Two Views of a Lunar Eclipse

We seem to be in a month of sky omens in the Midwest, with the Perseids meteor shower and a solar eclipse following one after the other. Perhaps because solar eclipses are rare, poems about them are rare too. I’m going to cheat then, and present two pieces about lunar  eclipses, a slightly more common event that occurs when the Earth comes between the Moon and the Sun, blocking the moon‘s reflected shine.

I’ll lead off with one written sometime in the 19th Century: Thomas Hardy’s sonnet “At the Lunar Eclipse.”   I remember the moon-trip photos, taken near the middle of the 20th Century, looking back at Earth, where for the first time, we could see our planet whole. Hardy reminds us, a hundred years before that, that we could see our whole Earth in a shadow play during the lunar eclipse.

Whole Earth Catalog

For the first time we could see the big blue marble
…also, composting toilets!

 
Optimists at the end of the 1960s thought these whole Earth pictures would help us understand our solitary yet majestic unity and common cause. Hardy, though he had only the Earth’s shadow during an eclipse to work with, is not so sure.

The LYL Band’s performance of this Hardy poem is a live recording from a few years back and it strains to reach “bootleg tape” recording quality, but still I hope it retains some vitality.  And since this Hardy poem is referenced in the next piece, I’m going to give this rougher recording an airing.
 
Though neither I or the Parlando Project had anything to do with it, if you’d like to hear a restrained and lovely simple solo voice and piano sung setting of the same Hardy poem, you can view it here. To hear the LYL Band performing our louder version of Hardy’s “At the Lunar Eclipse” use the player just below this.

My own lunar eclipse piece is set in our century, and in my Midwestern place. I start off by musing on the same planetary shadow play that Hardy wrote of, but wondering if we were our planet, might we make sport of our standing between the sun and moon, as we did as children when the film strip broke in class, or the slide tray of vacation photos needed to be changed, by making hand shadow puppets in the light. Then, as the blood moon eclipse neared totality, and the dark was dark, save for the streetlight at the end of the block and a houselight here and there left on, every hand up and down the street raised itself to the heavens, holding their lit smartphones, as they took pictures of the moon blocked by ourselves on our planet.

2015 Blood Moon Eclipse

A blood moon eclipse. “Can immense mortality but throw so small a shade?”

Unlike our last pairing, the perennial face off between Marlowe’s Shepherd and Raleigh’s Nymph’s reply, my poem “Lunar Eclipse – The Earth in Transit between the Moon and Sun”  isn’t really an “answer song” or a diss on Hardy. In a lot of ways I wanted more to simply update the scenery of Hardy’s poem. Oh, and that title is awkward, but enough listeners didn’t know the mechanics of a lunar eclipse, that we are in the middle on the earth blocking the Moon from the Sun.

What did I mean by the last line? Well, as I sometimes do, I wanted to mean several things. I wanted to say we thought we could capture this cosmic event that had stopped our routine in with the birthday pictures on our smartphone camera roll. I wanted to say, as Hardy did, that we are seeing the whole of our planet, the lives of all our neighborhoods, yet it is only one disk in the wide sky. I wanted to say that our present, particular lives: all our details, our family, our neighborhoods, our homes—though they are the way we experience living—are but one transit of life. Maybe I wanted to say something else that even I wasn’t sure how to say? If so, I wouldn’t know. Sometimes that happens in poems.

Again, we have the LYL Band performing this piece, but it has better recording quality. To hear it, use this player just below.

The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd

There’s a long tradition of “the answer record” in pop music, where another artist responds to a hit record with an opposing viewpoint. Christopher Marlowe’s 1593 “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”  (our last post) received a similar diss from Sir Walter Raleigh with his “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,”  which is today’s. Who will folk-rock the mic harder? Feel free to re-listen to Marlowe’s inning before considering Raleigh’s reply, Marlowe’s player is just below:

As I mentioned last time, these poems with their shepherds and lovers, called Pastorals, were proudly artificial, and set in a completely stylized and relaxed world of affection and sufficiency. You may find any desire to dwell in this unreal world strange and old-fashioned, but perhaps we imagine now another kind of locus amoenus/“pleasant place” to dream of going to, to escape the world.

Christian_Wilhelm_Ernst_Dietrich_-_A_pastoral_landscape_with_Diana_and_her_Nymphs,_1754

“Then he was all about rural handicrafts all of sudden. Was he even interested in me?”
“Well, it’s not like taking care of sheep is that hard. A child with a tambourine can do it!”

 
Raleigh’s “The Lie”  has already demonstrated here that Raleigh had no patience with romanticism. So, he’s primed to take on “The Passionate Shepherd,”  but he also notices another weakness in Marlowe’s argument: the Shepherd promises pleasures, presumably mutual pleasures to his lover, but he isn’t stopping there. He’s going to demonstrate his commitment by throwing an entire Etsy shop at her: beds of roses, caps, vests and belts made from woven wildflowers, wool dresses and wool lined slippers. And bling! Gold buckles, coral and amber buttons.

So, Raleigh composing the nymph’s reply has three arguments to make. All those hand-made crafts on offer? Doesn’t move me Shep. Outdoor animal husbandry? Not as romantic as you make it out to be in May, and those wool slippers better be warm if I’m going to be traipsing after some sheep come January. Lastly Shep, you’re all hot and bothered about me now, but just how lasting is all that? I appreciate the offer, but let’s just say I’m keeping the wool lined slippers and you can go try your line on some other nymph?

Wool Lined Slipper

I’m not even sure what a kirtle is, but I understand cold feet at night

Musically, this is another piece inspired by a 1960s folk-rock sound. I was thinking specifically about the musical style of Fred Neil’s Capitol records as I arranged this. I used a minor key chord progression somewhat related to the major key one I used for “The Passionate Shepherd,” and once again I sung this one. Raleigh, if downbeat, is just as lyrical as Marlowe in his answer. Marlowe has pretty lines like “By shallow rivers to whose falls/Melodious birds sing madrigals,” but Raleigh has “The flowers do fade, and wanton fields/To wayward winter reckoning yields.” So, use the player just below to hear Sir Walter Raleigh’s response in song.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

Let us leave the Modernists for a moment, for a trip to an imaginary land, a locus amoenus, a pleasant place, within whose bounds certain things hold true: love brings simple riches and complex pleasures ignorant of inconstant affection, and where the cares and complexities of cosmopolitan life, brutal prejudice, and other social constructions fade away.

Such a place can have many names. To the Surrealists it was the unfettered confusion of certain dreams. To the west coast optimists of the Sixties and their cross-Atlantic vibrationalists, it was a new Eden of decorated affection and open-mindedness. To a resident of fetid Elizabethan London, it was the pastoral, a demi-countryside where love was free and the rent non-existent. Shepherds, Pan and Panopticon, willed willing partners to their bowers. It seems like a nice place to visit—and in the mind, even more so.

Christopher Marlowe must have written this pastoral love poem sometime before he died in 1593 (baring any occult forces of the Twilight variety, or the posthumous inspirations that allow Oxfordians to confound Shakespeare’s later plays) but it wasn’t published until a few years after his death. It’s a full-throated exhortation in the pastoral style—with a slippery set of gold-buckled feet at the bottom of its argument as we’ll soon see, though that may not matter. Not only is it lovely sounding, even read flat on the page, the whole point of the imaginary pastoral world and the locus amoenus is that it isn’t real, that it’s the place we want to lie in and be lied to sweetly, within.

Marlowe and Peel

“And we will all the pleasures prove.”  The 19 year old Marlowe and the 29 year old Peel.

 

In the spirit of all this, today’s audio piece is one of the few Parlando Project selections where I sing, as you can’t really declaim “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.”   Musically, I chose to use some of the production techniques popular among dreaming optimists in the Sixties, where John Peel’s Perfumed Garden  would be another locus amoenus, another imaginary place, where, in fetid times, we might want to go. This week, 50 years ago, John Peel performed his final  broadcast of that accidental and influential radio show.

To hear Marlowe’s“The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”  performed as if it was a cut being played on the Perfumed Garden, use the player that should appear below.

 

Raleigh In the Dark Tower

Today’s post uses a very short poem about a famous doomed adventurer written by a too-little-known early modernist soldier-poet.

The words’ author, T. E. Hulme, is a name I kept running into as I read about the connections between modernist American and Irish writers in England at the beginning of the 20th Century. Many of those connections can be traced to a group of writers and artists, led by Hulme, who congregated in London beginning around 1908. It’s there that Ezra Pound, soon to be literary modernism’s greatest promoter, met Hulme, who many view as modernism’s originator. The argument for preeminence comes down to classic one:  who thought of it first vs. who practically introduced it.

So far here I’ve concentrated on Pound’s role, but as I began to look at this circle, I must consider Hulme’s impact as well. And then a few weeks ago, through the wonderful blog “Interesting Literature,” and its founder Oliver Tearle, I finally read some of Hulme’s poetry, his own practical application of his ideas.

T E Hulme

T. E. Hulme, the man whose brief poetic spark set off Imagism

 

If there’s a reason I hadn’t read Hulme yet, it may be that his poetry isn’t as well known, and there is very little of it—and what there is, is little twice: about 25 poems totaling about 260 lines. That’s right, as disciples of Bill James will quickly recognize, the average for a Hulme poem is shorter than a sonnet, just a bit more than 10 lines. His short poems, as much or more than other famous short Imagist poems like Pound’s “In A Station of the Metro”,  Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”  or Sandburg’s “Fog”  challenge the reader to find worth and significance in a few words and a putatively mundane subject. Today’s piece uses the words of Hulme’s “Raleigh In the Dark Tower,”  and is something of an outlier in Hulme’s poems, as it’s subject is not so ordinary.

I used Sir Walter Raleigh’s The Lie  earlier this month, and in writing about this extraordinary condemnation of human failings, I told you what every English schoolkid of certain generations would have learned or known about Raleigh: that he was an Elizabethan English hero, and yet he was executed by the English government.

Raleigh Tobacco Tin

Also to blame for Duke basketball fans

 

Once more I’m going to have compress Raleigh’s life into shortcuts, some of which are matters of dispute. He lived in a time of brutal Christian religious wars and is said to have witnessed both the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and to be captain of the troops ordered to perform the execution of prisoners after the Siege of Smerwick. He was lifetime soldier of fortune and entrepreneur, a cross between James Bond and Richard Branson. He popularized the potato and smoking tobacco, and so can be blamed for lung cancer and my spreading waistline. His expeditions pioneered European settlement of North Carolina, which means he is partially responsible for both Michael Jordon and insufferable Duke basketball fans. He twice led English expeditions into Guyana in South America, without which we would not have Davey Graham and acoustic guitars tuned to DADGAD. Oh, and he was a writer.

Even during his three separate confinements to the prison in the Tower of London, Raleigh wrote. Or perhaps he wrote because of his confinements? He wrote the first volume of a monumental attempt at a history of the world during one prison stay, but his release ended the chance of the series continuing.

To present Raleigh, Hulme in his conciseness, give us just these few lines:

Raleigh in the dark tower prisoned
Dreamed of the blue sea and beyond
Where in strange tropic paradise
Grew musk

For my music for “Raleigh In the Dark Tower”  I used acoustic guitar and a string quartet. To try to bring out the dream half of Raleigh’s prison I tried to perform a second, higher, vocal line. To represent the prison half of Raleigh’s experience, I repeated the words a second time, as a prisoned day would follow another prisoned day.

More depends on Raleigh’s life than depends on a Red Wheelbarrow, but Hulme lets that be only understood. And Hulme’s Imagist philosophy, a “dry hardness”, would urge fewer romantic dreams and more direct observation, but even in his few words, he allows this prisoner the immediacy of his dreams and voyages.

Raleigh would be executed for serving the amoral interests of his country too well, and Hulme would die a soldier on a WWI battlefield believing to the end in the causes of a war that was soon portrayed as absurd.

Hulme grave

Another soldier-poet whose leaf WWI cut short

 

To hear my music and performance of T. E. Hulme’s “Raleigh In the Dark Tower,”  use the player below.

I Did Not Go and See the Perseids

Here’s a something of a bonus episode based on a sonnet I wrote a few years back. I’m tired tonight, and not feeling particularly useful, and I recalled that this is the time of year when one of the better regular meteor showers happens.

perseids meteor shower

Meteors are supposed to herald change, but the sky cannot change us

 

I recorded this piece tonight, to try to assuage that useless feeling. I started with the bass part, as the sound of the bass always seems to comfort me. I fit the drums to that bass part, did the vocal, and added a couple of guitar parts. It’s a short piece, and it was soon done.

Meteors are fabled to be meaningful from those times before our modern highly illuminated age erased them from the view of our cities, such as the city where I am stuck tonight. In the poem, I had played with the idea that making the trip to the countryside to see the Perseid meteor shower could indeed change someone’s life.

I did some extreme enjambment, breaking words in half, in a few lines in the poem to try to show how the sharp streaking line of a meteor trail might change us in an instant, because of course we are not changed in an instant, ever, though love and good fortune make us think at times that we have changed.

If change was instant, it would not be hard as it is, nor as easy to avoid.

I wish you all a good night tonight, with or without visible stars or knowable fates.  And I thank you again for reading and listening over this chattering yet silent Internet.

To hear the performance of “I Did Not Go and See the Perseids,”  use the player gadget below.

 

The Lie

There are so many ways to introduce the words used in this piece. I could say it’s an OG rap written in prison by a two-time ex-con who was executed for violating his parole. I could say it’s a piece by the poet who did more in his career outside of writing poetry than any other poet besides than the teenager who wrote “Frances.” I could say it’s the testimony of a soldier who had seen enough of war to cause PTSD many times over. There will be occasion to talk more about its author’s life later, so I’m going to ask your indulgence, and tell instead of how I first came upon this poem.

Oscar Williams

Oscar Williams lived until 1964, yet there are exactly as many photos
on the Internet of him as of Emily Dickinson, and hers aren’t grainy half-tones!

 

At the beginning of the 20th Century a boy was born in the Ukraine, and as a child he emigrated to New York City. Like many immigrants, he changed his name to sound more “American,” becoming Oscar Williams. His career was originally made in marketing/advertising, but he was also a poet. Then shortly after WWII he began to publish poetry anthologies in inexpensive editions, including very cheap paperbacks. Did he know from his marketing work that these would strike a chord in the post-war world of soldiers who became the first in their families to go to college on funds provided by the “GI Bill?” Did he suspect that the experience of the greater than “The Great War” war, and the Korean, Cold, and Vietnam wars that followed would create an audience wanting some human writing more varied than propaganda? Was the spreading middle-class of the post-war years creating a new, broader audience for poetry, like it did for hi-fi symphonies and literary novels? Who knows? Perhaps it was only Williams’ personal passion for poetry that motived him, but his inexpensive anthologies sold in the millions, a much greater number than anyone expected.

Master Poems of the English Language Cover

$1.45. An education one doesn’t need to take out a loan for.

 

In 1968, in a college bookstore, I purchased a chunky paperback of one of these Oscar Williams’ anthologies: “Master Poems of the English Language.”  About a thousand pages, over a hundred poems, each introduced by an essay on the worth of the poem by another poet or critic, cover price $1.45. I purchased it because I was writing poetry and I wanted to know more about what it could do, and how it did it, and this seemed the best value on offer at the store. And it was. I don’t want to put-down teachers I’ve had, or other reading and face-to-face examples that have instructed me in those things, but that book, taken in at that time, gave me a firm starting point in writing poetry.

Raleigh Sports 2
In 1951 when this bike of mine was made, Raleigh was more of a house-hold name

Written in 1618, today’s poem, “The Lie”  by Sir Walter Raleigh was one of the poems in that anthology, and one of Williams’ selections that I liked the best. Unlike some other poems I’ve featured here, it’s not widely anthologized, and Raleigh himself seems to have nearly fallen from the common British pantheon over the years. In 2002 the BBC conducted a poll on the 100 greatest Britons ever, and Raleigh snuck in at 93, just behind intricate fantasist J.R.R. Tolkien and 50 places behind that other great anthologist, John Peel.

When I first read “The Lie”  I was struck by how modern it felt. Yes, there are a few antique words and terms in there, but it’s remarkably plainspoken—and the speaking it’s plain about is the bane of hypocrisy, lack of principles, and double-dealing—all things Raleigh’s life taught him a lot about. After all, since Raleigh wrote this while in prison awaiting his execution, he did have the ultimate license to say what he really thinks.

To hear what Raleigh had to say and my performance of it, click on the player below. Warning, there’s a Mini-Moog solo partway through, which is not as bad a fate as a 17th century beheading, but it will not make you forget Keith Emerson’s on “Lucky Man”  either.

 

 

What is Poetry and What Is It Good For?

People blog about these allied topics elsewhere, and there seems to be a bloomlet of books answering the same questions. I’ve lived a fairly good number of years, writing, reading, and listening to what I consider poetry, and I can’t say that I’ve thought of this for a long time.

There are inductive and deductive artists: ones who think of, or latch onto, a useful theory, and produce art from it; and those that, if they think of theory at all, derive it from what they have already created. I’m in that later, and I think larger, group.

The concentrated amount of work I’m doing with the Parlando Project means I am working a lot with poetry, and making constant choices. To give me focus in this process I did take on a few principles for Parlando, but  having handled this much poetry in the past year means that I can’t help but observe my choices and what those choices say about what I believe about poetry.

Poetry is musical speech.

Simply, poetry is musical speech. And good poetry not only sings with its words, it sings twice, as its thoughts flow like the logic of music. Do that and I think it’s poetry. Fail to do that (or rather, if I fail to hear that) and it may be a perfectly good something else, but it’s not poetry.

Hold it, some of you may be saying to your screen, what about free verse? What about those decidedly non-rhythmic pieces that are published as poetry, and are widely considered as such? Let’s take Ezra Pound’s famous short imagist poem “In a Station of the Metro” as an example of that:
 
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.”

No meter, no rhyme, is that musical speech? To me, yes, it is. I hear this music, as I hear the music in other poems, as a musician, but you could hear it too, even if you are only a listener of music. Music does not need to be a drill team march or four-square polka or sound the bass drum of some dance music that expects regular, repeating beats. The top melodic lines of much music vary in rhythm constantly, and musical speech should have the same freedom, as Pound himself declared in his famous short list of Imagist rules.

Monet St Lazare Station

They say the best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees!
I want Monet! Monet!  That’s what I want!

I could read other poems, ones that do follow conventional accentuated syllabic meters, and not hear much music in it. If I turn on a metronome or a simple drum machine pattern, I may hear rhythm, but I don’t necessarily hear music.

Yes, this sense of musical speech is subjective, particularly for a poem sitting mute on the page.

And what about the second music that good poetry will also sing, the musical logic of thought? I’m not even sure that “thought” is the right word, as it’s more at apprehension or experience, but as a listener or reader those subjective transferred experiences are felt as thoughts are and engender my own thoughts in response. When Emily Dickinson looks at a bird in her path, or Meng Haoran awakens after a stormy night, or when Ezra Pound comes to the subway stop and sees this throng of urban humanity as a transitory and eternal natural grouping I get to share my understanding of their understanding, if I have the patience and openness to seek to do so.

Music is not how to get from one note to the other as quickly and predictably as possible, rather it is how to pleasantly surprise, or even confound, you in those journeys between related notes.

Any of those experiences could alternatively be a chapter in a memoir, or a scientific observer’s log entry, or a character’s chapter in a novel. Some experience or apprehension of experience is transferred in those ways too—that’s what all art does—but in poetry, the transfer happens in the context of musical expression. This can work, like a meditation chant, a hypnotist’s spell, or any experience where the normal stops and starts of thought are interfered with. And the flow of the order of the data has an internal meaningful structure in good poetry, as a melody or a chord progression has in music, which is not necessarily the flow that works the most efficiently. Music is not how to get from one note to the other as quickly and predictably as possible, rather it is how to pleasantly surprise, or even confound, you in those journeys between related notes.

Consider an image, a set of relationships set out in a poem to be related at once to each other, as chord is in music.

Consider an image, a set of relationships set out in a poem to be related at once to each other, as chord is in music. And the relationship between one image and the next is like a cadence or sequence of chords in a musical composition.

When one thinks of poetry, as I now do, as a musical thing, and not a literary thing, then the presentation of it as we do in the Parlando Project, should make sense to you. Not that it must make sense first, it can simply be experienced.

All this implies some of what is the worth in poetry; and to be honest, some also of what is problematic in poetry, but I’ll leave a further discussion of those things to another post.