Autumn

100 years ago, a WWI German artillery shell ended the life of T. E. Hulme, the man who sparked off what we now know as modern English poetry. I was going to say “invented,” but that’s a dodgy word in art as much as in science. Hulme borrowed ideas from several places, and adapted poetic tactics the French and some Americans had already made use of. But we can still say he started things off because he collected the tinder and cordwood in the Poet’s Club in London in the first years of the 20th Century, and the spark was applied by suggesting that everything he thought poets were doing since, well, just about the Renaissance, was wrongheaded. Too flowery. Too ornamented. Too “romantic,” an error he believed made them think of mankind as exalted and godlike.

Hulme, interested in visual art as much as he was in literature, thought the new literary direction should be visual. Cold hard images, direct and vivid, not abstract, were to be the new order, but these images could even be homey and simple (as long as they retained that vividness), not the sort of thing that signaled high culture in the British poems of the past couple of centuries. He was very certain of this, and he either made a convincing case in person or provided the theoretical underpinnings through first or second-order influence to the soon to be mighty modernists: Pound, Eliot, Yeats, H.D., and Frost.

Bust of Hulme
Bust of T. E. Hulme by Jacob Epstein, another member of the early 20th Century artistic “American Invasion” to England

Hulme illustrated his ideas with short poems. I’m not altogether sure how seriously he took these writings, but I find they have three attractive attributes. First, for all the bluster and pugnaciousness that he propounded his theories, the poems are very unassuming. In subject, they often seem to follow one of the principles I try to follow in the Parlando Project: “Other people’s stories.” Second, they are short, and I am attracted to the variety of expression that can succeed in short poetry. And lastly, they are the first. They have that charm, the same charm I might apprehend looking at a Chuck Statler music video, an Apple I or MITS Altair personal computer, an early horseless carriage, or the pictograms on a cave wall. The other beginners looked at this, and said “why not?” Ezra Pound related to Hulme’s ideas in formulating “Imagism.” T. S. Eliot either saw or was reinforced in his ideas for a new classicism in poetry in Hulme’s work.

What would be striking about today’s piece, Hulme’s “Autumn,”  in 1908 when it was published?

It’s “free verse.” No rhyme, no regular metrical scheme. Besides some French poets, American Walt Whitman had done this, but this was still rare, and rarer still in England. The last part of Hulme’s “Autumn”  is still musical however, essentially iambic, and sound echoes, if not rhyme, are present in “wistful stars with white faces.”

Hulme’s two substantial images in “Autumn”  are extraordinarily unpretentious, particularly the first one: “the ruddy moon” at sunset leaning “over a hedge/Like a red-faced farmer.” Compare this to Shelley’s “To the Moon” where the moon is “of climbing heaven” and is addressed as “Thou chosen sister of the Spirit” or Wordsworth’s “With How Sad Steps, O Moon” which is “running among the clouds a Wood-nymph’s race”—and these are examples from good poems of the 19th Century, not the more forgettable lot.

Over at the Interesting Literature blog, where I discovered Hulme, it is pointed out that Hulme, who was from a rural district, also had a ruddy complexion. Perhaps Hulme is looking at himself when he sees the ruddy moon, or his hometown in the moon, but we don’t need to know this subtext to sense the nostalgic comfort in this scene. Except for “cold” near the beginning, which is a sensation as well as an emotion, the only other emotion that is “told” rather than “shown” in the poem is the adjective “wistful” applied to the stars.

Did Hulme toss this off, just to say “Look! You can write a poem like this.” I don’t know, but that’s beside the point. As a person myself who has emigrated from a small rural town, Hulme’s “Autumn”  works as well or better than a grander poem in a more florid manner.

What would Hulme have done if he hadn’t insisted in serving his country in WWI, or if that shell had landed on some other poor soul? That, no one can tell.

Ascenseur pour l'échafaud cover

Like Pound, Eliot,  H. D., Frost, and Epstein, Miles Davis was another American making new art abroad.

 

For today’s performance, I was struck by rehearing a portion of Miles Davis’ soundtrack to “Ascenseur pour l’échafaud”  earlier this week when a piece of it, “L’ Assassinat de Carala,”  appeared unexpectedly in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “Vietnam”  documentary series.. Performed by Davis with a mostly French pickup band over a couple of days during a short stay in France, it’s something of a radically simple first of it’s own, as Davis essays a spare style with less harmonic movement, a style that he was soon to use with a company of more experienced and exceptional improvisers in his epochal “Kind of Blue” recording. Other than Davis’ own trumpet, the featured instrument on “Ascenseur pour l’échafaud”  is Pierre Michelot’s bass. In my music for “Autumn”  I made more use of the drums as well as the bass, as the only “trumpet” I could use was a synthesized approximation of the timbre of the real thing. There’s another first here: the first drum solo on a Parlando Project piece. To hear T. E. Hulme’s “Autumn”  as I performed it, use the gadget below.

 

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Wild Nights Wild Nights

Thomas Wentworth Higginson may have exaggerated a bit, speaking then of “dread.” But it was 1891, and he had taken on editing the surprisingly vast literary legacy of Emily Dickinson for its first substantial publication. In this task, he was a lucky find, for though he had engaged in a lengthy correspondence with Dickinson when she was still alive—the real rarity was that he was a thoroughgoing radical, a Transcendentalist comfortable with heterodoxy, an uncompromising abolitionist who raised and lead a company of Afro-American soldiers in the Civil War; and rarer yet in his time, a stalwart feminist who knew and worked with pioneering American feminists Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson in uniform

Abolition, Transcendentalism, Civil War, Women’s Suffrage and rights
Higginson wasn’t going to keep a little keep a poem about desire bottled up

 

So, fear of controversy was not in Higginson’s nature. Still “dread” was the word he used:

One poem only I dread a little to print—that wonderful ‘Wild Nights,’—lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there. Has Miss Lavinia (Emily Dickinson’s surviving sister, and the one who found the large cache of poems at Emily’s death) any shrinking about it? You will understand & pardon my solicitude. Yet what a loss to omit it! Indeed it is not to be omitted.

What dread could a little 12-line poem cause? Dickinson’s “Wild Nights Wild Nights”  appears to be a poem about unembarrassed female desire. Even with suggested subtext supplied for for lines like “Rowing in Eden,” it probably seems less shocking today. Still, let’s give Higginson some credit. He not only didn’t want to censor it, he maintained it needed to be included for publication.

Even if we’re not shocked by an erotic element, let’s not forget: it is an Emily Dickinson poem. It’s terribly concise. It sings off the page, yet with such short lines, just three to five syllables long. It’s memorable. When I mentioned it to my wife as the next piece I was working on, she nearly knew it by heart.

But most strangely, though it starts like an ardent valentine, it finishes either in disconnected thoughts blurred by lust, or with something altogether less conventional. Setting humptastic subtext aside, why would one row in Eden? You’re in paradise! Where do you want to go? Do you need to stock your ship up with the fruit of knowledge against the scurvy of faith? And you’ve made it to port in the last stanza. Again, let’s leave the “made it past third base” metaphors behind for a moment. Why are you exclaiming the sea when you’re in port? I even wonder if Dickinson is slipping in a pun here: “Ah! the sea!” sounds like “Odyssey.” Is Emily’s wild-nighter an Odysseus looking to getting back on the boat and back to sea?

I don’t know exactly what Dickinson is getting at there. It’s her characteristic level of concision: pretty, but sharp pieces of glass, leaving lots of slant light to refract.

Veedon DIckinson

Poetic license. Yes, I know “Wild Night” is on Tupelo Honey

 

We’ve followed the Parlando Project goal of varying the music with Dickinson poems so far, even casting her as a classic blues singer. For “Wild Nights Wild Nights” I wrote a more rocking R&B thing this time. I relaxed a bit with the vocal this time too: tossing it off in one take while playing the acoustic rhythm guitar part. The opening lines of Dickinson’s poem reminded me of Van Morrison’s song, and so I slipped a few mutated lines near the end. Play the performance with the gadget below. You can dance if you want to…

 

 

From Sunset to Star Rise

Today was the Autumn Equinox, which some use to mark the beginning Fall. Where I live it was very hot and muggy, hardly autumn-like at all, and even the reasonable breeze could not budge the heat. I went bicycling with my son, promising him ice-cream, which he accepted as adequate exchange, and picked up cold sandwiches for our supper, but in-between I worked on the setting for this piece, yet another by Christina Rossetti.

I wasn’t intending to return to Rossetti so soon, and I’m not sure how I ran into this poem, but it meshes so well with some others I featured here this month about summer and attitudes to love. I just couldn’t deny it.

Going beyond the last Rossetti poem of longing we featured here, or William Carlos Williams with his observation of nature’s dispassionate summer, or Edna St. Vincent Millay’s notice of a missing summer muse of comfort in herself, this one is more distressed. The speaker is depressed and is showing her friends away—it’s a fairly pure piece of Victorian melancholia. Will her friends notice she’s not keeping her garden up and bring her round some tea and biscuits? One hopes so.

Christina Rossetti charcol

Christina Rossetti: sadness that none-the-less sings in a lovely way

I know little of Christina Rossetti’s life, if she suffered from depression, or if this reflects a more temporary mood; but in whatever case, she fashioned a finely crafted lyric to present the experience. I find this sort of thing often in English poetry, sadness that none-the-less sings in a lovely way. Here is America we grew up some Blues, and we tend more to bargain with despair, or call it names and begin to insult its absurdity.

The title is a bit of puzzle to me, though. “From Sunset to Star Rise”  has something of a “It’ll get better” connotation. Was she trying to remind herself of some wisdom that could come from this, or that there is some mystery yet to work out?

Musically I wrote this on acoustic guitar and the full arrangement retains the acoustic guitar part with some disconsolate drums and slowly building synth parts. To hear it, use the player gadget below.

He was so singularly great, they called him THE Lonious Monk!

So, I ride off to breakfast this morning, and when I open the paper I see this advertisement for a tribute show planned for this fall:

100 Years of Lonious Monk

I applaud the artists, organizers, and promoters of this tribute to another great American artist. After all, I do the same kind of thing here:  asking you to pay notice to other artists—but sometimes there’s no substitute for the genuine article!

Thelonious Monk's rules as transcribed by Steve Lacy

notes on Thelonious Monk’s advice written down by Steve Lacy.

Lot’s of good advice on those two notebook sheets for musicians and writers.

Millay’s Sonnet 43

Edna St. Vincent Millay was another poet who offered little to the “New Criticism” critics who largely set the canon for the 20th Century, even though her career, which covered the first half of the 20th Century, ran almost exactly through the same time as Eliot, Frost, Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens, and even though she achieved significant readership and a level of awards and accolades while living.

What was their problem with Edna St. Vincent Millay? Well her popularity would be a negative in some lights. In this regard, critics are often no different than the record store clerks of my own day, whose estimation of any indie band would inevitably drop as soon as they achieved a widely-played record. And there’s the “her” and “she” problem. The level of disbelief of the idea of a woman artist probably varied among these critics, but literature was still a very male world at that time and unconscious prejudices are a given. But even if we skip those two, frankly illegitimate, factors, there is the issue of Millay’s plainspokenness.

St Vincent

Annie Clark performs as “St. Vincent,” Edna St. Vincent Millay is on the right. Google carefully!
Clark has said the stage name came from a NYC hospital, but if that’s so, it’s a remarkable coincidence.

Odd isn’t that? This value that you might rate highly in friend was held as low regard by the New Critics, who likely thought it common and unremarkable. A Millay poem typically says exactly what it means, right out. There may be images, but they might not pass Imagist muster. They aren’t stark omens whose meaning is felt and then deciphered, they may be more like the illustrative images the Imagists wanted to leave behind. Millay’s all tell and too little show for them.

And Millay’s language often seems stuck in the 19th Century too. Some lyrical poets like Yeats and Frost adopted Modernist tropes and were able to make their rhymed and metrical poems sound more like contemporary speech. Millay sometimes seemed to be reading from a somewhat musty library book when composing her poems.

The most extended image in “Sonnet 43”  is a bare winter tree, which could be a borrowed image, or a homage, and I choose to manifest the later in this performance.

Can our modern (post-modern) age free up some respect for Edna St. Vincent Millay? I think so. With contemporary poets, we now sometimes value plainspokenness. And the cluster of things that Millay spoke plainly and honestly about include love, sex, and desire.

This sonnet was published in 1920, it’s nearing a century old. If we slide over some of the 19th Century “poetic diction” (something I found easy enough to do when performing this) it’s as honest and as nuanced report on the state of a heart as anything written then or now.

And if one must have ambiguities for art’s sake, honesty can contain that too. Some read this poem as bitter, or a lonely-hearts club statement, or as regret for a life that Millay’s time would’ve called promiscuous. That’s not how I understood it to perform it. I think the speaker is recalling an active love life they rather enjoyed. They reveal themselves (honestly) as something of a sensualist. As the Petrarchan sonnet wraps up its octet, the speaker allows a touch of regret about those lovers who turned to the speaker at midnight “with a cry.” What did the speaker offer them? I think the closing lines say some “summer,” a summer that “sang in me”—that is, that summer is not something the speaker intentionally gave or offered, and the speaker doubts that the muses of that summer offering will still speak through her. William Carlos Williams—unlike Millay, following all the Imagist rules—touches also on the caprices of summer and fulfilled desires in It Is a Small Plant,”  but some are more accustomed to a male author speaking ambiguously about the honest incursions and boundaries of desire.

Perhaps this poem benefits with some listeners in being heard performed in a male voice? I can’t say for sure on that.

Among the 20th Century admirers of Millay’s verse were my father (who grew up on the 19th Century Longfellow and the like, so Millay’s 19th Century diction was no bar) and a distant cousinoid of mine, the modern American theater pioneer Susan Glaspell.

I rather like the musical accompaniment for this one. I worked quite a bit on the drum part trying to bring out different colors, and for the bass I was able to supplement the electric bass with some bowed contra-bass, which is one one of my favorite sounds in the world. Ironically, Millay started out wanting to be a concert pianist, and the top line here is one of my naïve piano parts. To hear me perform Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Sonnet 43”  aka “What lips my lips have kissed…”  use the player below.

For the American Hendrix

Today’s piece uses my own words to present some images regarding American musician and songwriter Jimi Hendrix. Just like William Carlos Williams meditation on a small plant last time, I pretty much follow the famous Imagist rules: direct treatment of the thing, no unnecessary words, and musical phrasing instead of mechanical metrical feet.

Each one of the images opens up what I hope is a rich question. It’s my hope that the resulting poem and audio piece assists you in remembering these questions that I see as posed in Hendrix’s life. Here is the poem I wrote and used with today’s music:

 

For the American Hendrix

 

And then he laid the guitar down, and set it afire

Which seems silly or sacred, depending on the art

He had only to keep himself alive, which would kill him.

 

He took every stop on the three 21 fret train tracks,

Slid between the rails, rode them underwater,

Understood the train-whistle called his ancestors

 

Living in the amplifiers, that he could not shake out,

That he could not know, that were here,

Before European words, that were here,

 

Brought in shackles, that were here,

Building in electricity, that were here

Now, for children who did not know they were children.

 

Voluntary orphans, immigrants discovering new worlds,

Walking on squatters’ land, not forgetting to bring their chains.

 

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix plays for hippies in 1967. Do you envy them or feel superior to them?

In the first stanza, I remind us that Jimi Hendrix was a consummate showman, and that he used showmanship to wrest attention for his art, specifically when he appeared at his first significant concert as a bandleader at the famous Monterey Pop Festival and burned a guitar at the conclusion of a flamboyant act. I present this performance as being consistent to Hendrix’s commitment to his art, as a rock’n’roll musician, an itinerant life with associated dangers, which in his case lead to short life and career. Worth it? Necessary for success?


Hendrix ends his first American show as a bandleader with a sacrifice to his art.

The next stanza acclaims Hendrix for expanding the vocabulary of the electric guitar, using an image of the six-string guitar fretboard, which he transcended with notes beyond the temperament of the frets and though the use of feedback where the notes from the amplifier speaker reflect back to the guitar in the musician’s hands producing sustaining overtones that can be difficult to control but produce extraordinary effects. The question here: these sounds can be harsh, discordant, even painful, but do they too have a necessity?

Next stanza: this feedback is presented as Hendrix’s ancestry: part indigenous, native-American; part Afro-American, a descendent of slaves. This makes Hendrix the point where two arcs of American heritage cross: those that were brought to American against their will, like as to livestock; and those that that were already here and were supplanted by brutal or conniving invaders. The questions here should ask themselves, don’t you think?

The final lines move from Hendrix, to his audience while he was alive and performing: largely white, largely young, many taking a hippie bohemian voyage I liken to America’s famous immigrants, choosing to leave the world of their homes for some promised new world that cannot, and will not, be exactly as promised.

Whatever generation you reside in, you cannot get on a boat or plane to visit another generation’s time; but when you look at a picture or video of a crowd watching Hendrix play, consider those faces. They may be distracted by the day, transfixed or stunned, ignorant and seeking, intoxicated but intent, pleased and puzzled—they may not look like Hendrix, many will seem by their faces to not share his heritage, and none can know the depth of that heritage—and yet, they are dealing with the experience of his art. I ask you not to feel superior or inferior to them from the position of your age or the accident of your generation, but to instead to look to your own heart and ask if there you find some blindness or power, and then to ask, as the concluding words of “For the American Hendrix”  does: when coming to your new land, did you carry with you chains?

47 years ago today, Jimi Hendrix died, perhaps alone, perhaps ignored by his companion of itinerant convenience, trying to continue his art, ignorant of the strength of European sleeping pills.  To hear my performance of “For the American Hendrix,”  use the player below.

It Is a Small Plant

September 17th is the birthday of the American Modernist poet and physician William Carlos Williams, and today’s piece uses the words from one of his poems “It Is a Small Plant,”  the best known selection from a sequence of poems Williams called “The Flowers of August.”

William_Carlos_Williams_passport_photograph_1921

Just because you have have a passport doesn’t mean you have to move overseas.

 

Unlike some other American Modernists—including two poets he met and befriended while a student at the University of Pennsylvania, H.D. and Ezra Pound—Williams spent most of his formative writing years in the United States, much of it in his native state of New Jersey where he practiced as a pediatrician. Like his fellow stay-at-home Modernist Carl Sandburg, Williams wrote poems the followed the new Imagist rules, at least at the start, finding them useful in breaking away from the old poetic styles.

One of those Imagist rules, the first one in fact, was “direct treatment of the ‘thing.” That doesn’t mean that you just directly state the message from your heart. Rather, it means that you honor and hone the image(s) that represent your meaning as palpable thing, not as mere poetic decoration for your words. “It Is a Small Plant” demonstrates that by spending nearly the entire poem presenting a description of a flowering plant.

In the series “The Flowers of August,”  each of Williams’ other poems are titled with the name of a particular meadow or pasture flower, but not this one. So, I suspect this is meaningful. The description of the flower here sounds a bit to me like the common bluebell, but it’s possible that he diverged from botany in service of one of the poem’s images, or that the omission of the flower name in the title for this poem made a point for him.

The other, more important, mystery is who the “her” that is inspecting the flower with the poet is, the her who regards the subject flower as “a little plant without leaves.” At first. I wondered if it was perhaps a young girl looking at the flowers, but I now believe that it’s the “her” featured at the poem’s close: summer. If that’s so, that is the reason the flower has no name, as the human name doesn’t exist for nature and for nature’s incarnation as summer. And in the course of the poem, summer then too cannot care about the anthropomorphic desires presented in Williams’ presentation of the image of the flower.

Violet

Unlike William Blake, William Carlos Williams didn’t see Heaven in a wildflower,
but he did see nature observing himself observing the flower.

I’m not a quick understander of poetry. In working on this piece, I read Williams’ poem, enjoying some lines in themselves. The ostensible subject seemed to fit with the season and coincidentally with some other pieces I’m working on—but I wasn’t sure what it meant. In the course of fitting it with music, recording the vocal, and then tweaking and mixing the music, I lived with this poem for a good part of the last couple of days, reading or hearing the words over and over.

If I had been too concerned with its meaning, I might have stuck with my initial supposition, that it was child apprehending the flower. I was pre-disposed to that on first reading, having briefly re-meeting Margot Kreil earlier this week, a poet who wrote an excellent poem called “Weeds”  which featured just such an image. But I was more concerned with getting the drums right, playing the bass, setting up delay divisions for the guitar lines, and marshalling my limited keyboard skills for the soft keyboard parts, and then making that all fit together.

Through you don’t have to go through those composition and production steps, this points out again one of the things that music can do to change the context for words when it’s combined with them. While music can emphasize some mood or presentation of the words, in the same way that suspense music makes a film clip of a character walking down an unremarkable hallway scary, it can also offer its art as a distraction from worrying about meaning too soon with a poem.

To hear my performance of William Carlos Williams’ “It Is a Small Plant,”  use the player below.