October November

By title this would be the perfect piece for today, though it does not describe the axis of these months this year in the upper Midwest, which is cold, gray, blustery, and threatening sleet or snow. So, this is not the day or night for sitting on arbor-seats in some garden, and the blazon leaves have already succumbed to a snow storm last week.

But never mind the weather, it’s an early enough poem from Hart Crane to have fallen into public domain, so that I can use it here. “October-November”  shows only a little of Crane’s eventual poetic style, but that means it might be a good way to introduce him.

Hart Crane and the Bridge

Would you like to buy a poem about this bridge? Crane in Brooklyn.

Crane’s just a bit younger than the other early 20th Century modernists, but you can see similarities to some of the branches of modernism we’ve already climbed out on. Like Tzara or the Surrealists he loves extravagant images; but though he is utterly romantic, there’s a certain classicism to many of the images he uses, just as H.D. or Eliot would. On the other hand, like the Futurists, he loves to touch on what was then modern technology. Like Edna St. Vincent Millay or Yeats his music can sound older than his subjects. Crane is a master of Elizabethan-style iambic meter and he doesn’t avoid the old habits of poetic diction. You can even see links in Crane to the original American Modernists: the ecstatic pronouncement of a new world and a new version of humanity like unto Walt Whitman and the concisely packed and puzzling lines of conclusion that Emily Dickinson could use.

But what you see most in Hart Crane, although it’s only hinted at in this early poem written when he was a teenager, is extraordinary, stunning, eloquence at the phrase level, lines with heart-stopping lyricism. Like Shakespeare, Dickinson or the writer of Ecclesiastes, a Crane poem may hold gnomic and gorgeous sounding lines, even if they are as inexplicable as what they sum up. One could write dozens of books or poems with titles taken from lines in Crane poems, though few have done so.

There’s more to say about Hart Crane, perhaps another post that tells about how the Modernists he lived and worked among never fully accepted him, but let me leave that for another day.

“October-November”  is simpler than later Crane, just a pair of images of sun dappling a garden as if it’s still summer followed by a fully delirious autumn night. I sense a growing intensity as this short poem proceeds, and tried to reflect that in the music I composed and played for this one, extending that ecstatic line in the instrumental section at the end.

One last ironic Halloween tie-in: Crane’s father invented Life-Savers, a candy that are now available in a rainbow diversity of sugared flavors that one might find in a ghost’s or skeleton’s bag at the end of tonight; but when invented, Life Savers was more of a breath mint line, successfully sold to cover up the vices of drink and tobacco on the breath. The thing that remains its essence? The round shape, the hole in the center, like the floating ring made to be tossed to a drowning person.

1917_Life_Savers_ad

Like a kid in a candy store. The Crane family business.

In 1932, a 32 year-old Hart Crane vaulted over the railing of the ocean liner carrying him back to New York City. One witness says they looked after, and “saw Crane, swimming strongly, but never again.” Perhaps his leap was too far and his swimming direction away from them, but there is no account of a round, perforated life preserver being tossed in after him before he disappeared and died.

To hear my performance of “October-November,”  use the player below.

Did You Miss It?

Let’s get one more Halloween appropriate piece in before the holiday.

We’ve featured a lot of words from Dave Moore this month, but not enough of his voice, so let’s get to that with a performance by Dave backed by the LYL Band. Dave’s a founding member of the LYL Band, singing and playing various keyboards with it. Beside his own band, Moore wrote lyrics for other bands back in the beginnings of the Twin Cities punk/new wave/indie rock scene. Around the same time, Dave worked with Kevin FitzPatrick on a well-loved literary magazine “The Lake Street Review.”  Besides poetry and songs, Dave Moore has produced the comic “The Spirit of Phillips”  for many years.

Besides Dave’s words, voice and keyboards that are often present here, you’ve also read me talking about Dave’s father, Les Moore (he of the Bauhaus name). That should be enough background from me.

Alan and Dave Moore

Alan Moore didn’t share any birthday cake with Dave. “Isn’t the book enough?”

 

I found Moore’s “Did You Miss It” mysterious, in a good way, so let’s let him tell us how it came to be:

“I could have called this ‘3 Moores Stew,’ where the ‘philosophies’ of Dave, Alan and Les collided in my head around the issue of predestination. It’s also an attempt to celebrate first-and-only-take songs.

For my birthday last year (#67), I got (my hero) Alan Moore’s 1200-pg. novel Jerusalem.  Wonderful, literally. Took a while to read such an intricate structure, and parts of it started to show up in my dreams.

Concurrently, I was editing my dad Les Moore’s sermons, typing over 50 transcripts. I’d class him as liberal Methodist, the admirable socially involved 60s Christian. I heard him speak every week till I went off to college & expected that many of his words would bang something up from my subconscious.

The lyric starts in Alan-psychogeography-zone, where one of his characters is choking to death for hundreds of pages as reality is explicated.

The joke of the chorus is also from Jerusalem, shared by Sir Thomas More with another shade. How could you miss the free will you didn’t have?

2nd verse (‘more hairy’) extrapolates Alan’s simultaneous beauty & death across time.

3rd verse (‘Belief’) is Les’s gift of Heavenly beauty despite death.

4th verse (‘Lights go on’) Dave points out you make your own beauty & might as well enjoy it. If it’s yours, you can get the joke.

Unlike most of my mistakes, those in the concluding instrumental are intentional. If everything’s pre-destined, who would bother pre-scripting this? Or could they?”

Dinty Moore Beef Stew Can

“Beef stew, I tell you there’s no beef stew…”

 

Dave points out the contrast we get from having LYL Band performances mixed with the more composed stuff here, where I play all the parts. “Did You Miss It”  is one of those “first and only takes songs” that we’ve done, were the arrangement and parts are happening just as the recording light is lit. Trick or treat? Mostly treat here I think.

Use the player below to hear Dave’s song.

 

The Red Wheelbarrow

Obscurity in modernist poetry is a funny issue. What makes some writing hard to grasp, difficult to understand? Esoteric and little-known words like Wallace Stevens loved? Far-flung allusions to works in several languages like T. S. Eliot was prone to? Exploding normal written syntax and logical flow as Gertrude Stein did? Taking images into realms where direct one-to-one symbolic meaning is not only impossible, but more than likely, not the aim, as Tristan Tzara or Paul Éluard demonstrate? Presenting things “slant” in iconoclastic riddles as Emily Dickinson could? Writing works of epic length that few if any human minds can comprehend in their whole, like the Cantos of Ezra Pound?

And then there’s this poem, the basis of today’s piece, William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

The Red Wheelbarrow

The whole of it: 16 words, no punctuation, all lower-case

 

From empirical evidence you could say that it’s the very peak of the canon of modern American poetry. Remember that compiled count of the poems that appeared most often in poetry anthologies, most of which were explicitly focused on modern American poetry? “The Red Wheelbarrow”  is alone at the top of that list, included in over half of the anthologies counted.

Does that make it a “best loved poem”? Does it even assure that critics consider it great, much less the greatest? No, it does not. I think I first ran into it as a teenage student, in one of those anthologies used in some English literature class. Did my young teacher point it out as a poem of special merit? Did I view it as such? No. If I can trust my memory, if it was discussed at all, it was as if it was some kind of stunt, an intended provocation that so short and mundane a piece could be considered artful. “Now class, let’s get back to T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens.”

And how about critics? They largely part like the Red Sea on “The Red Wheelbarrow”.  If we look to one side, in among the mollusks and manta rays now behind the water curtain of the divided sea, we find those who care little for it. There’s nothing there demanding to be written about. No virtuosity is demonstrated to be noted and admired. And what important point is it making, other than, well, no point at all?

So, we turn to the other side, those swimming with bemused dolphins who wonder if they could leap across the band of Israelites walking on damp seabed, those critics hoping to demonstrate their microscopic perception of the hidden art in this terribly short and compressed poem. Carol Rumens is concise and representative of this when she says of Williams’ poem “This is his manifesto, surely–a poem quietly declaring how modern poetry works.” And she also warns “A naïve reading could take it as a comment about the great usefulness of wheelbarrows on small-holdings where chickens are kept.”

And then, here I am, now. No longer the teenage student who was sure someone had figured these things out, and I need only to find them. I can’t see far enough ahead where Moses and Aaron are, nor can I see far enough back how close Pharaoh and those charioteers are getting. I’ve got my hasty bread and a few grabbed things in my little cart, pushing it across the mud. I think I must be naïve. Yes, Williams is a modernist, as committed to the new way of writing as clearly as possible, a proclaimer of “No ideas except in things,” which means in retrograde, the things must be the ideas. If he had wanted to write a manifesto, he could, and did in the other poem that stated that dictum.

The obscurity in this poem is that there is no obscurity other than what we bring to it externally. There is no allusive, secret meaning, other than the secrets we’ve kept from ourselves, of our tools and our companion responsibilities.

Yes, there is art in these 16 words: the line breaks that ask us to hold our gaze, even in the middle of words, the “so much depends” warning that bids us look. The choice to look at just these simple common things, is a choice, is an idea. I think the dolphin side of the parted sea has smarter companions than the mollusks’ side; but I am looking down at my wheelbarrow, and Williams’ wheelbarrow, and saying naively, that it matters, even if I’m in the middle of the band, unable to see Pharaoh or Moses.

I’ve spent too long on the words again, but I feel I need to say a bit about the music I composed for my performance of “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I chose to use a twelve-tone row, a modernist musical idea from the same time as when Williams was writing the poem. It would be pretentious for me to say I got this from deep study of Schoenberg or Webern, though I’ve listened to a good deal of modernist music. However, “serialism” never stuck with me until I heard the prologue part of “This Town Is a Sealed Tuna Fish Sandwich” written by Frank Zappa. I’ve loved that piece from the first time I heard it.

Twelve-tone music subverts expectations of a tonal center or “important” scalar notes, so it can sound a little woozy or random, but, of course it has its pattern, by definition, which the mind’s ear can hear if you stop thinking in expectation of familiar patterns, which is the simple and profound thing it is asking you to do.

Click on the player to hear my performance of “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

 

Wrapping up Maila Nurmi and Vampira

Yesterday, the songs I made from Dave Moore’s cycle of poems about Vampira had taken us up to her short run as the first “horror host” in the early days of television. As recounted in that post, by the time her little more than a year of  broadcasting fame had wrapped up, the idea of a sardonic costumed character hosting late night showings of horror and SciFi films went nationwide, with dozens of local reflections of that concept. None of them were exactly like Vampira though, and oddly, all of them were male.

Vampira’s creator, Finish-American Maila Nurmi kept at a show business career following her TV host stint, including some Los Vegas work with Liberace, but as the 1950s started to conclude, she was getting farther and farther from the brass ring. Should there be any wonder that this would have been so? No, there were few models of self-defined female performers in the Fifties, and it was her character, Vampira, not herself, that held what fame remained. And that character, combining as it did fears of death with fears of female sexuality, both attracted and repelled where it was remembered.

It was in this context that Nurmi took a role in a micro-budgeted movie with an incoherent script and famously eccentric director: Plan 9 From Outer Space.”  When the movie was completed, if such a disaster could say to have completion, it hung around in obscurity even lower than Nurmi’s for more than a decade.

Plan 9

Like 80s video game packages, Plan 9’s poster has higher production values than the movie.
Vampira gestures, Tor Johnson arises from the grave, and Ed Wood’s chiropractor fakes it as Bela Lugosi

Nurmi pressed on with living, less and less known. There were a couple more bit parts, and her day gig sometimes was “handyman” work in the homes of the more affluent. Poet Kevin Fitzpatrick remarked after reading Dave Moore’s pieces on Nurmi’s resilience that she was showing “Sisu,” that untranslatable Finnish characteristic that says that determination will get you through any challenge.

And then something odd happened. The same generation of film scholars and fans that helped recognize the value in genre fare like pre-war horror movies, low-budget serials, or the foreign oddness of Japanese monster movies began to look around all the blind corners of obscure film. What made a film that met few of the criteria of good cinema still interesting? Could it be that watching a film fail to fulfill it’s duties had a fascination in itself? What would the worst possible movie be like?

In 1978 a couple of movie critics put together a book called “The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time.”  Like many lists of superlatives, it generated plenty of response, but one response was to claim that they’d overlooked this now 20 year old film that was seen mostly on TV, late at night, when viewers just couldn’t believe the bad dream they were seeing. The authors, Michael and Harry Medved, figured there was another, better book about worser movies, and in 1980 they redid their lowerarchy with a follow up book that named “Plan 9 from Outer Space”  the worst movie of all time, and it’s director, Ed Wood, the worst director of all time. And since then, nothing has challenged that assessment, it’s become the “Citizen Kane”  of bad cinema, a movie seen by millions who are astounded by its, ah, quality.

Thus Vampira’s few minutes of (gratefully, given the script) silent footage in “Plan 9”  communicated Nurmi’s visual concept to a new generation looking to stand back from their times. The Misfits recorded a tribute song around this time, and now this year, The Haxans illuminate that song with an excellent cover. But of course, you want to hear how Dave Moore and I conveyed this part of Maila Nurmi’s story in the song-cycle. In case you’re in a hurry to get to your Halloween party, here are the three preceding songs from the Vampira song-cycle, along with the LYL Band telling the story of how Vampira would have been forgotten “If Not For Ed.”

Maila Nurmi arrives in L.A., and as she considers what persona to take on she considers celebrity evangelist Amiee Semple.

 

Why might someone like Nurmi choose a gothic character
in the midst of the supposedly peaceful and satisfied Fifties?

 

Maila Nurmi performs on TV as the first “Horror Host.”

 

The last part of the tale, how “Plan 9”  allowed Vampira to be seen by a new generation.

Hollywood TV

Once more we visit a song from the Dave Moore-written song-cycle looking at the innovative goth/horror persona created by Maila Nurmi in 1953-54. Today’s piece “Hollywood TV”  continues Nurmi’s story as commerce finds a place for her Vampira character as it seeks to fill out the expanding television time slots.

In the 50s, the moving picture industry faced an existential crisis of its own: television was going to deliver its kind of entertainment right to people’s homes, no need to go to the theater, no need to pay admission, make your own popcorn, Philco Playhouse and chill.

One way the old entertainment empire sought to use the new TV medium was to sell rights to rebroadcast movies that had completed—sometimes, long-ago completed–their theatrical runs. One studio, Universal Pictures, wanted to monetize their classic horror pictures it had released back in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s and so put together a package of these films for TV stations to buy and rebroadcast in 1956.

It’s hard to believe now, in an era when SciFi, Horror, and Fantasy are the dominant commercial film genres, that in the mid-50s these films were considered shoddy goods. They reflected back to 19th Century characters and tropes, even when they were made before WWII, and so they were not thought to be the stuff that a forward-looking post-war world was looking for.

But wait, we’re in 1953-54. Even this is still in the future.

Nurmi had created the Vampira costume for a Hollywood Halloween costume party in 1953, and the story goes this novel combination of sex and death was noticed there by an entertainment figure, through which she was eventually connected with a TV station looking to broadcast old movies. The TV execs thought such old-fashioned low-value fare needed something else to make it viable, a host to contextualize the old movies to be shown at night when such niche material could fill otherwise uncommercial air time.

So, in 1954, two years before the Universal “Shock Theater” package was offered, Vampira began hosting a show made up of old movies whose rights could be obtained on the cheap, with her character leavening the proceedings with quips and intentional perversity. This is an old show-business tactic, as even in vaudeville theater, a master of ceremonies might be called on to hype or explain the acts, or to fill time when a performer had dragged down the audience’s interest. And intentional perversity was decades old too, what with the Dada cabaret of the WWI years.

Even if this is recent history, in the lifetime of people still living, it’s hard to know how big the Vampira character’s impact was in her time. Her late-night show lasted about a year ending in 1955. A follow-up show with the character on another local station didn’t stick. During the years 1954-56, there was a substantial publicity push, a local Emmy nomination, a Life magazine profile, guest appearances in the Vampira persona on other TV shows; but there was the short run of the show, and a general tailing off of Nurmi’s celebrity and performance career afterward. How big were the waves in that ripple?

If we can’t see how big the first ripples are, we can see the waves that built off it, as they are substantial, and still rolling.

In 1956 came that Universal Pictures “Shock Theater”  package, eventually followed by “Creature Features” and others. Over the next decade, most major local TV markets gained a horror/SciFi host. The pattern was unmistakable. Costume. Macabre humor. Campy name. Maybe a little dry-ice fog, screeches and screams, and a haunted house décor. All parts of the Vampira scheme. What wasn’t copied? The Thanatos remained, however distanced by humor, but the Eros was toned way, way down, and the follow-on horror hosts were invariably male.

Shock Theater around the USA

It’s a boys club. Some of the horror hosts for “Shock Theater”  around the USA

 

In pop music, the erotic and self-possessed element of Vampira saw a revival by the late ‘70s with Poison Ivy and the Cramps, and in the UK, bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees. Eventually a goth subculture and “look” developed often borrowing from first or second level influences of the Vampira character with various continental European influences.

The Cramps

Poison Ivy of the Cramps substituted midriff & pychobilly riffs for Vampira’s décolletage and goth ennui

 

It took a generation from the ‘50s before the female TV horror host was revived in 1981, back again in Los Angeles, with a character, Elvira, largely based on an updated Vampira. Nurmi had helped with the creation of the show, but had a falling out with the producers.

By the end of the 20th Century, the Vampira character was still being kept alive by a wordless cameo in a widely viewed “Worst Movie of All Time” “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”  Irony wasn’t just a pose for the character, it was the way the character survived.

More irony: the mostly male ‘50s children who watched Vampira, Shock Theater, Creature Feature, and the other black and white movies rerun on TV at night past their bedtimes, had grown up and became the new Hollywood elite, making tens, and then hundreds of millions for a revived Hollywood, revising the tropes of the shoddy goods whose TV rights had been sold on the cheap.

If you take pre-Comics Code EC Comics attitude, the TV horror hosts, their old movies and modern descendants, add some bite-sized marketing from the candy merchants, and there you have modern American Halloween. If you walk by the rack of tacky vinyl and polyester costumes at the store, past the Star Wars characters in kid’s sizes, over to the adult-sized costumes, and there you see a “Sexy Vampire” hanging, black and low-cut, long, dark-haired wig included. A colored sheet suggests it worn by a thin young woman with red lipstick, white makeup and weaponized eyebrows. Think, then, of Maila Nurmi for Dave and me, won’t you.

Oh, there’s a song. Dave Moore wrote the words, I wrote the music and performed it. You can hear “Hollywood TV” using the player below. Click it. If You Dare!

 

 

Prevailing Winds

Continuing our change of pace, temporarily stepping away from our usual spoken word and music combination, I’m going to dress-up once more for Halloween as a singer, which I fear is not a totally convincing costume. Today’s piece “Prevailing Winds”  is the second cut from the song-cycle about ‘50s goth/horror innovator Vampira. Dave Moore, whose voice and words you may have heard here before, wrote the words for this piece, and I wrote the music and performed it. The first part, “Helen Heaven”  was posted here Monday.

As I mentioned yesterday, the 1950s has, somewhat in retrospect, gained a reputation as a peaceful, relaxed, and satisfied time in the United States. When a political figure such as our current Presidential performer refers to “make America great again” it’s generally assumed that his clientele understands this as “like the 1950s” in hat-band shorthand.

But, as experienced, America in the 1950s was not so peaceful. The decade began with the Korean war, now commonly forgotten, but deadlier proportionately than the Vietnam war. Somewhat more so than the Vietnam war, and more like our current war on terror, the Korean War was viewed as only a small part of an open-ended global struggle against an evil multi-national enemy. And as the decade went on, there existed a widespread and increasing fear that the atomic weapons first unleashed just prior to the decade, and held in a rough but uncertain balance by the central powers of the enemies, would return again, but in multi-fold form threatening worldwide destruction, threatening human survival.

On either side of Los Angeles, where Maila Nurmi was formulating her Vampira persona, these human-survival threatening weapons were being tested in deserts and on Pacific islands, right in the open air. Radioactive isotopes were measured in milk as Nurmi fashioned the dropping white décolletage of her costume.

Vampira gives epitaphs not autographs

“I give epitaphs, not autographs” Maila Nurmi created the Vampira persona in 1953/54

 

As someone old enough to remember those times, I’m often puzzled at the ebb and flow of nuclear worry in American minds. There have been times when it almost disappears, and times when it is so omnipresent that the topic is nearly as unavoidable in social and party conversation as the weather or sports teams. As this is being written, Korea and nuclear worries are on an upswing, and I have no way of knowing if this level is proportionate to the threat or not—but I do believe it’s still less amplified now than it was in 1953-1954 when the Vampira persona was being created.

The human condition is mortality, this does not change. Poets have spoken of this since before the time they could write their songs down. But the human condition in that time, the 1950s, was the first to consider humanity itself as mortal.

To hear the Dave Moore/Frank Hudson song “Prevailing Winds”  from the song-cycle “Vampira”,  use the player below.

 

Helen Heaven

Let’s leave off those modernists of the era around WWI for a while, and move to a few songs about some midcentury mods. This is the time when popular culture mutated into something recognizable as ours, as it still is into this 21st Century.

Somewhere in this second decade of the 21st Century a new modernism is likely being born, but I do not know it yet. Back in the early 1950s people expected something new, perhaps as much or more than we expect change today in 2017. As it turns out, we may have not gotten all the change we thought we were due.

Today’s piece is the opening song in a song-cycle about one woman who had a moment in this moment of change in the early 1950s in Los Angeles/Hollywood. The woman was a second-generation Finnish-American, Malia Nurmi, who created a character that for a short time, just about a year, captivated TV audiences in Southern California with a strange take on sexuality and various horror tropes, blending in a beatnik/Dada critique of “normal” as a reaction to the unthinkable. The character was named “Vampira.”

Somewhere in the later 1960s it became a commonplace to view the 1950s as an era of calm, peace, satisfaction and complacency, and this characterization has only increased over time. But this was also the era just after a cataclysmic war ended with atom bombs, a horror that eventually moved from reality, to nightmares, to repressed acceptance, to forgetfulness and finally now again to present fears. This was the decade of a forgotten, brutal, war in Korea. This was an era when society tried to put back into the bottle the broadening social roles for women and Afro-Americans that WWII had allowed. This was the time that revealed the horrible efficiency of the extermination and slave labor camps, and the decade in which the utopian dream of Communism exposed its shames and shams. This was a deeply uneasy time when some feared everything “normal” was a dream and others saw clearly the waking hours outside the dream.

All of which makes this campy TV quipster host who created the makeup, costume and persona of Vampira seem inadequate to address this. Well, what is? As we move to celebrate Halloween, that strangest of holidays, where we make fun of our inability to escape fear, death, and too much candy, let’s reconsider her.

Helen Heaven - Aimee Semple and Maila Nurmi as Vampira

Media in black and white: Aimee Semple used religion, Maila Nurmi used Vampira

“Helen Heaven”  has words written by Dave Moore, the alternate voice and writer/musician here at the Parlando Project, along with music written and performed by myself. This piece is the first song in the Vampira song-cycle, contrasting the LA-based white-dressed pop-religious phenomenon Aimee Semple McPherson with Nurmi/Vampira’s dark negative.

To hear “Helen Heaven” use the player you should see just below this.

Autumn Movement

I’ve been a bit long-winded in the past few posts, so a short-winded post about today’s piece. The words are another poem from Carl Sandburg, this time from his 1919 collection “Cornhuskers.”  There’s not very many words to it, a warning that there are not many leaves left here in the upper Midwest.

Cornhuskers cover

They were listening in London, and Sandburg’s “Cornhuskers” won him the Pulitzer prize.

I can compress talking about those words because I’ve already talked about Sandburg on the previous occasions when I’ve used his words here. In his poems of this era, he’s as perfect an imagist as any of the expatriates mixing up modernism in London and Paris around the same time.

Many of the Sandburg poems I’ve used previously have been from his landmark “Chicago Poems”  collection, but Sandburg, a child of middle, rural Illinois, spent time across the Midwest in his youth, from urban centers to the farms and small towns. The poem I use today, “Autumn Movement,”  is from that rural setting.

Images for autumn and fall foliage have been mined forever, which makes Sandburg’s key image here as unusual, even a century later, as T. E. Hulme’s red-faced farmer appearing as the harvest moon in his British autumn poem. Sandburg has the red and yellow of autumn leaves in a farm field vista as a yellow scarf with the copper color of a literally red-necked woman. So nearly has this skin color become an epithet, that few would think of using it today, as honest an image as it is.

Today’s audio piece is musically ars longa to the vita brevis of the words. I’ve been telling myself to allow space compositionally, and then going ahead anyway and filling things up like a compulsive cluttered room with only paths between piles of old newspapers. So, for this one, the drums (which are often quiet and spare) are the densest element. I added a simple bass line played on my fretless bass, a theme played on a Telecaster, and a digital synthesizer part that is a mix of four different patches played together rather than filling up the space with multiple synth parts. Give it a listen with the player  below.

The Emperor of Ice Cream

I was reminded of this poem, and Wallace Stevens in general, while writing about the 20 most anthologized modern American poems recently. It’s odd that I needed to be reminded of Stevens. His poems were always present in the anthologies of my school years, back in the last century, along with Frost (who I disliked when I was young), William Carlos Williams (who I didn’t understand), and Eliot (who I liked for his verbal music without much understanding). There must have been something about Stevens that attracted me, as when I recall the poems I wrote in my youth, they more often looked and sounded like Stevens than those others. There’s a wit of a very contrarian kind that’s all over Stevens’ work, so I’m sure that was a big part of it, but I think it was also Stevens’ verbal music that pulled me in, and unlike Eliot’s, I (subconsciously) imitated Stevens.

I later read that Stevens walked to his famously conventional job as an insurance executive every day, and composed his poems in his head as he walked. This makes sense, as I did the same thing, with the two-footed meter of walking informing the rhythm from the soles of the feet up, rather than from the head down. Another thing about writing while walking: the music of that rhythm carries you into a more hypnotic and subconscious space were lines that sound good and fit to the beat are carried and held into memory more than carefully considered phrases that one would compose at the keyboard or with thoughtful pen in hand—and that same flow can knit together the unlike before thought can reject it.

If you take Stevens’ particular perverse wit, and meld it with composition of poems while walking, you have the recipe for a Wallace Stevens poem like this one.

The title of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”  has that impish quality. It seems to be light-hearted. Who’s his consort, the Dairy Queen? Is his uncle the King of Burgers? Did he know Prince? Queen Be? Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Gelato. And the poem starts off as if we are in a variation of the nursery rhyme “Old King Cole, he was a merry old soul” by calling for the strongest man to crank the ice cream maker.

A digression: do 21st Century people even know what an ice-cream maker is? It’s a bucket, no larger than one used to mop the floor, filled with ice that surrounds a smaller metal canister with a hand-crank-driven paddle screwed into the top. Salt is poured onto the ice, melting it so that it can get the canister colder than zero centigrade, as the crank is turned to churn the mixture of sugar and cream. As the process continues, the contents of the canister thickens and the force needed to turn the paddle increases. Even with a strong man cranking, the resulting ice cream will be softer than the concrete brick of modern ice cream, as that is a creature of refrigeration unknown in Stevens’ youth; but the cool, rich, sweet taste would also be all the rarer then too.

Ice Cream Maker Ad

“Call the roller of big cigars, the muscular one” churning that 2 gallon one would take a mighty man

 

So back to the poem. We have the strong cigar-maker man churning, amidst young, common, unmarried women and boys bringing flowers. The resulting ice cream demonstrates Stevens comically expanded vocabulary, it’s “concupiscent,” lustfully good!  Freud may have famously insisted that “a cigar is sometimes just a cigar,” but a multitude of Blues metaphors contemporary to Stevens would agree, this is a lusty scene.

And the title reappears. Pleasure, broadly drawn, is the ruler of all!

So far Stevens has only been perverse in the weird “Old King Cole”  language of the revelry, capped off with a word that most of us can’t even pronounce, much less spell or define.

Bang! Into the next stanza. I had always thought “dresser of deal” was flowery poetic diction for “we need to deal with” the situation in this next scene, but it’s more of Stevens’ vocabulary quiz. “Deal” is an archaic term for cheap pine wood. The exquisite detail of the missing drawer pulls, so much like the shabby second-hand dressers of the bedrooms of my pre-IKEA youth, yields to the fullness of the scene: it’s a room with a dead body.

Digression again: my son bursts into the room where I am writing this. He has just heard a robocall barking “If you or your loved one is over 65, they have a 1 in 3 chance of falling. Don’t let that fall be their last. Press 1 to…” He’s laughing, and continues “…hear about our warning-thingy scam…”

I follow on with my additions “…and press 2 if you want him to die anyway since he’s not allowing you any screen time today….and 3 if you are hard-of-hearing and WOULD LIKE US TO REPEAT THIS MESSAGE LOUDER.”

Back to the solemn dead body, cold and dumb, being covered with a sheet from the dresser of deal that is poignantly too short to cover the feet. Stevens leaves the light on, we need to see this clearly. And the title returns, now a refrain, and in this new context, the ruler of all offers only fleeting pleasures that one strives for, passes through, and melts away. The poem ends.

Stevens arrives at the insurance company offices. He strolls in past the receptionist, arrives at his office. Warren G. Harding is President. He asks his secretary to take this dictation. Obedient to her accustomed role, she folds back the steno pad, pencil in hand. Did she care for his poetry that she transcribed? That would be immaterial, she has only to listen.

Wallace Stevens Walking

Strolling Wallace Stevens in the 1920s. Cane in one hand, thesaurus in the other?

 

Two scenes. Two passing stations on a walk perhaps, or a flight of memories as lines emerge along steps. Only one more perversity to note, a puzzling line that looks like a typo: “Let be be finale of seem.” Let the steps the author is taking when he wrote this be our guide. One stride: “Let be”, then a double-time step: “be finale,” another step: “of seem.” I had never figured this line out, but someone on the Internet named Daniel E. Burke pointed me to this letter Stevens wrote in 1939. If Stevens had caught a crack in the sidewalk causing a hitch in his step, the line might have been more clearly composed as “Let being  be the finale of seem,” but the Hartford sidewalks were too-well maintained, and Stevens never cared to be understood anyway, only listened to.

 

I had meant to write more about the music I composed for this one, but I’ve run way too long again. I wanted prominent drums to represent the flow of time, a cello to represent the melancholy death thread and a jaunty acoustic guitar part representing the swiving partiers of the first part. Assessing the performance I first thought I should redo or remix it to keep the cello and the guitar to their respective stanzas, but then I rethought that too. Shouldn’t they both be present in each scene to give the flavor of Stevens’ perverse combination? To hear my performance of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”  use the player below.

 

 

The Death of Richard Wilbur, A Difficult Balance

It was only days ago here that I was remarking that Richard Wilbur was still alive while talking about the roughly half-portion of dead white men in a collated list of the most anthologized modern American poems. His poem “Love Calls Us to Things of This World”  written in the middle 1950s was one of that list, and one of the few I had no memory of having read.

Richard Wilbur 1950s

The modest house, the pipe, the tweed jacket, the Brylcreem hair with the straightest furrow—
Richard Wilbur impersonating the 1950s so that we don’t have to

 

So of course I read it, and rather enjoyed it. You could do the same via the hyperlink. There are a few things in it that one might quibble about, the heightened language (even if that is undercut by its over-riding conceit, a meditation on hanging laundry) including words that stop the modern colloquial speaker, such as “halcyon,” and the brief but passing use of rape for an image which causes me a concerned pause and objection now. There need be nothing censorious about such thoughts, as they are about the writer with his peculiarities, his time, and his blinders. They might remind me of my own limits in these regards.

The obituaries point out a controversy over Wilbur that, like his poetry, I was not much aware of. He was increasingly thought out of touch with the later 20th Century with his, on the face of it, impersonal outlook, his wit in place of rage and heated vision, and his devotion to a classic verbal music of accentual/syllabic meter.

All that may be so. Like I said, I’m generally unfamiliar with Wilbur’s poetry. But let me bring up some possible approaches from our current century, now nearly matured to voting age, to query those opinions from the 20th Century. The first is, how much do we need our poets to act as the shaman and feel for us?  Does such a need say that we ourselves cannot feel or imagine adequately, or that we cannot validate or understand our feelings and visions until demonstrated by the artist? I do not know a complete answer for this. I know that artists expressions seem to have helped me clarify and understand visionary and intense things, but I also think that the lens of wit makes clear the limits of our perceptions and emotions. Is the ecstatic visionary who can make real and palpable the dark shapes outside the fire-circle the wise one, or is the wise one the one who sees clearly that we cannot see far into the darkness and are apt to stub our toes on rocks if we think otherwise? Can only the former move us to action, can only the later keep us from recognizing foolish action?

I don’t think I know the answers, though I do think I see some of the questions. Just yesterday I wrote about how one of the  Parlando Project mottos “Other People’s Stories” shows a paradox. I feel it’s interesting—no, I’ll go farther—it’s important for us to experience other people’s subjective experience, to inhabit it to the degree we can. To do that, I’ve chosen to predominantly present other writers’ self-expression here—but to do that, I rely on others who interestingly express their own subjective experience. So, in a sense, I require others to not follow one of the principles that my artistic project goes by.

That brings up another Parlando Project principle: “Various Words with Various Music.”  Does not soft and consonant music not sound softer and more consonant when considered in the context of loud or discordant music (and vice versa)?  To fully have either, you must have both. Wilbur may have seen enough darkness to look for truth where the light is, to try to see, as his poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” concludes, a “Difficult balance.”