The Wild Swans at Coole

Let us for a moment consider length in English language poetry. Despite the customary inclusion of one or two very short poems in most American poetry anthologies (“The Red Wheelbarrow   or “In A Station of the Metro”  typically), one can easily derive from them an accumulated mainstream judgement that poems shorter than a sonnet’s 14 lines are judged slighter expressions of less merit.

Similarly, in music, for all the glories of the mid-20th Century’s two minute and forty second 45 RPM single, serious composed music demonstrates greater regard for pieces of at least middling length, and the 20 to 70-minute symphony is still regarded with reverence. And so on with improvised music practice, which seem to find the five-minute mark as a minimum. Even the later 20th Century movement that got called “Minimalism” worked the idea of fewer motifs considered at greater length.

And so it is when we consider swans, the largest waterfowl, in words. Our last post and audio piece used Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Wild Swans,”   a fine poem, but if one looks at the accumulated attention gathered in the roughly 100 years since each was written, Millay’s “Wild Swans”  is overshadowed by William Butler Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole.”

Yeats’ poem is worthy of this attention, and he does pack a lot into his mid-length 30-line poem, written by a late middle-aged poet as his colonized country has experienced a failed revolution and his world has seen the shocking mechanized slaughter of the original World War. All that violence is subtext—not once is it mentioned—and as we read or listen to it now, that violence may no longer be apparent, though the background of disappointment remains.

Millay presents the swans as something she cannot comprehend as they fly over her, with her disappointment, her heart at present “a house without air.” Yeats on the other hand presents an almost OCD-level attention with the swimming swans at the beginning of his poem. He has apparently been counting them on each visit for 19 years. He’s going to count them again. And then they fly off in clamor before he can finish his count even though he reports an exact number.

The specificity of those two numbers is curious. Is the 19 years of visits to Coole in Ireland a mere biographical fact? Are the “nine-and-fifty swans” he’s counted an actual census he took regularly? I do not know. Given that Yeats had a long interest in occultism, there may be some occult significance in one or both of those numbers. They are both large numbers for the things they measure: anything one has done for 19 years has a resonance for that long a duration, and given how magnificent the sight of a few swans gliding on the water are, the idea of 59 of them viewed together is an image of overwhelming swan-ishness.

What strikes me most about the two numbers subliminal effect is that both end in 9, and so, seem to be almost at an ending. As the poem develops, Yeats returns to that effect.

These details, written in Yeats typical lyrical fluency, accumulate throughout the poem. The lake and sky repeating each other. 59 swans. The “bell-beat” weight of their wings as they heavily swing them into flight, equally straining, equally coalescing into aerial rings. Their companionable swimming on the cold water “lover by lover”—ah, there’s that 59 again, an odd number—at least one swan has no mate.

But he doesn’t say that. The poem is all its music, the image after image, the beauty after beauty mixed with the undercurrent of impossibility of its permanency. The world will change, the poet or the swans will not return.

19 years of repetition does not mean 19 years of repetition to come. 59 swans is all but too much beauty, but one swan is without a partner.

Davis Coltrane Yeats Millay

John Coltrane: “Sometimes when I’m playing there are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at. There’s never any end.”

Miles Davis: “Try taking the f’ing horn out of your mouth”

 

So, do the 30 lines of Yeats mean it’s a greater poem than the 8 lines of Millay, an objective judgement causing its greater fame?

Why do I have to choose? If Yeats had written 60 or 6,000 lines would “The Wild Swans at Coole”  be better? If Millay had written 80 lines, would her “Wild Swans”  have shown greater skill? We can derive from how anthologists, poetry critics and audiences respond what their preferences are, even those they never articulate explicitly, but in the end it is the longer poems that make the short poems concise and the short poems that make the longer poems seem overwhelming.

How many times have I listened toKind of Blue?”  Does Miles Davis need to play more notes? Does John Coltrane need to play fewer? Looking at these two poems about swans, they illuminate each other.

The gadget below will play my performance of Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole.”

 

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Wild Swans

Let’s return again to Edna St. Vincent Millay as I start a short series of pieces using words by more well-known poets, each of whom considers the book of nature as played out by birds.

Millay’s “Wild Swans”  may be somewhat overshadowed in the Cygnet Committee by William Butler Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole,”  published only a few years earlier than Millay’s poem. The birds of these poems’ central image, the largest waterfowl, are known for white and graceful beauty while at rest or swimming on the water, which contrasts with their somewhat overburdened flight and strangled hinge-in-need-of-oil song.

Other than their pure color and size, it may be the swan in flight that makes them something of the ornithological model for angels, as for such a large bird to have enough strength and wingspan to fly is practically miraculous.

an_angel_playing_a_flageolet-Burne-Jones

No matter how hard you blow on that horn, not enough wingspread to get airborne

 

In “Wild Swans”  Millay presents that miracle in flight, but by misdirection or misapprehension. The swans are flying as the poem opens, but Millay is instead looking inward—and furthermore, the poet thinks this introspection is bringing no insight.

Swan taking off

Headlong effort transcends grace

 

But in this short poem’s second part, the images and insights come anyway. In an apostrophe to her heart, Millay addresses it as a “house without air”—an acute metaphor there for despair—and she now asks for the swans to fly over us again, trailing their ungainly legs, crying unselfconsciously their sad and awkward calls.

Wildness, movement, flight beyond bounds, the miraculous after grace, the next day flying over the weeks, then the months and the years.

This is a surprising poem, it’s titular image, those wild swans, are missing, until they are called for in the last five words; not to be beautiful, but straining to be possible.

To hear my performance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Wild Swans”,  use the player below. And remember I rely greatly on readers/listeners helping spread the word about the combination of various words and music here. Tweeting, linking, including in Facebook posts and on other social media, helps this project reach it’s audience. If you don’t do social media, that’s fine too, the amount of work it takes to do this makes that a practical impossibility for me; but if you like this, hitting the Like button for this post helps keep me going.

 

 

 

Tired

I’m going to close out our investigation into the little-known early 20th Century Chicago Modernist poet Fenton Johnson with one of his most emotionally moving poems. James Weldon Johnson first included “Tired”  in his “Book of American Negro Poetry”  in 1922, and it has been anthologized several times since. “Tired”  remains the poem of Fenton Johnson’s that one finds most often shared on the Internet today.

You can see why. Only a few beats in, that powerful line is spoken: “I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization.” It may take no more than that line alone to have some tag Fenton Johnson as the first radical Afro-American poet.

I cannot categorically disagree there. I know little about Johnson’s political views, and though the two short-lived magazines he founded before 1920 are said to have included political philosophy, I know nothing of the particular stances he took or supported. At least at the time (the first two decades of the 20th Century) “Tired”  along with a few other of Johnson’s poems caused some Black cultural critics to remark that Johnson was too pessimistic, too given over to despair. You might find that strange, but in that moment, there was a feeling that educational and cultural uplift could soon raise the Afro-Americans along with the time’s large and wide immigrant demographics into a new, more accepting America. We know now that didn’t happen, that indeed 20th Century racism and poverty had some mighty blows to land on America and American Blacks with KKK branded racism, Great Depression poverty, and world-wide Fascism—but at the time, that uplift was what many Afro-American elites were pulling for.

However, just by going on what Fenton Johnson poetry I have available to me, I’m not entirely sure Johnson was, at this time, a political radical or a thorough pessimist.

Last Chance Saloon

Somebody give me my gin.” Mike is out back serving warm gin to ladies.

After all, the speaker in “Tired”  is not Johnson himself, no more than the banjo player in our last post’s poem is Johnson, the middle-class raised, college educated man. Even the Last Chance Saloon, where the banjo player played for tips, returns in “Tired”.  Johnson didn’t live in a shanty, he wasn’t married to a laundress.

True, this is a character that Johnson wants us to hear, an important voice that maybe even the Black “Talented Tenth” wasn’t listening to then, much less White America. And though it’s free verse, this is a poem, not an incisive political analysis or program. It’s a dramatic speech with rhythm, repetition, and a rise in despair from gin-houses to the stars.

It’s not hard for me to see in “Tired”  the ancestor of August Wilson’s great play cycle, or the range of characters and voices in Walter Mosely’s detective fiction.

Musically I stepped at least as many decades into the future here, concluding this audio piece with a short burst of the kind of free jazz that allied itself with the Black Arts movement in the later part of the 20th Century. I’ll allow that this music is an acquired taste, but at its core is an ethic of allowing individual voices and modes of expression even in a group context. Free Jazz is not always as raucous as what I played for this, but it does not forbid it either. That’s consistent with what I try to do (within my limits as a musician) with the Parlando Project. When I say we combine words with various music, I mean it.

That does mean that you may not like all the writers’ words I present, or all the kinds of music I write and play to combine with those words, but it means that I’m also not going to stick with one thing and repeat it until we are both tired of it.

I’ve ordered these last four posts here on Fenton Johnson purposely, so to present the man more in full, and because, to be honest, I didn’t feel I could earn any license to speak these words without doing something more than just putting them in my mouth. To listen to Johnson’s “Tired”  as I performed it, use the player below.

The Banjo Player

“So, what are you going to do today?” my teenaged son asked me.

“Go and be of some use to the world.” I replied.

“How are you going to do that?”

“Write about Fenton Johnson.”

“No really, what are you going to do?”

“Write about Fenton Johnson.”

“Oh. I thought it was a joke or something when you said it.” He was mildly puzzled—but like most of us, most of the time, probably not interested in explanations. Fenton Johnson is not a figure of wide interest, even within the minority interest our culture finds in poetry. Perhaps at some later time he’ll read this, and it’s not an accident that I continue to write here aiming at someone just a bit older than he is.

Of course, I had meant that as something akin to a joke, because our lives and callings are all, taken whole, comic. The sport of fate and circumstance for good or ill should never be mistaken for judgement. Even the tragic is but darkly comic.

James Weldon Johnson on the phone

James Weldon Johnson: poetry anthologist and all-around American polymath,
finds he still can’t Tweet or post to Instragram  from his phone.

 

In 1922, when James Weldon Johnson (no relation to Fenton) sought to make up the first anthology of Afro-American poetry, he had similar hopes, though more grounded in his greater talent and effort. James Weldon Johnson, like Felton Johnson, was a rare college-educated man in the early 20th Century, and doubly-rare, both were Afro-American college graduates. Both Johnsons held to a responsibility their circumstance pressed upon them: to uplift their race and to heal and resist the ignorance of racial prejudice.

That second part, the resistance part, should feel familiar, as it’s an ongoing struggle many will feel a part of today. Prejudice of many kinds, injustice in so many cases, is still a pressing issue. The uplift part however may feel quaint.

In his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry  James Weldon Johnson sets out the case that Black American poets should be able to rise to the highest levels of literary achievement, and while he’s not exactly apologetic about the poets his anthology will present, he’s also not a hype-man for what they have accomplished in 1922. Of Fenton Johnson, who he includes in his anthology, he says:

“Fenton Johnson is a young poet of the ultra-modern school who gives promise of greater work than he has yet done.”

Yet, as I look for the work of Fenton Johnson today, almost all the work I find are citations to the same pieces James Weldon Johnson included in 1922. What stunted Fenton’s career? A more extensive biography than may exist would seek to answer that question. The struggle for poetry’s place in national culture was hard enough throughout the 20th Century, add to that the challenges of racism. I do know that Fenton Johnson sought to ambitiously broaden his cultural impact by financing and editing magazines on Black arts and culture, and the failure of these publications to become sustaining was one setback.

James Weldon Johnson, surveying Black Arts in his 1922 preface for his pioneering Negro Poetry collection, speaks not at all of the visual arts (ironically, just as European Modernists were latching onto African art as an influence) and little of Black acting, despite his connections with the New York stage of the time, but he does speak prophetically about the impact of Afro-Americans on American music. Having only the evidence of the spirituals, cakewalk, ragtime, and the imperfect understanding in the cultured North in 1922 of what the newly discovered “Blues” might truly be about, JWJ professes that Afro-American music is already a predominant strain. Nearly a century since, we can only say that he was too modest in his view of the future, however audacious he might have seemed in 1922. American music, seen from outside our country, and in any honest assessment from inside our borders, is Afro-American music. I don’t want to slight the contributions in our country’s music from many cultures when I say that—they are significant—but all of them cannot help but reflect on, and reflect back, the impact of the descendants of those Africans brought here as cargo.

Which brings us to this Fenton Johnson poem included in James Weldon Johnson’s anthology. Its overall intent is humorous. You can hear the college man’s mix of condescension with an honest observer’s eye for detail. What makes its poetry an example of the “ultra-modern school?” Our last episode’s Johnson piece, “A Dream,”  was blank verse, even lines, even if the ironic asymmetry of its story is modern. The cadence of Johnson’s God Is in the All Time  is strong and regular. “The Banjo Player”  is free verse, conversational in rhythm. It jumps from the despair of the “Last Chance Saloon” mitigated by music, to the Kris Kringle promise of little children dancing and clapping to the banjo strum, finishing with a joke of the sophisticate.

Like the complex church music and rhetoric of “A Dream”  last time, I had trouble musically portraying the Gus Cannon/Papa Charlie Jackson vibe of the banjo playing bluesman. The banjo is just an instrument that I fight with, and no cheating of one-man-band multi-tracking could save me here I fear. Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, or someone better attuned to the banjo need to perform this.

I spent an afternoon yesterday depressed at my failure to fulfill the promise of Fenton Johnson’s piece. Could one more mix fix this? Nope.

I moped until I went to sleep.

And then my son asked me this question in the morning.

 

A Dream

Here’s a second poem by Afro-American Modernist poet Fenton Johnson. Like the first piece of Johnson’s that I presented earlier this week, there’s a religious element, but it’s handled this time with a remarkable framing device.

As published in 1921, “A Dream”  is the longer of two pieces which are grouped together as “Two Negro Spirituals.”  What strikes me about them is the extraordinary knife-edge irony held in them between spirituality and reality. If the Language Poets descended from the Modernists will not find in “A Dream”  the novel uses of language and syntax they look for, perhaps the Post-Modernists will appreciate Johnson’s conveying a vivid religious vision framed in a way that causes a reassessment of the foreground material.

That’s more critical theory and bin-labeling that I usually engage in, so let’s move away from that to the piece itself.

Elijah and the angel with a firey chariot

Elijah’s angel-fire chariot. Be sure your seatback is in the upright and locked position.

 

Is this texturally a “Negro spiritual?” Not really, though Johnson significantly chooses to call it that. The vision he presents, after a brief “Oh, my honey” aside, would not seem out of place in William Blake or any of a number of 18th to 20th Century Christian revivalists. The “spirituals” of the title were largely folk hymns, and the language here is more literary. Johnson wants us to know it’s an Afro-American who’s speaking, yes; but also, a man who could read and know these non-folklore sources. Yet, the recounting of the titular dream is not a scholastic catalog of mystical religious elements, it’s a deeply felt vision of a glorious reward. One does not need to be a Christian to feel the ecstasy of this vision, any more than one needs to fully understand all of Blake’s idiosyncratic religious precepts to sense their “thereness.”

William Blake The Angel

Like Fenton Johnson, William Blake frames an angelic vision

 

Johnson concludes the poem with a single line of a contrasting vision that recasts all that has come before it. Listen to the piece with the player below to hear it as it occurs.

Musically, this piece caused me all kinds of trouble, and, to be frank, I don’t think I got all the way to what I wanted to achieve. The difficulties of being my own composer, arranger, reader, ensemble of musicians and recording engineer should cause this kind of trouble more often than it does. However, I did so want to continue to present the things that this too-little-known poet Fenton Johnson did, that I have “called time” on this piece, and present it here now for you to listen to. Use the player below to hear it.

 

 

God Is In the All Time

I’m continually a few days behind in the past month or so, what with Winter holidays and other appointments and responsibilities. Some of the audio pieces have been recorded especially expeditiously, and another part of this project has been neglected: the searches I take to find words (mostly poetry) I combine with original music.

Because publishers do not respond when I ask for permission to use works that may be in copyright, I am constrained to use written work outside of copyright, typically works published before 1923. Although I respond to, and use, poetry written in various eras, my desire to mix in more contemporary voices leads the Parlando Project to use a lot of poetry from the first two decades of the 20th Century. This is not altogether a bad thing. I happen to like a lot of what these pioneering Modernists did, and in some cases, what we find in the mouth of the “Post-Modern” poetry mainstream delta is worthy of reconsideration in the light of the Modernists. Have stagnant currents deposited silt and detritus at our end of Modernism, its own Mannerism that says that poetry must be written in a special poetic language and syntax, because that is the language that serious poems use? If popular poems are to be about recounting internal personal experience and serious poems are to be about hermetic personal language, what is missed?

Maybe we answer these questions by doing, as we answer other questions (even ones we never ask) by living. In my case, the doing may be by continuing this Parlando Project.

So earlier this month, returning to the research that goes on behind the scenes of this blog, I read two old anthologies of poems now in the public domain, looking for some new material. In one I was attracted to yet another piece by Carl Sandburg, a poet I believe should be reassessed in our time, but hardly an unknown, particularly to readers/listeners here. In the second one I came upon the work of Fenton Johnson for the first time. I’m willing to bet most of you haven’t heard of him.

Johnson, like Sandburg, like William Carlos Williams, wrote Modernist verse while remaining in America. Like William Butler Yeats, his career was long enough that he wrote poems that sounded like the 19th Century before transitioning to a 20th Century voice. Here’s a difference: Fenton Johnson was Afro-American.

OK, let me drop a term here: Identity Politics. I was recently reading a thoughtful blog post on Carl Sandburg compared to Post-Modernist poetry, when the author remarked that Sandburg was able to write in a time preceding Identity Politics. I don’t know enough about Left Write & Centaur’s full thought on Identity Politics, but the implication was that Identity Politics, characterized as the idea that we are silos of individual experience based on membership in social and ethnic groups, who then by implication need to be treated and considered primarily by that identity, is a bad thing.

I agree, that’s a bad thing for the most part. I also believe it’s often a real thing.

The first half: the separation, at least to some degree, of individual experience, is so self-evident I don’t feel I need to argue it. Poetry and literature is to a large part a demonstration of the things that we find unique in individual voices—yes, along with things we can find in common in our lived lives—but if our take on experience wasn’t varied, literature would soon become dull and repetitive (at least to me). Even for those things that we find in common as we read or listen, how would we know without literature or other arts letting us share this?

If we feel that separation is a bad thing, then art is where we go to heal that. The arts are simply a name we give to that sharing of experience.

The second part, that this separation can be handled and considered with bins of people labeled with ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender, age, class, and so forth, this is where it gets real. We cannot wish away with imagination the ways the world labels and files its temporary inhabitants.

Should I care that Fenton Johnson is an Afro-American poet? Should I mention it? Does mentioning it imply some kind of special pleading? As I present a smattering of his development as a poet, will his work become “Well, it’s a Black thing”—a separation surrendered to?

Fenton Johnson

The younger Fenton Johnson. I’m unable to find any later portraits of him.

However we dream our ideal world to come, I know that Fenton Johnson had to deal in the real world of 1918 Chicago, just as he would in 1968 or 2018 Chicago, with his ethnic skin color label on a daily basis. That label doesn’t peel off. No doubt, many he encountered imaginatively filled out that label with a long list of contents, but instead, let’s look from inside Fenton Johnson out at the world.

Will it be the same and different as Frost, Tzara, Sandburg, Rossetti, Tagore, Yeats, and Dickinson? Yes.

Early Fenton Johnson poems often start from a religious theme. This one, “God Is In the All Time”  portrays things from a universalist perspective. To hear my performance, use the player below.

California City Landscape

I beg your indulgence, but once more I feature Carl Sandburg’s words in today’s piece. Variety is a goal here, so perhaps I need to take a personal no-Sandburg pledge for a decent interval. And, honestly, I wasn’t seeking another Sandburg piece when I read through a yearly anthology of American poetry from 1922 last week, looking for fresh public domain material. Reading it I came upon the interesting poem that is the basis for today’s piece.

Carl Sandburg Times Up

The younger Carl Sandburg. Prophet?

 

Besides variety, I like to see connections, and “California City Landscape”  is rich in that. As a poem it may not be as sharp and condensed as Sandburg’s Imagist poems that I like to call attention to, but it does bring to the table Sandburg’s youthful journalism. “California City Landscape”  starts off like a feature story, and the story it tells is like ones written about gentrification in the 21st Century, even though it was written no later than 1922. The incumbent residents may be displaced. But like a poem, or a piece of carefully written prose, the reportage includes sentences which send a reader or listener off into entire dimensions of reality outside its moment in “the peace of the morning sun as it happened.” It was those things that arrested my attention as I read this in the midst of this old annual anthology.

It starts out with this anecdote about a second generation Irish-American goat farmer, connecting as it does to one of second-generation immigrant Sandburg’s great themes: American immigration. But how carefully barbed is the sentence Sandburg uses to sum up the changes this man has seen in California by 1922. He arrived in a covered wagon, and “shot grouse, buffalo, Indians, in a single year.”

If we were Tweeting: “OMG! He went there!”

But there it is in a sentence. An Irish-American, coming from a nation that is widely despised, colonially oppressed, and mired in poverty and starvation, travels in a generation across and ocean and a broad continent, and in the process shoots (and presumably kills) indigenous Americans, an act linked as if it was like hunting for food.

I’ll admit, at first moment I thought it offensive, but I’ve read enough Sandburg to know his toughmindedness, his instinct to not sugar-coat. That Sandburg wouldn’t have included this detail as a thoughtless, bloodless, “Oh, those good ol’ days, when men knew how to handle a rifle” comment.

His next anecdote: two Japanese families, truck gardening for the growing city of Los Angeles. And once again, the undertone: immigrants whose race and culture is understood barely enough to be widely disapproved of in their new country. We don’t need to credit Sandburg with the gift of prophecy, but historically we may know what will happen in 20 years: the Japanese Americans on the West Coast will be taken from their homes by legal fiat and detained in makeshift rural camps.

So, a 95-year-old poem about a problem we might write about today (if our poetry would be politically engaged and socially observant): gentrification. And in talking about it, Sandburg brings in racism, and immigration from those, ah, um—what’s the Presidential term—oh, yes, less desirable countries.

And then the third anecdote: the McMansion of the Hollywood director, with the “whore-house interiors.” Here I’m not completely sure about Sandburg’s prophetic dimension. The epithet of whore-house décor remained even into my time in the second half of the 20th Century as a charge on nouveau riche ostentation, a term used without a direct linkage to sexual oppression.

That Sandburg the poet goes on to add “ransacked clothes,” an odd adjective choice that he could have intended as a knock against Hollywood costumers knocking off “real” European couture—but that sounds more snobbish than Sandburg could ever be—and he next adds the “In the combats of ‘male against female” line. From the era we know the director is male, and Sandburg associates this anecdote specifically with a struggle of “male against female.”

Maybe I’m missing an obvious alternative, but is Sandburg predicting a 95 year #timesup statement?

Finally, I love the last line, echoing a common Sandburg trope about modernity and timelessness: “How long it might last, how young it might be.”



And now for something completely different: Sandburg in his 80s. “Ernest Hemmingway?”

 

Musically, I’ve been a little short of time. I wanted to do something reminiscent of the mid-20th Century word-jazz bag, but the typical beat poet reading to jazz backing in a small club used piano, and my piano skills are entirely rudimentary. Frequent Parlando Project keyboardist Dave Moore is currently fighting a right hand issue, so I couldn’t go that route, so I used by love of jazz guitarist Jim Hall and my audacious tendency to fake styles beyond my abilities to create this jazz trio with drums, bass, and electric guitar for my reading of Sandburg’s “California City Landscape.” Hear it using the player below.