Sky

I describe the Parlando Project as various words (mostly poetry) combined with various music. The limits on the music portion are largely the limits of my own musical abilities and those of the LYL Band, but I try to stretch those limits as much as I can. The words we’ve used have been poetry more than 90% of the time, but I like to mix up eras and writing approaches there too. Today’s piece uses words that weren’t published as poetry, but they are instead taken from an interview with Laurie Anderson published in The Believer  magazine about 5 years ago. The interviewer (a couple of whose interjections I’ve included) was Amanda Stern.
 
Just before the small section I used from the interview, Anderson was relating that artists do not necessarily need to invent something new themselves, rather they can use art to just call attention to things that already exist. That’s an idea that we honor here with the Parlando Project. Instead of endless creating and featuring new sets of words that Dave or I write, we instead largely seek to pay attention to the work of others. That thought, attention versus creation, led Laurie Anderson to her meditation on the sky that I have now combined with my music for today’s piece, “Sky.”

Laurie Anderson and electric violin

American artist Laurie Anderson:  famous long ago for playing electric violin…

Part of what attracted me to this was her attribution of her sky meditation to growing up in the American Midwest, in a town without big mountains or large bodies of water. In such matters I could easily resonate with her feelings, having been similarly enraptured myself by the sky blue and clouds or the black with serious stars in my youth in Iowa. The book of nature has few words and a lot of blank spaces, but it reads deeply if you look at it.

The book of nature has few words and a lot of blank spaces, but it reads deeply if you look at it.

While I write this, I’m still reading more about the last episode’s author, pioneering English modernist T. E. Hulme, finding out that he felt the need to change his art after spending time on the Canadian Great Plains. Certainly, there was sky where he grew up in England, but the sky of great open places, with its null, yet present reflection on the earth, is the whole garment, after which having seen it, one can be reminded of it, even if all one currently has is a tattered swatch.

Laurie Anderson gives some advice to young artists—might work for old ones too.

 
I cannot describe Laurie Anderson fairly in the space I take for these things here. There are no other better-known artists like her, and so resorting to record store clerk shorthand such as: “She’s like Garrison Keillor combined with Yoko Ono and Andy Kaufman and…” is so strained it doesn’t really get the point across. I can see the lineage from Dada though the developments of 20th Century art in her work, but after all, everyone has influences and comes upon things they resonate with, just as Laurie Anderson’s way of combining spoken word with music is an influence on me.

Anderson’s spoken voice phrasing and speaking style is one of the distinctive things about her audio art. Some describe it as a monotone, but I’d say that’s incorrect. Yes, there’s a compression of affect, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t considerable impression of mood and attitude in it. Perhaps she’d ascribe that to Midwesterness as well. Even her non-pitched performance speaking has in intensely lulling cadence and music to it, not just hypnotic in metaphor, but very much in the mode of the spell-casting of a stage hypnotist.
 
That shouldn’t work—and as much as I love her work, in larger doses I sometimes find it hard to retain even sub-conscious attention throughout the whole work—but with the right amount of attention, it’s extraordinarily powerful stuff.

As she has developed her audio style over the years, she’s added singing and a strong use of electronic voice modifications. As far as I know, she’s one of the pioneers in the use of that electronic voice manipulation. I even considered using some of that in “Sky,”  but opted instead for a more straightforward presentation.

To hear my music accompanying words excerpted from this print interview with Laurie Anderson, use the player below. The whole interview, is also a great read for any artist.

Advertisements

The Embankment

I return today to the work of pioneering English modernist T. E. Hulme, he of the entire compass of poetic work comprising 260 lines. “The Embankment”  is 7 to 9 lines, 63 words, of that.

St Pauls from the Embankment

The Embankment in London, with St. Paul’s  Cathedral in the distance.
It was a well-known site at the time for the homeless to sleep out the night.

 

What can a writer put in such a small container? Hulme was a founding theorist of Imagism. In that small circle in England where Imagism emerged, the pioneers looked to various models in poetic concision. Pound to the Tang Dynasty Chinese poets. H.D. to Sappho and the early Greek lyric poets. Hulme probably considered the classic Latin poets—a form of writing I’m largely ignorant of—but in his writing about what modern poetry should be, he spoke more about what his ideal of poetry was in opposition towards.

T.E._Hulme_1912

He looks serene, but Hulme was kicked out of school twice for misconduct

 

He called everything he didn’t want in the new poetry “Romanticism,” and he was having none of that. Lofty, fulsomely expressed sentiment? Away with it. Elaborate conceits where everything would be compared to something Olympian and mighty? Nope. Mankind, and mankind’s artists, the heroic part of the world? No! Fallen, humbled, limited…

Instead he propounded a new classicism, a “dry hardness” he called it. Imagism, presenting things directly without extraneous comment, and the concision of Hulme’s poetical works, follow from this thought. The epic, the soaring ode, the dramatic statement many acts long—even if it reflects those same convictions in its content—defies its argument with its elaboration. Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, two writers influenced by Hulme, tried to disprove this, but with Eliot’s “The Wasteland”  or Pound’s Cantos,  they often used small, fragmented sections collaged into a larger thing, trying to make this contradiction work.

I’m now halfway through Dr. Oliver Tearle’s book-length consideration of Hulme’s poetry, but besides introducing me to Hulme’s work, Tearle’s book (T. E. Hulme and Modernism,  available wherever books are sold) points out that Hulme, so sure and combative in his critical writing, was not so pure in his expression of those ideas in his poetry. The poetry’s radical simplicity can achieve a humility that no theory written in disputive counter-punches can express.

Tearle on Hulme

Tearle also founded InterestingLiterature.com, which is what it says on the tin.

 


“The Embankment”
  demonstrates this. Following the theory, its sole character is that of a homeless man, his history shortened to a former gentleman’s status, once accustomed to finesse, joy, and fine clothes, currently sleeping outside on the banks of the Thames. Then, for three lines, theory breaks in: “Now see I/That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy./Oh, God, make small”—that last line ending, we will find, in an enjambment, but we do not know that yet as we listen or read.

Hulme has called for a “dry hardness” in his critical theory, and the bum in his poem certainly has the hardness in the pavement he’s sleeping on, and we can only hope he also has the dryness to go along with that. Is the warmth that the bum desires, that he—suddenly an aesthetic philosopher—states is essential to poetry, part of his fallen state? Or is it, as we the reader might empathize, a universal human want that none of us can escape?

Oh God, make small.

And then that wonderful, short line, Hulme’s own “Beauty is truth, truth is Beauty” — “Oh God, make small.”

And as the enjambment on the embankment falls to the next line, we learn that what the bum wants small is the sky, presented in a perfect Hulme reverse-Olympian image, as a star-pierced, moth-eaten blanket, full of holes.

Is there comfort in those lines of prayer that conclude “The Embankment?”  If there is, it’s in the strange—and unstated in the poem—comfort of empathy, that sometimes painful human emotion of warm connectedness that possibly transcends our imperfections.

Musically I thought I couldn’t help but take a cue from the “finesse of fiddles” mentioned in the poems few words. No longer jaunty dance fiddles of the the fallen gentleman’s partying past, but two violins none-the-less. I’m a bit worried that the arrangement echoes my arrangement of Hulme’s “Raleigh In the Dark Tower,”  the other Hulme poem I’ve presented here, but perhaps I should say that I attempted to connect them musically rather than accepting my fallen state as a musician? The one new timbre I introduced in “The Embankment”  are some soft, far-off clock-tower bells, a tip to my memory of looking across the Thames from The Embankment one evening last year at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

To hear my presentation of T. E. Hulme’s “The Embankment,”  use the player below. And continue to spread the word about what the Parlando Project is doing combining various music with various words here by sharing our links on social media and elsewhere. Thanks!

 

 

Like John A Dreams

Today’s selection was also recorded a few years back, and is more conventionally in that “poet reading beat poetry while a band backs the poet up” school of performance. While that’s one of the influences that has led to the Parlando Project, I didn’t want to confine myself to that style, and if you’ve been following along here with what we’ve done over the past year, you’ve heard some of the other approaches we’ve taken.

As I’m in a busy end of August, I don’t have time for much commentary on this piece, but I don’t think it needs it either, which is part of why it’s here today.  This is a story set distinctly in South Minneapolis and the early 21st Century, and it talks obliquely about the time of falling in love with my wife. The Riverview Theater mentioned in the poem is still a going concern, a neighborhood single-screen movie house that shows movies near the end of their theatrical release without concentrating on any one cinema genre, leading to marquee billings like the one the poem mentions, a series of titles that often seem like little Dada poems to me.

Riverview Theater 1

Minneapolis’ Riverview Theater: Dada poem generator or movie house marquee?

  
Outside of the localism of the poem, the main obscurity in it is the title: “Like John A Dreams.”  That’s a reference to one of my favorite speeches in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  In the play’s Act II, the hero Hamlet is asking why he cannot take action on the death of his father, and he rebukes himself as “Like John A Dreams, unpregnant of my cause, and I can say nothing…” John A Dreams was apparently a stock folk character in Shakespeare’s time, a foolish character who lived in his imagination and ignored more pressing reality—a character flaw all writers should be able to appreciate.

Blues and Haikus Jack Kerouac record cover

Parlando influence Jack Kerouac. “Beat poetry while a band backs the poet up”

Allen Ginsberg once recalled Jack Kerouac reading Hamlet aloud, and in particular this speech, with special emphasis in his voice when he landed on the “John A Dreams” charge.
 
So, if you’re a writer or other artist, Hamlet’s speech is for you. Your life is quite possibly bifurcated between that artistic thing you do and the life you press aside to do it. Art is often about making “and” choices. Life is often about making “or” choices.

To hear the LYL Band perform “Like John A Dreams,” use the player below.

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.