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.

I Was Not Yet Awake

Here’s a piece with a short story written and read by Dave Moore.

Just as I have my bicycle ride poems, Dave has his morning dog walk poems and stories, and this one is one of my favorites. Dave tells me that he thinks he may have messed up the ending in this performance of “I Was Not Yet Awake ,”  but I think it works just fine.

I’ll let the story unfold as you listen to it without a lot of commentary from me this time. “I Was Not Yet Awake”  is a story about neighborhoods, neighbors, and trust, distrust and need.

Spirit of Phillips Half of History

Dave Moore is also a cartoonist. His “Spirit of Phillips” reinvigorates the work of radical Abolitionist Wendell Phillips.

Dave is the alternative reader with the Parlando Project, and he also plays most of the keyboard parts you hear here on other pieces featuring the LYL Band. This story is much different from the last piece, where I tried to mash up Capt. Beefheart and Gertrude Stein, and it will also be different from the next episode. That variety in music and words is part of what we do. So go ahead and listen using the player you will find below.

Our audience growth in the past year has been largely as result of readers and listeners like you who have spread these audio pieces by sharing on social media or through their own blogs. Thanks to everyone who’s helped!

 

 

One Year of the Parlando Project

A couple of days back the Parlando Project passed its first birthday. It’s eating solid foods now, and is making efforts to walk. I thought it might be a good time for some posts to catch up a few things.

First off, some of you may be new to the Parlando Project and its presence here on this blog. What is the Parlando Project? We combine music (various kinds) with words (various kinds, but mostly poetry). I’m the Frank Hudson in this blog’s domain, and I’m the “editor” of this Project, but Dave Moore (whose voice you’ll be hearing again soon) is the alternative reader and vocalist here, and the project wouldn’t be the same without him.

I ask you to note the “various” used twice above. I’m one of those rare people, who when asked what their favorite type of music is, cannot answer. Yes, I have moods when I don’t want to hear one kind of musical expression, or when I strongly desire to hear or make another kind, but overall, I can’t say there is one type of music I want to be gone from forever, or another that I will never listen to or try to make.
 
So please do not take any single example of our music as representative of what you’ll hear next. I like noisy and chaotic music and sweet consonant sounds, I like solo acoustic guitar, I like modern day composers who refuse to die, I like artificial sounds created electronically, I like the natural sounds of strings vibrating in air, I like things simple and I like things complex.

The same somewhat applies to the words we use. I have a certain framework that we use at the Parlando Project. We favor shorter pieces for example. We both like a darkly comic touch. We generally don’t use our own words, even though Dave and I have written our own words since our youth, and we’ll use some of them here.

Rather than add another “I” speaking to the mesh of the Internet, I want to jointly experience with you some understanding of what others have written and spoken.

Why is that? The Internet is full of self-expression. I don’t want to put that down, but I feel the various mediums the Internet carries to your phone, tablet or computer are awash in it. Even our literature has become primarily memoir in one guise or another. Well, I consume some of that, you probably do to, but I’m currently not in the mood to create more of it. Rather than add another “I” speaking to the mesh of the Internet, I want to jointly experience with you some understanding of what others have written and spoken. That’s what I seek to do by performing the Parlando Project pieces, and writing about them here.

A poet who Dave and I have known for decades, Kevin FitzPatrick, was once reviewed as writing “poems that have other people in them.” Kevin’s other people are real characters, they have their own lives and wholeness, they are not hand puppets speaking only the words he mouths for them. They, like Kevin, are sometimes funny and sometimes subject to their own misconceptions and foibles.

Rush Hour cover

This is one of Kevin’s four published collections of poetry
You can find a copy here, here or here.

Stop and think for a moment now of how few poets do what Kevin does. Perhaps, if you write poetry, you too, fall into that larger grouping, writing from your innermost feelings, allowing other voices to speak only as you would have them. At the Parlando Project I use the idea, the rule, “Other People’s Voices” to remind me of this principle. I join with you, the listener and reader here, in trying to understand those other voices, by merging our performance of their words with the music we create as an audience to them.

Tender Buttons

Imagine this for the background and education for a poet. The poet is committed from a young age to see things exactly, so much so that they become fascinated with the very neurological functions that are the foundations of perception. In college, they study with the foremost psychologist in America, but they don’t stop there. They go on to study medicine at Johns Hopkins, stopping just short of a medical degree. The poet then decamps to the hottest art scene in the world where they discuss art with the painters who are revolutionizing how we depict reality in a frame, and this poet sees right away who are the great visual artists in this scene, with legendary precision. The poet’s next task was to use the ideas of this visual art revolution, along with ideas about how human thought and perception really work, to create a new kind of poetry.

You’d expect this poet would produce extraordinary work. She did. You might also expect this work to be revolutionary in its technique. It was, and still is. You might expect that you will want to seek out and hear this work, to experience what this background and conviction could bring to poetry. You might expect this writing to share with you exciting new ways of seeing. Well…

Gertrude Stein Lick My Buttons Off Baby cover

What percentage of my audience knows both who Capt. Beefheart and Gertrude Stein are?

 
Today’s piece uses the words of that poet, Gertrude Stein, from her 1914 collection “Tender Buttons.”  Even within the Modernists of her time, it was controversial, and it remains so today. Stein didn’t shock with her imagery like some of the provocative work of Dada and Surrealism. The radically condensed poems of the Imagists sometimes raised concerns that anything so seemingly simple and without the decorative rigmarole of 18th and 19th Century poetry couldn’t really be worthwhile art, but the Stein of “Tender Buttons”  was even more suspect. The imagists might withhold the complexity behind their shortest poems, but the words themselves were often plain-spoken, comprehendible on an immediate level—too quickly so, in some apprehensions, to be art. Here, the Imagists seemed to say, is the red wheelbarrow, the crowd at the Metro station, the stars above the Clark Street Bridge. I’m not giving you anything more, and you can take in these few words and shrug and say “so what?” for all I care.

Stein went further. In “Tender Buttons”  she wanted to project the messiness of real thought, real glancing perception, sticking to one thing only as repeated words that chorus and then disappear, only to appear a few poems later in the collection, but mostly moving from one atom of perception to another.
 
It’s as if, rather than speech recognition on a modern smartphone, that Stein turned herself into a human “thought recognition” device, registering in words not only the stream of consciousness but a stream of unconsciousness as well.

It’s as if, rather than speech recognition on a modern smartphone, that Stein turned herself into a human “thought recognition” device, registering in words not only the stream of consciousness but a stream of unconsciousness as well.

This is a brave idea, but what emerges from this sounds at first (and for many, at second, and then for as many times as they care to try) like nonsense. The words are plain, at the phrase or sentence level they can even seem to be intelligible, but as a whole, they seem to add up to nothing. Our brains are hard-wired to make patterns out of information, and so confronted with a chunk of “Tender Buttons”  this function may strive to make out coherence until one’s brain hurts, or it may just stop a few lines in and reject it as a failed experiment, perhaps even a fraud.

This is where I think that the Parlando Project’s secret weapon, music, can help. Music may have charms to soothe the savage beast of “I need to understand how these words fit together right now; and if I cannot, I will withhold my listening participation immediately.”

Musically I have put these two pieces from “Tender Buttons:” “Glazed Glitter”  and “Suppose an Eyes,”  against music from my memory of Capt. Beefheart, whose work helped me accept fractured non-narratives even while (perhaps because?) his were set against similarly fractured music. Alas, I lack the ability to emulate the timbre of Beefheart/Don Van Vliet’s voice as I declaim Stein’s words, but I assure you I’m hearing Don Van Vliet’s (or perhaps Kevin Coyne’s) voice in my mind as this piece nears it’s conclusion with the chant of “Little sales ladies, little sales ladies, little saddles of mutton, little sales of leather…”  The Parlando Project has always promised to surprise you with the variety of what we present, but we cannot promise you immediate delight all the time. If you like this piece combining two uncompromising artists, be sure to share us with the social media buttons you should see, and if you don’t like it, check out the other pieces already here or to come, as we use other types of music and other sets of words.

To hear “Two from Tender Buttons,”  use the player below.

The Dark Interval Version 2

The last post used my best effort at a faithful translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.”  Now, as promised, my alternative translation.

As I discussed, I first heard Rilke’s “The Dark Interval”  by hearing it. In the immediacy of that encounter, I heard it as a meditation on how our lives pass by while we do not speak up to them and use their singular moment, however imperfectly. Upon reflection, I now understand the poem was likely speaking of Rilke’s more impending death. The more literal translation I used for yesterday’s piece retains more of that focus.

Rilke and Tree

Rainer Maria Rilke. “A tree before my background”

 

Today’s version uses a freer translation, reflecting my original understanding of the piece. The original poem includes three or four images, which I sought to vivify in modern English. The first image, that of the “steep hour” (diese steile stunde) we know is a downhill slope, not a slow, steep incline one is ascending, because the next line includes a sense of rushing or hurrying (eilen). I have no idea if Rilke ever skied or otherwise could be thinking of skiing or sledding down a hill, but that was the concrete image that presented itself to me, and this choice helped me deal with most enigmatic image in the piece, the “I am a tree before my background” (Ich bin ein Baum vor meinem Hintergrunde). My choice in this translation is a risky one. I made the vaguest image in the German into the most immediate image in English, that not only am I sliding rapidly, but there is dangerous obstacle, a tree, to deal with. I now think my translation of “hintergrunde” to “my past” may be inaccurate. Given the poems concluding images, I think Rilke may been thinking of background more in the sense of “musical background”—but it was the choice I made then, and it works well in my first understanding of the poem’s intent.

Charles Adams' skier and tree

Like the skier with the light jacket, I may be puzzled.

 

The next image is also a bit obscure. “I am only one of many mouths, and the one that closes the soonest.” (Ich bin nur einer meiner vielen Munde/und jener, welcher sich am frühesten schliesst.”) I’m still unsure of which meanings Rilke meant to convey there. Is he saying, “I am only one of the multitude, and I’ll be dead (and silent) sooner than most?” Or is he saying “I could speak up in many ways (I can’t quite decide what is the right way to speak up), so instead I clam-up and never express myself?” In this translation, I chose the latter. I now think Rilke likely meant the former.

The last image is the most developed one, and the most attractive to a poet and musician like myself, because it’s an image out of music itself. I read “the dark interval,” that I use as the title for this piece, as a reference to the tritone, a dissonant interval that was being exploited widely in musical works contemporary with Rilke. And of course, music based on blues and jazz forms makes use of the dissonant intervals too, so I chose to use the more modern “funky.” And in developing this musical image I chose to use another informal term to vivify the “death tone” (Ton Tod), translating it to “wolf-tone,” which is the howling feedback sound a string instrument makes when the sounded note is the same as the strongest natural resonant frequency of the instrument’s body.

Keeping with my initial understanding of “The Dark Interval”  I was trying to say that we keep silent, and do not act, out of fear of “dissonance,” of fear of not fitting in with the expectations; or because we fear a “wolf-tone,” an unwanted, strong response; but that when we do, if we do, as can be done within music, the dissonance can be resolved, that musical consonance sounds even sweeter when dissonance shows it in contrast.

So, there you go, that was once my understanding of Rilke’s “The Dark Interval”  that I used in this second translation. As a piece, in English, it stands up, it has coherence, and I think it’s livelier than yesterday’s more literal translation—but I also think I got Rilke’s meaning wrong. How much does this matter?

I often consider translations of poetry like a musician doing a cover song

To the listener, it may not matter. If they don’t know the original in German or from another translation, they experience this work as it is. To art also, it may not matter. A misunderstood work is still a work of art, another one of many mouths that isn’t shut. I often consider translations of poetry like a musician doing a cover song, where there is value in recreating the song differently, just as The New Standards did with their Clash cover that I linked to yesterday. Still, I can’t shake off the thought that I was unfair to Rilke.

So here’s the second version of Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.”   It’s a different performance, with acoustic and electric guitar and bass, but it uses the same music as yesterday’s. Use the player below to hear it.