argument against war itself, and the associated patriotic justifications for sacrifice. Owen and Sassoon both wanted to rub their readers faces in the bloodied mud of the trenches.
It’s sometimes said that artists, if only they would happen to suffer the real struggles of non-artistic life, would see that art is only a trivial sideshow, inessential entertainment and decoration. Men like Owen are an example of how this is not necessarily so.
Wilfred Owen’s gravestone
Today’s episode, “Strange Meeting,” shows Owen’s anger, but because he’s a poet not yet fully in the 20th Century style, he expresses it sounding like a 19th Century poet, more like a Keats or early Yeats. As I came to grips with this piece, I felt the thought and subject matter was sometimes obscured by its march of rhymes and occasional poetic diction—and though a poem’s music is subjective, “Strange Meeting” doesn’t consistently sing to me like Yeats does, but then Yeats is a very high standard to meet, and Yeats never lived the brutal fighting the war poets like Owen went through.
Speaking of music, I’m finding myself repeating ideas (or finding a style?) with the settings lately. “Strange Meeting” starts with sustained piano chords, unsteady strings, and a plaintive wind instrument (in this case, an English horn). But I felt that carrying that all the way through would work against the grit and bitterness of the story here, just as Owen’s poetic diction does, so for much of the middle section I break it down to just drums and bass.
I hope I’m not overwhelming regular listeners with the war poetry from WWI this month. Perhaps I can find a change of pace soon, and some new variations in my musical arrangements too.
To hear my performance of Wilfred Owen’s WWI ghost story “Strange Meeting,” use the player below.
It’s now a commonplace to note how divided the United States is politically. The way the story is told, there are now two tribes, each sure the other side is largely wrong. We are said to know this, even if we are less than sure about everything “our side” may say, even if we are skeptical, even critical, of some in our faction. You may not believe that this is true about you, but this is what is widely said, and you may say something like this about others, even if you do not believe it about yourself.
I’m about to simplify a story, condensing its humanity so that you will only see moments in several people’s lives. That means you are going to need to pay attention, because the things it may lead you think about are only going to be there for moment.
On a summer day, 177 years ago, a sheriff bearing a writ from a judge knocked on the door of a house on the banks of Lake Harriet, which was then on the outskirts of Minneapolis Minnesota. If you live in Minneapolis, perhaps you know this lake. It just so happens that I’ve spent many mornings this summer reading poetry beside it, as panting joggers and conversing walkers surround it like clockwork.
The judge’s writ commanded the appearance in court of a piece of evidence. As he knocked, that piece of evidence was being told by the people inside to run out the back door and hide. The evidence did not obey. The evidence’s name was Eliza Winston, a 30-year-old woman held as property by the family inside. By her home state of Mississippi’s laws, her mother would have been property too, and her children, if she would have any, would be property as well, the same as livestock on a farm.
How did she happen to be in Minnesota? The man that owned her had traveled up the Mississippi river with his family to escape the heat of the South’s summer, taking a steamboat as far north as the great river was navigable. For his and his family’s comfort, he had taken one of his slaves, Eliza Winston, with him. The laws of the state he traveled to explicitly forbade slavery, but three years earlier the national Supreme Court had ruled that a slave named Dred Scott remained property when he had been brought to Minnesota.
Living in Minnesota then were people allied with a faction that sought to end the practice of slavery. They were looking for people claimed as property to contest those claims. How did they view the slave owners? Of course, as evil you may think. Wouldn’t anybody? Somehow, Eliza Winston had made contact with these slavery opponents. One of them, William Babbitt, would swear out a complaint that her slavery on Minnesota soil violated Minnesota law.
Imagine if you could own something as useful as another human being as property, to have complete control over them. Wouldn’t that be useful; and as a business venture, potentially profitable? The faction that owned other people certainly felt that way. How did they view that other faction, the ones who sought to end that practice? They viewed them as wrong certainly, but they also saw them as annoying self-righteous busybodies that needed to be taught a lesson, a view that was sometimes shared even by those that weren’t sure that slavery was a good and necessary thing.
Since Eliza did not hide, she was taken to directly to a courtroom. Despite the rapidity of the actions, the courtroom was packed with those from both factions. Eliza’s owner was there with his lawyer, who pointed out Dred Scott. The lawyer for Babbitt had testimony from Eliza Winston that she was indeed a slave, that she’d been passed around like property between several owners, and the lawyer stipulated that Minnesota’s constitution clearly forbade slavery in the state.
The judge ruled, that based on Minnesota law, Eliza Winston was now free. As soon as he pronounced, a clergyman in the crowd jumped up and condemned the decision as “unrighteous,” pointing out that, regardless of the state or federal law, Christianity and its scriptures approved of slavery. I don’t know more of what he said, but he could have claimed that Babbitt and his faction were worse than thieves and rustlers, in that they not only stole, they were self-satisfied in their actions. The crowd stirred at this, and then there was moment of calm in the summer courtroom. Eliza Winston’s owner walked over to the woman that he had owned like a horse or a cow, and he calmly asked her if she wanted to come back with him and return to Mississippi. And Eliza, no longer property, answered that she wished to be free and remain in Minnesota. As Eliza Winston left the courtroom, the Minnesota clergyman was still orating on the wrong that had been done to the slave-owner.
“A chattel asks for freedom”
That night, those angry at the decision went out around the town looking for Eliza Winston. What would they have done if they had found her? One can only guess. They surrounded Babbitt’s house and battered down the door seeking Winston or Babbitt, and crying for blood. They similarly broke into another house seeking Winston. Winston, however had been moved somewhere else, and may have fled as far as Canada. A year later the Civil War broke out, and Winston, no longer property, became as if a ghost. There are no pictures of her, no tales of great or even small things that she may have done. Some even say she went back to the south after the war. In Minneapolis there is an inconspicuous historical marker about her case, placed along the Mississippi river that brought her here, and not much else.
An inconspicuous historical plaque about Winston in Minneapolis
Then last year Dave Moore was told a version of Eliza Winston’s story by a friend. The friend, or perhaps Dave, got a couple of the details wrong, and I have left a lot of details out of the story as well—that may not matter. Dave was struck, mixing Eliza’s story and the tale of his friend choosing to tell him this story together, and then forming this lovely, vulnerable song.
Here’s what I ask you, now that you’ve heard my telling of Eliza Winston’s story. If you ever find yourself in a world of factions, and you find yourself in one of those factions, perhaps not sure of what you think, but sure that the other side is clearly more wrong. Ask yourself what Eliza’s story, and the story of slavery tells you.
To hear Dave sing his Eliza Winston song with the LYL Band, use the player below:
Anyone remember those sentry questions that would be used in to determine if some straggler in the soldier’s darkness was an American or foreign foe? “Who plays first base for the New York Yankees?” they’d ask.
Native Iowans have a similar method to catch those from out of state. They might start right off with asking about the state capital. “Dezz Moynens.” Wrong! Not an Iowan. “Day Moyne.” Native. Poweshiek, that fine county with a Brooklyn no one knows. “Poe’s He Eck.” Nope. “Powa Sheek.” How about that nice small town founded by lost Swedes in Boone County, Madrid. “Ma Drid?” Outsider, it’s “Mad Rid!”
While overseas in France in the early 1920’s Stephen Vincent Benet wrote his own catalog of place names that I have adapted for today’s piece “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names.” In it, Benet contrasts American place names with European ones, perhaps to staunch a little homesickness on his part, but also as part of his claim to something he and Carl Sandburg helped to define in the first half of the 20th Century, something that’s now used to label a musical genre: “Americana.”
To briefly define Americana, it’s the featuring of things that are distinctive to our country, most often things that are in the past tense, things that we are asked to pay attention to as our heritage. If these things seem a little odd, old-fashioned or provincial to us, that’s the tang the artist wants us to taste.
I came upon Benet’s poem after reading a Phillip Roth memoir in the New Yorker last month, where Roth takes off from Benet’s poem to discuss how a literary sense of a greater America he did not yet know expanded his horizons westward from his childhood neighborhood in Newark New Jersey. Roth remembered how, in the 1940s, even though one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world was a river and a marsh away from his town, New York City was a world away, perhaps as far away as America seemed to Benet in Paris.
Roth doesn’t mention it, but as I read Roth’s piece, I thought of Benet’s story “By the Rivers of Babylon,” were a future neo-indigenous youth ventures across that same river into the ruins of New York on a vision quest.
This was “By the Waters of Babylon’s” original title
In the nearly 100 years since it was written, Benet’s “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names” has not fallen to ruins, but it has gained some tarnish or patina. I’ve cut a stanza because the notables referenced are now obscure, and I modified another line in it, not out gentility, but because it frankly stuck in my craw. By chance, one of the obscure and colorfully named towns in Benet’s catalog, French Lick, now is slightly better known as the hometown of basketball great Larry Bird—but that’s the not the greatest resonance the poem has picked up over the years.
As the poem builds to its ending, Benet uses something like the thought used by Rupert Brooke in his famous war poem “The Soldier”, the idea where even if Brooke was to die and his body was buried overseas, that his Englishness would remain. Benet sets up a series of places he might be interred in England or Europe, and ends with a line that later became the title of a landmark book about the cruel and unjust treatment of indigenous Americans. Did Benet choose to end his poem with the evocative place name of Wounded Knee because of the massacre that occurred there a bit more than 30 years before he wrote his poem, or because of legends that Crazy Horse was secretly buried there, or was it only something that caught his eye on the page of an atlas? I don’t know enough about Benet to say. His litany of American places does include “a Salem tree” which sounds to me like a reference to the Massachusetts witch trials and executions. If we are to remind ourselves of the greatness in our heritage, we are likewise obligated to remind ourselves of the sins there too.
Fall in love with a Salem tree? I have a tenuous connection to the story made into this film.
In my performance, I made the choice that, author’s intention or not, modern audiences will hear it as intentional, so I should perform it that way. The American name of my home state, Iowa, comes somehow from it’s indigenous people, but over 400 years passing, we no longer know what it’s meaning is. How strange to say that I come from a place of no meaning, knowing the pass-word to tell the magic ghosts of native sentries, but knowing not what I’m saying.
To hear “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names” use the player below.
I don’t plan on making a habit of this, but the next morning after I posted the audio piece where I perform an “Imagist” revision of Rupert Brooke’s late fragment written shortly before his death while serving in WWI, I wanted to change a few things about the mix.
Soldiers on a World War I troop ship in transit
What’d I change? I delayed the entry of my piano part to a few bars later. I remixed the concluding electric guitar part entirely, it’s now a bit more forward in the mix. And finally I added an E-Bow electric guitar top line over the final section. Why did I make those changes? Just trying to give the piece a bit more sense of “build” as the troop ship steamed along carrying Brooke and his fellow soldiers to the disaster that would be the Gallipoli campaign. The newly added E-Bow part is probably the biggest change. The E-Bow is a clever gadget that magnetically drives a single instrument string as if it was excited by a bow. As the name suggests, it’s sometimes used to give the effect of violin or viola sound coming from a guitar—which Jimmy Page and Eddie Phillips aside, is not designed to be bowed, however I think the part I played sounds less like a orchestral violin and more like an overblown free-reed instrument.
In composing the music for the Parlando Project pieces, I like using different sounds like a writer might use different images or connotative words in text. If you listen, low in the background of the mix I have a Mellotron flute part. Of course this late 20th Century instrument would not have been known to Brooke and his fellow troops, but for those late 20th Century people a low Mellotron flute part brings to mind (ear?) The Beatles “Strawberry Field Forever” or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or other English rock band recordings of the 1960s, so I was trying to bring in some sense, however anachronistically, of the soldiers thinking of home, and then at end I add that much louder, strident and free-reed sound from the E-bow guitar part. Similarly my fizzy guitar phosphorescent plankton bow-wave and electric bass thrumming ships engines. Hope it all works for you.
The new mix replaces the old one as of early this morning. To make it easy to hear the new mix, I’ve embedded the player to hear “On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli” below. The explanation of how I revised Brooke’s words, as if he’d been edited by Ezra Pound or had lived long enough to embrace the ideas of modernist poetry, is covered in the previous post here.