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 to-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.

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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.

 

A Certain Slant of Light

The Parlando Project combines various words (usually poetry) with music as varied as I can make it. When I planned the Parlando Project I did not intend to post detailed examinations of the poems’ meanings.

After all, I thought, listening to music is a sensuous experience, and poetry, as it is musical speech, also has its impact when hearing it, independent of any final meaning one could extract from it. Of course, assuming the poetry is in one’s own language, it’s nearly impossible to escape meaning if one allows oneself to listen at all. Some words and phrases will mean something, even on first hearing, even with the most confusing and difficult poetry.

In the end, we may experience a difficult or elusive poem as if it was a set of flat-pack furniture, or a jigsaw puzzle, or as one of those plastic model kits that I bought and glued together in my youth. But in those cases, a wordless black and white sheet with numbers and pointed arrows inside the carton tells you this is to be assembled as a dresser or end table, and the puzzle or model kit has the beautiful color picture on the box top that tells you the pieces’ assembled meaning.

With a poem like Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a Certain Slant of Light”  there is no picture of it complete, there are no assembly instructions. If you try to put it together, you may feel there are pieces missing.

The pieces, though, are beautiful, even left unconnected, even if we don’t know what the whole is to be. Slanted light on a winter’s afternoon with a heft like music. Shadows holding their breath. Heavenly hurt without a scar.

The Emily DIckinson Internal Difference

See Emily play?

There’s no harm in going to the bottom of this post and using the player to hear my performance of “There’s A Certain Slant of Light”  without reading the rest of this. There will be no test. There’s no correct answer. You never need to put down your pencil and close your test booklet. Dickinson didn’t write about what she intended with this poem, and intelligent readers have differed in what they found there. Some found an end-table, others a fine art painting, others a plastic 1940 Ford sedan built one of three ways. Some listeners will just enjoy the pieces. There’s a little piano motif I play in it: A, B, C, E ascending and then back to A again. What does that mean? It’s an arpeggiated A minor (add 9) chord, or it’s just a series of notes that sound “meaningful” in sequence without knowing the harmony.

AMT 1940 Ford 3 in 1 model car kit

It could look like this after you put it together

Here’s that player to hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “A Certain Slant of Light.” No assembly required.

Twelfth Night

As we near 170 audio pieces posted here, we now get our second set of Shakespeare’s words, but instead of one of his sonnets, here’s a short scene from one of his plays (Twelfth Night)  which, by his design, includes a song.

The play’s title indicates it was an occasional piece for an English holiday that takes place on the 12th day after Christmas. I read that the traditional English Twelfth Night partakes of various “floating” winter/winter solstice traditions, some dating back to Roman Saturnalia, with much party-play acting of role-reversals, selections of short-term random royalty, eating, drinking, and song.

Here in modern commercial America, the extending of Christmas is via a prelude, with ever extended shopping days before the holiday; but in the past, Christmas was instead broadened after the December 25th date, with the “Twelfth Night” being the end of the “12 Days of Christmas”—yes, those same 12 days the famous listing song counts off. Given the dreary length of winter in northern climes, the holiday season was sometimes extended even further to February 2nd, Candlemas.

And it was on Candlemas, 416 years ago that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night  was first performed. The play has a complex series of plots, but the one central to today’s audio piece is that of a young woman, Viola, who’s been shipwrecked in a foreign land, has taken to dressing as a man, Cesario; and while still disguised and cross-dressing, she has fallen in love with Orsino, an older Duke of the foreign land. Orsino is sad because he’s in love with Olivia, a local lady, who refuses his attentions. Only one thing keeps Orsino going in his melancholy: music.

As we enter into the play with today’s audio piece, the “meta” gets laid on thick. Orsino, though unlucky in love himself, seeks to give the “young man” Cesario advice in love. And Cesario (infatuated Viola in disguise as a young man) tolerates this mansplaining in hope that Orsino might someday see something in her/him. And in Shakespeare’s time the young woman passing as a young man would have been played by—well, a young man passing for a woman. To simplify things, I read both actors’ parts myself in the audio piece.

As the scene ends, Orsino asks for an “old song” to cheer him up.

The song Orsino requests “Come, Come Away Death”  is so dour I wonder if Shakespeare is making more comedy against the excess of melancholy and the foolish suffering of unrequited love. It’s a cheery little ditty about refused love causing or requiring death, and the spurned lover wishing only that his grave be unknown so that there’s no chance his unresponsive sweetie will ever hypocritically mourn there.

Representative lyrics: “On my black coffin, let there be strown./Not a friend, not a friend greet/My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.” If Judas Priest had recorded this, it certainly would have been brought up in the 1990’s trial where the heavy metal band was accused of driving listeners to suicide.

But, after all, Twelfth Night  is a comedy. No spoilers here, but despite multiple love triangles and more disguises and misunderstandings, fate is kind to multiple sets of lovers, something we can all wish for lovers this upcoming year.

twelfth night by Walter Howell Deverell

Melancholy Duke Orsino bids Feste to Kick Out the Jams while Viola/Cesario ponders gender roles

Since Orsino in the play’s text asks for “Come, Come Away Death”  to be sung, we know it was indeed sung with music in Shakespeare’s time, and there are several extant settings of it. The ones I’ve heard are in the Elizabethan style, usually for a high, plaintive tenor—and even when Elvis Costello sang it, it was in that manner. I went counter to this, taking a more rock stance, allowing the singer to mix some anger into his self-pity. To hear that, use the player below.

Winter Milk and Carl Sandburg Revisited

Today is the 140th anniversary of Carl Sandburg’s birth. Sandburg began his long and broad career as an American Imagist poet, political activist, and journalist, and he went on to add prize-winning biographer, folk-song revivalist, and goat farmer to his resume. If one was to make a list, he would be in a small group of American cultural forces in the first half of the 20th Century who created what we today call “Americana,” and helped make sure that this label could be applied, as it can be today, to a musical genre. I won’t have time to go into this today, but in 1927 he published “The American Songbag,”  which is as important a landmark in the American folk song revival as “The Wasteland”  is for high-art Modernist English verse.

I’ve spoken about Sandburg here a great deal in the past couple of years because I believe he’s too-little read, too-little considered in academic circles, and too-often misunderstood from the effects of this quick (mis)understanding and dismissal. To the degree that people encounter him in school or surveys of poetry, it’s for two poems. One, sometimes effectively used as an introduction to metaphor even at the grade school level, is his short Imagist poem Fog.”

The other, better known as the  Carl Sandburg poem, is his Whitmanesque “Chicago,”  with its famous opening litany of praise for Chicago that is ever quoted whenever that city is to be characterized. Some things are odd about the case of “Chicago.”  First, while folks remember and re-use it’s opening stanza of praise, they forget the three lines that follow it, which though stated in century-old language, is unmistakably as stark a report as any OG rap laying out hos, gangsters, and poverty:

“They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.

And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.

And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.”

Though “Chicago’s”  Whitmanesque/expansive-litany style is one that Sandburg would continue to use at times, its prominence has overshadowed Sandburg’s sparer Imagist voice, the one that he used for the rest of the poems in his landmark “Chicago Poems”  collection.

It’s easy to think that if Sandburg had spent time in Europe hobnobbing with its cosmopolitan demi-mode, if he had included more Latin and Greek in his poems, and if he’d kept his political outlook to something between Tory and crypto-Fascist, that he might have scored more academic cred in the second half of the 20th Century. And his more general popularity, like that of Edna St. Vincent Millay, is in danger of dying out after the death of the fire-starter without the hard-blowing bellows of academia keeping the embers glowing.

If that’s so, who does that leave to keep Sandburg’s poetry more broadly heard?

If anyone remembers Sandburg, particularly the spare, Imagist Sandburg, it’s musicians and composers. He gets set to music often, and his free verse often sings easily. And, it seems to me that musicians, rather than page-poetry curators, more often remember the innovative modernist in Sandburg. One of my favorite records of 2017 was Matt Wilson’s “Honey and Salt”  which, like the Parlando Project, seeks to use a variety of music combined with Sandburg’s underappreciated broader pallet of literary expression in unexpected ways.

A promotional trailer for Matt Wilson’s Sandburg “Honey and Salt” recording

Today’s piece, a slightly remastered version of one I used to test streaming audio here before the official launch of the Parlando Project, is Sandburg’s tender “Winter Milk”  as performed by the LYL Band a couple of years ago. You can hear it with the player below.

Sandburg Family with Helga Sandburg on the left

A slightly older Helga Sandburg on the left with her parents and sisters.

A gentle reminder, I encourage readers and listeners here to share the links to these pieces on social media as it helps spread the work that Parlando Project does very effectively.

Clear Winter

Once more I’m going with a fresh translation for today’s words. And once more, they’re from the French, as I take on Pierre Reverdy’s “Clair Hiver”  in English as “Clear Winter.”  Unlike my last French translation, Apollinaire’sMirabeau Bridge,”  this one hasn’t already been translated a dozen times, though the one translation I could find was by no less than John Ashbery, so I’m still a bit audacious in taking my swing at this.

Like Apollinaire or Tristan Tzara, Reverdy’s work isn’t well-known in English, but even more than those two Paris contemporaries of his, he’s been acknowledged as a substantial influence on post-WWII American poetry. Reverdy’s been studied, cited as an influence, and translated by Ashbery, Kenneth Rexroth, and Rod Padgett. Others connected with the 20th Century “New York School” of poetry were inspired by his work too.

Indeed, it’s through Frank O’Hara that Reverdy’s name may be best known in English, for as O’Hara took his famous summer stroll in Manhattan in the lines of his poemA Step Away from Them,”  he takes care to mention that “My heart is in my pocket, it is / ”Poems by Pierre Reverdy.”

My Heart is in my pocket, it is

“Poems by Pierre Reverdy”

When Pierre Reverdy died in 1960, Ashbery asked O’Hara if he had any poems to contribute to a memorial issue of a magazine he was curating. O’Hara replied, deferring, “I just couldn’t stand the amount of work it would seem to take, since the minute you mentioned it I decided that everything I’ve written…has been under his influence.”

I used that O’Hara connection as my entry point into Reverdy and to my translation of “Clear Winter.”  Unlike Ashbery, I’m not a French speaker, and my high school French classes have long worn off—but O’Hara’s voice in English is somewhat ingrained in me, and so I used that as a guide as I completed my Reverdy translation.

But now I’m not so sure that was the right choice. Reading a trenchant analysis of Reverdy by Kenneth Rexroth, I may have overdetermined the images in my first translation of Reverdy—but for better or worse, this is my tendency as a translator. I try to sense in the foreign language the experience the poem speaks of, and then to vivify those sensations and thoughts I find in that examination into English. That often takes the form of using clear idiomatic, contemporary English to sharpen those images. Often in this process, I’ll take imaginative leaps into the poet’s intent—and, well, sometimes when one steps boldly into what one thinks is a pool of light in the darkness, it turns out to be a large pothole filled with ditch-water instead.

If my suppositions are mistakes, perhaps they are at least vivid mistakes.

Still Life with Poem by Juan Gris

Post-It Notes™ go Cubist?  Juan Gris’ “Still Life with Poem.”
And that poem is by his friend and collaborator, Pierre Reverdy.

 

Reverdy, like Apollinaire, has been called a cubist poet, and like Apollinaire he knew many of the painters who formed that faceted multi-perspective style in the Paris of the first part of the 20th Century. As the style developed, found objects such as newspaper, tickets, and wallpaper were pasted into the paintings. To reflect this musically this piece uses some various audio loops for melodic elements—something I don’t usually do. This is my attempt to make the sound of the cubist ethos of juxtaposed perspectives. That the loops should be unlike, yet somehow hang together, was the aim, and their repetitive nature is the analog to the cubist geometric forms.

That description makes my music for “Clear Winter”  sound all high art, and I guess it would be in the early 20th Century, but some current popular music forms commonly do this. Electronic Dance Music and Hip Hop tracks love the unexpected intrusion of unusual sounds. So, though my performance of Reverdy’s “Clear Winter”  (player below) is a short piece, I’d be glad to do an extended dance mix if the demand is there.