The River Merchants Wife

The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”  has a very complicated history. I can’t even say “Ezra Pound’s ‘The River Merchant’s Wife”— though he’s often listed as the author.
 
Let’s begin, as a river or a journey might, at the beginning. Back in the 9th Century in China there were two great poets. One of them we’ve already met there: Du Fu. He was known for his wisdom and level-headedness. The other was Li Bai (his name is also written in western letters as Li Po and Li Bo, and in Japan as Rihaku) who was known for his more excessive existence. In China both have been continually revered, but in early 20th Century Europe or America, they were nearly unknown. Only scholars interested in off-beat subjects knew of these men’s work.

One such scholar was an American, Ernest Fenollosa, who had traveled to Japan and become deeply immersed in Japanese culture, and as a sidelight to that, he also was exposed to Chinese culture. Early in the 20th Century, Fenollosa was one of a group of Americans living in England. We’ve met others here who were part of this “reverse British Invasion” of Americans: Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot—and you’ll soon get to meet another, H.D.  Fenollosa then died in 1908, still in London.
 
Here’s were something fateful happened. Fenollosa’s widow, for some reason, gave Ezra Pound a bunch of her late husband’s papers. Pound was a young man who was trying his damnedest to start some kind of artistic movement in London. In the papers were scholarly prose translations of Li Bai’s poems done by Fenollosa and two of his Japanese associates, Mori and Ariga.

Ernest FenollosaLi Bai

Ernest Fenollosa, deeply attracted to fur; and Li Bai, more into silk

  
Pound fell upon these scholar’s notes. He’d already sought out other old poetry for inspiration for his revolution (much as the Pre-Raphaelites had looked backwards for something fresh), but in this old Chinese poetry he found what he was looking for. It was concise. It was free of centuries of cruft that English poetry had accumulated. And Pound naïvely felt that the poems themselves grew out of the ideograms for their words, Chinese characters which had evolved from drawings of objects. He had found his poetic revolution. Poems should be constructed of little more than images. Not images in the sense of elaborate similes or strained allegories, images in the sense of a presentation of the direct observation of the poet, unadorned. Pound published what he created out of those scholars’ notes as a ground-breaking poetry collection “Cathay,”  and he quickly began to compose his own modernist poems using his epiphany.

If Fenollosa hadn’t died in London, and if his widow hadn’t given this tranche of papers to an artistic provocateur such as Pound, it’s possible that Li Bai would be no better known in English today than he was in 1908, and it’s even more likely that poetry in English from that point on would have evolved differently.

If Fenollosa hadn’t died in London, and if his widow hadn’t given this tranche of papers to an artistic provocateur such as Pound, it’s possible that Li Bai would be no better known in English today than he was in 1908, and it’s even more likely that poetry in English from that point on would have evolved differently.

Seems like a miracle when such things line up, doesn’t it? Well, here’s something as miraculous: though “The River Merchant’s Wife’s”  source was written over 1200 years ago in a culture so far removed from America that the childhood legend was that one would need to dig a hole through the center of the Earth to get there, even though it comes to us filtered through non-Chinese scholars, and even though the particular words I’ll use today to express it were written by an avant-garde poet whose work remains little-read and understood today, many people have an immediate deep emotional response to this poem the first time they hear it.

Isn’t that odd? All that strangeness in customs, place-names, time, provenance—and yet more: it’s a poem of female desire written in the voice of young woman by a man, and translated and transformed by men. And yet, woman and men, young and old, hear it, and they feel the pangs of desire and separation just as much as any 9th Century resident of China—even though the poem, following the tenants of what Pound would call “Imagism,” barely mentions the speaker’s emotions (“bashful,” “desired,” and the only present-tense one, “hurt.”)

I know I felt those things when I first heard it, aged perhaps 21 on a sad journey with a young woman. I hear it now as an old man too, and think once again of my friend John, and of China. The place, Cho-fu-Sa, that the river merchant’s wife says she will go out to meet her husband is, I’m told, hundreds of miles from her village in the poem. What is such distance to the heart?

To hear my performance of “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”  use the player gadget at the bottom here. Since this post is already long, I’m not going to talk much about the music today. The higher-pitched string instrument you’ll hear is my approximation of the pipa, a traditional Chinese lute. There are many moving recitations of this poem available online, but to see an entirely light-hearted modern translation of “The River Merchant’s Wife” after listening to mine, view this one.

The Summer 2017 Parlando Project Top 10

The subtitle of the Parlando Project is “The Place Where Music and Words Meet”. As I mentioned last night, this project, which combines words sourced from a variety of sources with a variety of music, has now reached 100 available audio pieces since it’s official launch 11 months ago. Note that stress on variety. In terms of writers, I have my favorites, and the short format of our audio pieces strongly favors poetry, but the Parlando Project has featured words taken from other sources as well, and some of the poets featured were unknown to me until I ran across them looking for material, and I’m trying to vary the music as much as I can. Sometimes our pieces are as simple as acoustic guitar and voice, as in our most recent post The Oven Bird.  Some pieces have full arrangements with multiple instruments, and some feature spontaneous performances by the LYL Band, a folk-rock band that’s been playing a rough and ready mix of electric instruments and literate lyrics since the early days of Minneapolis punk rock.

We’ve gotten thousands of downloads and streams so far, and though I don’t have the time to thank everyone personally for the likes and the shares, it’s been your passing on the existence of our audio pieces that has grown our audience from a few hundred downloads to thousands. I don’t have time for a social media presence myself. Researching, writing the majority of the music, as well as arranging, producing and recording these 100 pieces has taken an untold number of fascinating hours, but it leaves me little time to promote this work myself. So I’m very grateful for you, the readers/listeners who have done so.

Since we last did did a Top 10 in the spring, that growth in listenership has meant that there is only one returning piece since that list a few months ago. Which piece has the staying power?  Lets start off the countdown in the traditional order, with #10.

10. Adlestrop – a late surge brought this piece with words by fateful British poet Edward Thomas into the top 10, just beating out Zalka Peetruza  and Spring Grass  as the final slot shifted back and forth this week. Adlestop’s   download rate is noteworthy too in that its the newest post to make this list.  Listening to this hazy slide guitar piece I still recall my own muggy summer unscheduled lay-over in Kingham a year ago, but that’s a private moment, though I feel somehow I’ve shared it with Thomas thanks to his words. In a more public way, this poem gains resonance from it’s connection to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and to the Centenary of WWI.

 

9. Grass – speaking of WWI,  here’s the first of two placings of a Carl Sandburg piece on this Summer’s Top 10. My private memory is performing this with the LYL Band, spontaneously as usual, with no rehearsal or warning as I read Sandburg’s words, and having us stop on a dime for line that starts “What place is this…” as Grass  approaches Sandburg’s ending. For other listeners, particularly those with friends, families, and even ancestors lost to war, Sandburg’s piece asks a powerful  question of forgetfulness.

 

8. Intro to The Waste Land – One could say this continues our WWI Centenary theme, as T.S. Eliot deals with his personal depression in the context of the aftermath of The Great War in this poem, but it was instead intended as part of our April “National Poetry Month” celebration, which I will always link to the poem’s famous opening line “April is the cruelest month.”  This is one of my composed pieces musically, were I get to write and perform all the parts myself, which means I get to fully realize my personal “vision” of the music (something the listener needs to care not a bit about) and to therefore be responsible for all my own mistakes.  My personal memories of The Waste Land  are two-fold, one a memory of reading it for the first time in college, and though mystified, feeling an intense musical thrust in what Eliot wrote, and then to a time more than a decade ago when I felt just past my lowest ebb emotionally and then performed the last sections of The Waste Land  spontaneously with the LYL Band, and found it as musical as I expected it would be, but also was surprised at how it expiational performing it was. Publically, the downloads of this have been steady, and have continued long past #NPM in April, so it’s either due to your sharing of it, or the poem’s continued fame.

 

7. To A Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing – Irish poet William Butler Yeats is another writer whose work we’ve mined for more than one piece here. One thing I learned while looking at material for this blog was that Yeats too believed that poetry performed with music was a necessary combination. Another investigation, brought on specifically by this piece, was to find out just who the friend was whose work had been thwarted, and what that work was. This has been another piece with a steady listening rate since posted. My guess is that the experience Yeats was telling us about is common to many, and whenever it is encountered it is not easily forgotten. Weeks after this was posted, I watched the former FBI director James Comey testify before Congress, and thought if Yeats was his friend, he would have said the same things in verse to him.

 

6. Clark Street Bridge – Carl Sandburg gets his second appearance on this Top 10 with this wistful story of day and night on this busy downtown Chicago river bridge. As a personal experience I got to see the Clark Street Bridge this spring on a visit to Chicago, and though the current bridge is almost 100 years old, it’s not the one Sandburg watched and wrote of. Another thing I learned during my trip: his night scene with silver singing stars equal in number to all the broken hearts in Chicago contained a larger number than I would have estimated from modern urban nights, as the poem was written before the widespread adoption of all-night electric lights. What are, or could,  the listeners be attracted to? Well, broken hearts remain as numerous as the stars in a dark sky for sure, and Chicago has taken Sandburg to it’s heart; despite, or because, he says that that heart is broken.

 

5. The Death of Col. Bruce Hampton – I’ve written a number of direct tributes to musicians that I’ve featured here, but this is the most popular.  Particularly now as the main lot of musicians fall back into the lower levels of the “gig economy” they gave their name to without additional payment, I see them as retaining the heroism of artists in general, who do what they do to general indifference, but now with a much lower chance of professional earnings. This is the only piece in this Top 10 where I wrote the words and the music, but that’s about the right amount, as the Parlando Project is about appreciating “Other People’s Stories” after all. The defensive shells and double-ended poison stingers that artists grow don’t always lead to happy lives, but those who knew Bruce Hampton have grateful things to say about him as a person and collaborator. And by chance, he got to come to the end his life with some of those folks thanking him, while he encouraged the creation of even more spontaneous art. I assume that’s the reason for so many people listening to this piece.

 

4. These Fought – Here’s one I’m a little surprised about. Ezra Pound may have done more than any other person to create modern poetry, but he’s less read today than many he influenced and championed. And though other modernists dabbled in between-the-wars nationalism and racial theories, Pound became America’s most notorious fascist apologist. And this piece, posted around Memorial Day is an uncompromising denial of the honor in the sacrifices of WWI. If you like your poetry feel-good and inspirational, if you like your poets cuddly and full of civic pride, this piece is not your choice. The LYL Band tries to equal Pound’s fierceness in this performance.

 

3. Love and Money – Unlike many other poetry and spoken word blogs, we feature other people’s words almost all the time in the Parlando Project. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with self-expression, but in following the Project’s dictum “Other People’s Stories,” we don’t do that often. Perhaps in consolidating that stated aim with the catalog of thought-provoking words that Dave has written over the years, many of the Dave Moore pieces I’ve posted so far have been performances where I perform Dave’s words–a mixed blessing that–because, to steal an old Columbia Records ad from the 1960s “No one sings Dave Moore like Dave Moore.” I was sold on this one the moment I heard Dave sing the first line of this piece as we spontaneously performed it, and there’s no way I could do it justice.  The popularity of “Love and Money”  probably has the same private and public reasons, it’s just a good song. Oh, and Dave’s pounding electric clavichord performance might have something to do with it too.

 

2. Up-Hill – Here’s an example of a poet I knew close to nothing about before looking for material in the public domain to adopt for Parlando performance. Having a long time love of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and knowing that poetry and poets were part of their artistic circle, I went looking for Pre-Raphaelite poems that I could relate to musically. I kept striking out. I really wanted to find something by Algernon Charles Swinburne, because, well, “Algernon Charles Swinburne”. Is there any name that says more clearly that you don’t give a damn about sounding cleanly modern and approachable? Only Ezra Pound’s invented persona “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” comes close. Alas, I could find nothing I felt I could inhabit–and then I came upon some of Christina Rossetti’s shorter poems. Read this on the page just once, and you know it’s crying out to be sung. Perhaps Up-Hill  draws listeners because it’s a Christian religious poem, but Rossetti’s writing personally connects with me because it’s imagery and expression is so non-abstract and modest.

 

1. Frances – Here’s the only repeat from last Spring, and it’s still on top, with almost double the total listens since released of the any of the others on this list. I released Frances  on a lark to mark US President’s Day last February. I suspect it got picked up and linked somewhere more popular than other pieces that have been linked from here, but I haven’t been able to find out where. Here’s an example of how relatively popular it’s remained, long after it’s author’s, the first US President George Washington’s, birthday this winter: it was the 8th most listened to piece from the Parlando Project in May, still 19th in June, and currently it’s the 13th most listened to song in July, with a hundred alternatives competing with it. What accounts for this? Well it’s a love song for one thing. Maybe it’s the pared back Pixies soft/loud arrangement? It’s a mystery.

 

So that completes the Summer 2017 Top 10. I plan to do another one next Fall.  If you’ve got a favorite you’ve found here, do what someone must have done with Frances, and go ahead a link to it to see if it can get more listeners.

The Oven Bird

With today’s post, we’ve reached the 100th official episode of the Parlando Project, where we mix words from many sources (mainly poetry) with various kinds of music. For the 100th piece I’ve decided to feature an older recording of mine, almost 10 years old, of my performance of Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird,”  because it marks some of the initial ideas that lead me to this ongoing Parlando Project.

Parlando Project 100th audio piece

the Parlando Project has posted 100 audio pieces combining music and words

 

Frost’s “The Oven Bird”  is a devastatingly accomplished lyric poem written early in the 20th Century. The rhythm of the lines both grooves and varies itself, like the best music, and the rhyme scheme is elaborate, yet it never falls into forced rhyme. Frost’s language here is so plainspoken, ironically saving the fanciest and longest word for the poem’s last line. Frost is as rigorous a modernist as any of his contemporaries in the Imagist school. He’s as willing as any of them to hack away all the overused and overgrown 19th century “poetic language” and to use no word more than needed, but he does it here while writing a sonnet in rhymed metrical verse that sounds as natural as any free verse.

Allow me to indulge for minute my musical interests for a moment. What Frost does here (and elsewhere) is like what John Coltrane did shortly before changing his focus to what was to be called “free jazz,” where melodic freedom was stressed by radically simplifying the underlying harmonic structure. Coltrane wrote and recorded the most devilish difficult set of rapid chord changes constantly shifting the harmonic center, an obstacle-course of a composition called “Giant Steps”,  and then proceeded to improvise over it as if it was no matter to him to make those changes. Like Coltrane, Frost could seem free, natural, and innovative, while writing inside a constraining form. This sort of kindred accomplishment speaks to what attracts me in the Parlando Project to equally privileging music and words.


“The Oven Bird”
  has a reputation as a downbeat poem, and while Frost will not sugar-coat the human condition, I did not, and still do not, find it so. In “The Oven Bird”  Frost draws our attention to a bird that sings on, past the promising days of spring, and whose song is none-the-less, loud and insistent, even though he’s singing in a season where he might well feel out of place and out of time for song. Then in the closing section we’re first told that the future holds the fall season—and by extension, both the fallen state of man and the death cycle of nature—and “the highway dust is over all.” Some have read that line as Frost noting the coming of the 20th Century roads that will close out even more forest and bring some measure of end to the natural world. I think instead the “highway dust” is more at a statement of the death of all living things (dust implies in my reading “to dust”) and that dust is the dust of a set, laid out, road.

Oven Bird

The oven bird: “He knows in singing not to sing”

 

Finally, Frost hits us, and me specifically near 10 years ago, with his conclusion—one that says much for this project that seeks to find “The place where music and words meet.” He says those of us, also mid-summer and mid-wood who listen knowing these things, sharing the bird’s predicament, should know that the bird has these teachings to pass on to us, “He knows in singing not to sing” (a zen koan of a line) and that the present question is “what to make of a diminished thing.” What a progression to this, from the plainest language with simple words never more than three syllables long, singing us the oldest cycle known to self-conscious humans—and then Frost gives us a line suitable for meditative thought and a question.

This is where I break from those who see this as a despairing poem about death, failure and decline. The poem asks what to make of that, offering the example to loudly sing.

To hear my performance of Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird”, the 100th offical audio piece posted here as part of the Parlando Project, use the player below. “The Oven Bird”  performance is voice and acoustic guitar, but if you listened to others,  you know that the music and poetry we use varies. If you haven’t listened to other audio pieces in this project, check out the monthly archives for more. And if you like this, hit the like button or the follow button, and share this post or this blog address on your favorite social media channels. Those who’ve already done so help keep Dave and I encouraged to create new material, and you have helped grow the number of people listening to pieces from “Parlando – The Place Where Music and Words Meet.”

 

 

Implications of Fireworks

Today in the United States is Independence Day, a day celebrated with summer cookouts and fireworks explosions. Like many obligatory holidays in our modern age, what we are celebrating becomes obscure. Yes, Americans know it’s Independence Day, but what we think of as we celebrate is a mélange of things.

What makes up this celebratory mixture? We celebrate the warmth of summer, particularly here in the northern parts of the US where eating outside is a special season. Our children are celebrating what still seems like an endless summer away from school. Stores have banners of firecrackers and flags luring shoppers who have the day off from work. And we celebrate a diffuse patriotism affordable because America is a preeminent, powerful nation. Our modern patriotism is not short of convictions—far from it, our country is prominently divided by convictions—but that too is possible by the relative wealth and power of today’s America.

signing the declaration

“Yes, treason against the crown and the divine right of kings, and we could all hang tomorrow,
but  can I add a part about dispensing with the noisemakers? I could use a little sleep tonight.”

But the event we are celebrating is a sharp and definite thing. 241 years ago a group of Americans started an anti-colonial movement, and in the furtherance of that, they soon were to found the first modern republic. Those who did this many years ago perhaps did not know, or even think of themselves as anti-colonialists. Some merely had issues with particular colonial authorities and decisions. Some were indeed bound up in an immense evil of colonialism, human slavery exploiting yet other peoples and nations. Still, we should seek to understand them as their idea became understood through the Declaration of Independence they signed today: that the rights of kings and empires were not heaven’s design—rather, human rights were.

And as their rebellion against kings and empires evolved, it strikingly lead—not to the setup of a new king, or a new, locally-sourced strongman—but to a new form of government, a republic. Once again, these were not perfect men—their government “Of the people, for the people” was at first for white male men of property—but they were men of such devotion to the republican idea that they would not let even the worthiest of their lot become king. That was unprecedented, and even in all the time since, not one in ten or one in a hundred rebellions immediately ends in such a way.

I know not all who read this are Americans, but those are the two remarkable things that we celebrate here in my country today. And of these two things, the second is the most rare, and the thing we must take care to carry within us: that winners are not rightfully kings.

That reminds me, there was another Independence Day tradition, one that has fallen by the wayside: the patriotic speech in the town square. I guess I’ve just revived that. Today’s audio piece is based on another text by Dave Moore, but it’s my music and performance of it. When I asked Dave about “Implications of Fireworks”  a few years back, he indicated it was more or less a diary of his impressions of a July 4th he had experienced. As filtered by Dave’s mind that day, those holiday explosions, cracks, and meat smoke brought different, less celebratory, feelings. If our independence was won with cannon and gun fire—if it’s maintained today by the same, and also with bombs made of seeds of sunfire—it is also must be maintained by, and be for, something more than that.

To hear my performance of Dave Moore’s “Implications of Fireworks” use the player below.

A New Colossus

The end of the poem I feature today (“A New Colossus”)  has become, slowly, over years, a sort of fourth American credo to go with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and yet it’s only its last lines that are widely known, thanks in part to a lovely musical setting of that part of the poem by popular songwriter Irving Berlin.

As a person who has edited other works for length to fit them into the focus of the Parlando Project, I can see why Berlin made his choice. The ending is  the payoff of the poem, a charged and memorable statement.  Most poets could only hope for as much as this: that many readers or listeners will remember at least a line or two of of what they wrote, even after hearing it but once.

The Old Colossus

Look, I know it’s a marvel of  classical Greek engineering,
but as an American. I think Jolly Green Giant and peas.

I am going to present the whole poem in my setting however. It’s only a sonnet, a 14 line poem after all, and there’s some good stuff in the setup. First off, it’s an independent American poem to its core, starting by dissing the glories of ancient European culture and one of the “7 Wonders of the Ancient World.” And its author, Emma Lazarus, also stands forthrightly for the power of women to express a controversial political opinion, though this poem was written in the 19th Century when women had no right to vote.  Although this is not a modernist poem, such as those that would be written 40 or 50 years later, the lesser-known part of the poem contains one powerful compressed image, a flame of fiercely desired freedom that is “imprisoned lightning.”

Emma Lazarus

For Emma, Forever Ago. David Bowie was thinking of her in his last work “Lazarus”

Honoring that lightning image, I’ve chosen to not present this piece as a musty patriotic homily, but as the impassioned cry that it was meant to be—and besides, the sentiments of this poem are likely now as controversial as ever. Irving Berlin presented the excerpted ending as a chorus of hope. I take the whole of it and storm it with Telecasters, drums and bass.

To hear the audio piece, use the player that appears below.

Wally Wood

Back when I was kid there was something we were taught to be concerned about, our “vocation.” This was somewhat like the perennial question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but with a religious and spiritual aspect.

As the word “vocation” suggests, we, while still children, were asked to consider our calling, what task God would ask us to do with our lives. Yes, there as an expectation inherent in that, that some of us would find that we had been called by God to become Christian clergy, but at least in my small town and church, this was not set out as the answer most of us were to find. It was assumed that each of us would obtain a distinct answer fitting to our talents and the universe’s needs.

Jesus BaptismWally Wood's Joan

Religious paintings depict a calling as a clear and vivid action,, like in a comic book

The folks who provided religious instruction in my town were practical people, and I couldn’t picture any of them expecting us children to be visited by spirit birds, or hear mystic voices to lead our country into battle. Rather they expected a small inner voice to whisper to us that we should be family farmers, or mechanics, or nurses and so forth. In my family, I could look to a grandfather who I never knew, who was called to the Christian ministry, or to an uncle who followed his father’s path, or to the more complex stories of my parents, whose vocational path I’ll defer talking about for reasons of space now. It never occurred to me, but I could have asked my teachers or myself about my great-grandfather and namesake, who would have had to have been called to be a common laborer by this scheme. Somehow this talk of calling and vocation seemed a bit grand a process for that.

I never knew what to answer that question with until my late teens when I decided that I would be a poet. That’s certainly a grandiose enough answer for this religiously-infused process, but even in my naïve youth I knew that meant I’d be doing something else beside that with my lifetime. So, a calling, but no answer to what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Most decisions to become an artist of any kind expose a person to things that will mess up one’s life. First off, you are going to do something that is likely unlikeable—you are going to privilege your own interpretations of our common life as somehow more valuable than modest silence or undecorated space. Even successful artists most often have a majority of people judging what they produce as not worthy of their time, or generically replaceable by something similar but different from what you do. And these odds of rejection, combined with the concentration of effort needed for much artistic work, make many artists defend their self/center with self-centeredness.
  
So there, as so often here in the Parlando Project, I’ve violated one of the principles that I set out to follow: I’ve spent time here with my story, talking about myself. Alternate Parlando Project presenter Dave Moore avoided this in today’s episode “Wally Wood”  which Dave gave the longer title “Wally Wood’s Co(s)mic Philosophy.”

Here’s what Dave had to say about the piece:

“Wallace Wood was one of the great comic book artists of the fifties and sixties.  His detail work for EC Comics and Mad is still astounding to look at.  Like many, he was also an alcoholic, and increasingly bitter as he aged.  His words in the song are from a late interview in some fanzine.

I can’t draw, so far be it from me to draw conclusions about success or happiness.  Or the scope of a talented artist’s frustrated Fifties ambitions.  What strikes me most are the words ‘And yet’ after a pause.  No matter what he says, no matter how things ‘work out,’ it was worth it for me and all the thousands of others who enjoyed his work.  Go look him up, you won’t forget him.”

Wally Wood Self PortraitWally Wood - Art Ain't Pretty

Wally Wood, combustible master of line

What did Wally Wood add the “And yet” to? Listen and find out, using the player below.