My Childhood Home I See Again

Tomorrow is celebrated in the United States as Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday—or rather, it was in the past. In 1971, a uniform Monday holiday, often called President’s Day, centralized what had been in the past dual, separate, celebrations of Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s.

Washington (as poet Phillis Wheatley’s motto for him said) was first in war and first in peace, and we owe him a great debt for being the rare revolutionary leader that did not try to crown his success with dictatorship. But Lincoln’s achievements are every bit Washington’s equal; though his central achievement, a US government that no longer enforced chattel slavery throughout the country has in recent decades been somewhat obscured for complex reasons.

But here at the Parlando Project, where we combine music with words, Lincoln gets extra props for being as great a wordsmith as any US Chief Executive. While taking the various roads that lead to this piece I read his famous Gettysburg Address, or rather refreshed myself with the words in manuscript form, for as a child I had memorized it.

At this site it’s possible to trace the slight revisions that Lincoln applied draft by draft to polish this concise statement of dedication. And the same site linked to another site that let me read (for the first time) Edward Everett’s main speech at the same Gettysburg dedication.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of how the two speeches that day in 1863 contrasted. It’s no legend. Everett’s speech lasted over two hours. Lincoln’s could have fitted his into a linked series of five Tweets today, and it takes a couple of minutes to read. Go ahead, read as much of Everett’s speech as you can. It’s the kind of grand utterance that could have caused the 19th Century to invent TLDNR 140 years sooner.

So, Lincoln could fashion a memorable, resonant phrase and express complex things concisely. That’s the kind of literary talent that leads one to ask if he wrote poetry. He did, but as far as we know, there’s not very much of it. He wrote some occasional, short, light verse. His serious poetic works consist of an attributed poem with a narrator speaking of suicide, and a three-part poem recalling his hometown.

Abe Lincoln in 1847

Abe Lincoln in his mid-30s, 1847, around the time he wrote today’s words.

 

It’s from the first part of that later Lincoln poem that I created today’s piece, “My Childhood Home I See Again.”  It was published anonymously through the efforts of a friend of his in 1847. Lincoln was in his troubled 30s when his longer poems were written, and he seems to have been suffering from depression, the depth and length of which is subject of much discussion among historical scholars.

The parts I used from “My Childhood Home I See Again”  tell much the same story as English poet Thomas Hardy’s The Self Unseeing,”  but Lincoln’s poem is more melancholy, even if he tries to make some pretense of it being only wistful. By the final couplet, Lincoln’s own words put in him the situation of George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo.”   I suppose one could also compare Lincoln and Hardy’s poems to my own pieceHomeopathic Hometown.”

For today’s music I used an acoustic guitar and my semi-acoustic Jack Casady bass guitar for the main accompaniment. I try to stay away from instrument-geekery most of the time here, but that bass was actually designed by the musician, it’s not some “paint it a different color and slap on a decal” marketing gimmick. I love its sound, as you may be able to tell from the mix today. To hear too much (or just enough) bass guitar, and Lincoln’s sad words as I set them to music, use the player below.

 

 

Dunbar

Here’s a piece using an outwardly modest poem by a modest poet, Anne Spencer. It spoke so quietly to me, that at first I overlooked it when I was reading James Weldon Johnson’s seminal “The Book of American Negro Poetry”  anthology, which included it. Just a few weeks later I saw a small story online about her exemplary life as a behind-the-scenes civil-rights activist, which mentioned that she was also a poet.

From it’s title we know she is following one of the Parlando Project mottos: “Other Peoples’ Stories.” When the poem utters its refrain “Chatterton, Shelley, Keats, and I…” that “I” is to be understood as Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was at that time a decade dead at the age of 33, but who was still the most famous Afro-American poet.

Long-time readers here have already met up with Dunbar, and Shelley and Keats require little introduction to those acquainted with English verse. That first name, Chatterton may draw a blank however.

Thomas Chatterton was the most famous failure in 19th Century English literature. A poor boy with pluck he had tricked his way into a modicum of fame by pretending to be the discoverer of a tranche of medieval poetry by a Thomas Rowley. To keep the pot boiling and to engage in the roiling politics of the day, he wrote journalism and opinion pieces under more than one pseudonym, as well as further literary works. The gig economy of his time was not kind to Chatterton. At the height of his career, he would earn about $9 in current dollars for his longer articles. In contrast, writers of our last post’s Burma Shave’s jiggles were paid over $800 in today’s money.

So how does Chatterton make it onto Anne Spencer’s words for Dunbar?

Chatterton was doing all this as a teenager. Fatherless, broke, starving, seemingly at the end of his resources, he took a fatal dose of arsenic and died in his garret. He wasn’t yet 18.

Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis

Morbid it might be, but “The Death of Chatterton” was a popular and often reproduced 19th Century painting
Given its time, social media was not blamed for his death, but political and class prejudice was.

 

A few decades later, the British Romantics grab on to Chatterton’s case as the perfect example of rejection of the beautiful by the unperceiving. Keats, who was himself tagged as a low-born pretender writing “Cockney poetry” in “uncouth language,” wrote a sonnet to Chatterton. The too-little-appreciated-in-his-short-life Percy Bysshe Shelley, exiled from his culture for radical political and social views, writes “Adonais,”  the now famous ode on the death of Keats at age 25. In it, Chatterton is met on a heavenly throne “Rose pale, his solemn agony had not yet faded from him” as he greets the now dead Keats/Adonais.

Note here the unperceiving in each case has something to do with politics and class prejudice.

And now we return to Anne Spencer. At age 11, the legend has it she was barely literate, six years later she was the valedictorian of her graduating class. Two years later she married and settled in Lynchburg Virginia. Eventually she wrote while raising children and working as a school librarian. In 1918, she helped found the local chapter of the NAACP. Her home became a waystop for numerous notable Afro-Americans traveling in Virginia (“Jim Crow” laws would have segregated public accommodations). James Weldon Johnson (one of the founders of the NAACP) was one of those visitors, and finding that Anne wrote poetry, he helped her work get first published in 1920.

whites only smaller

Two “Whites Only” signs from the Diane and Alan Page collection.
Homes like Spencer’s were important facilitators for Black American travel.

 

Spencer was nearly 40 years old before that first publication. Clearly not the live fast/die young sort. In 1922 when Johnson published the first ever anthology of Afro-American verse, Spencer was included, along with the obvious choice of Dunbar himself. Concluding his introduction to that collection, Johnson said of Spencer’s verse that she was “The most modern and least obvious in her methods.”

“Dunbar”  demonstrates that. Shelley’s “Adonais”  is hundreds of lines. Spencer’s “Dunbar”  is five. Shelley will tell it, repeating and restating his theme in stanza by stanza of glorious English Romantic verse. Spencer’s “Dunbar”  sits quietly, in the midst of this history of poets who died young, whose voices were muffled by prejudice before they were stilled by death. It’s just one chorus. She groups them, tells us Paul Laurence Dunbar found himself with them, a statement of quiet, powerful, assertion.

Perhaps you need to know this history to appreciate the power of that, that “Chatterton, Shelley, Keats, and I” isn’t some arbitrary listing, a line that happens in a small poem talking about a poet—but it’s good to know history, it’s good to have a Black History month, it’s good to know that Keats and Shelley, who now are hallowed in our textbooks, weren’t greeted as worthy poets by their times. It’s good to know that one woman around a hundred years ago in segregated Virginia, quietly but eloquently wrote, and steadfastly worked, to assert a different world.

To hear my performance of Anne Spencer’s “Dunbar,”  use the player below.

 

Shattered Visage

The place of short epigramic poetry in our culture, and just a touch of Percy Bysshe Shelley, combine in today’s piece.

When people seek to stop the expansion of poetry in definition or in practice they will aim and fire at certain targets. If you look closely and slowly, you may see the bullet holes with their worn, rusting lips frozen in mid-kiss.

“Song lyrics? When you see them on the page, you can surely tell they aren’t poetry. And what about advertising jingles then?”

I’ll reply that it’s true that we don’t know if Sappho was a copywriter for hire, or worked independently—and frankly, the advertising jingle has passed into disuse anyway. One benefit of aging is that one can remember lost, golden ages when the rustic bards of old sang along the roads.

I speak of course of that mid-20th Century, Midwestern American Greek Anthology presented by Burma Shave. We know only the fragments of their work that scribes have preserved in illuminated HTML, but did these jingles really harm mid-20th Century poetry much?

I think not.

Here was the scheme: an insurgent company that made shaving cream in Minneapolis Minnesota took to the idea of a series of small signs, enjambed with the broken lines of an epigramic poem, signed-off at the last sign with the company’s logo: its name in white flowing script. Cars sauntered on narrower roads in those days, roads that went farther between cities that had yet to leak out suburbs and housing projects. Car radios were an option not ticked off by every frugal buyer, and the boredom on the two-lane was an advertiser’s opportunity. Huge billboards, the epics of the roadside, might have pressed the budget of the Burma Shave company, but those little signs in series were another matter. Poetry, then as now, is a bargain.

Burma_Shave_Signs_by_highway

Poetry in motion, Burma Shave signs in use, circa 1940.

 

And to us, the naïve backseat riders with no tablets or Gameboys, we could hope then the horizon might give us that initial red sign and line of verse, followed by their episodic reveal, their enforced caesurae.

Perhaps the poems imagery or significance did not equal Elizabeth Bishop or Wallace Stevens, but the experience—yes!—was exactly what poetry should deliver. It comes on us, with expectation, but unpredictably. It reveals itself, in time marked with intervals that tell us it is indeed time. And in the end, it pleases us in a way that the passage of a mere Pioneer Seed Corn placard or another end-of-lane mailbox cannot.

Its motives may not have been artistically pure, but we didn’t care.

Commercial motives are as fragile as Olympian ones. Around 1960, Burma Shave was sold, and the brand discontinued. The placement of new signs stopped, and only in places where no one cared to groom the roadside did they remain to gradual ruin.

Years later I would move to Minneapolis, and eventually I would fall in with some folks who created a literary magazine that wanted to celebrate the inescapable, unpretentious—yes, sometimes commercial—main drag down Phaeton’s east-west path of the city. They called the magazine “The Lake Street Review.”  Down that street I would often bike or drive past a nondescript building, just before the freight-railroad tracks, just before the shopping-and-buying mall built were Minneapolis-Moline once built tractors. When it was built, this building had been a church, but as the area became industrial in the early 20th Century, the building became, for awhile, the headquarters, the factory, the Parnassus of Burma Shave.

Save the (Burma) Shave

The ex-Burma Shave building on Lake Street as it appeared in the 21st Century

 

I don’t know if any of us knew that. I only found out as they planned to tear it down, which they did. As the workman did a workman’s job, in the midst of the ditch of lathe and beams, a red sign with cursive white letters was found at the end: “Burma Shave.”

Weckage of Burma Shave Building

“on the pedestal, these words appear…” After the Burma Shave building was torn down.

 

Musically, the LYL Band performed “Shattered Visage”  a couple of years ago, but I share it now after this week’s presentation of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”  As I said Monday, I read “Ozymandias”  without bringing out the pathos in the the impermanence of human achievements, choosing instead to emphasize time’s judgement on tyrants, but in “Shattered Visage”  my parody turns to the former. One other link to “Ozymandias:”  remember Horace Smith, the second-place sonneteer who also wrote an “Ozymandias?”  He entered into literary circles with a spoof he authored along with his brother, where they imitated all the most famous poets and orators of their time, including Lord Byron, who supplied an admiring blurb when the collection was published.

To listen to “Shattered Visage,”  use the player below.

 

Ozymandias

I came upon Percy Bysshe Shelley and this poem like many have, a teenager with a school poetry anthology on my desk. It is a good teaching poem, what with its readily accessible irony—and so, “Ozymandias”  came to me, nestled with poems by Keats and Byron, within the handy “The Romantics” chapter.

Stepping outside the poetry, even briefly, into biography, I found them a glamourous bunch of young men to my teenaged heart. The original “live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse” crew. Political and sexual revolutionaries, aesthetes with groupies. Should I study them, or seek to be them? Well the former was on offer, the latter harder to obtain for someone of my looks and stature.

Oxford-University_Shelley_Memorial

One Romantic depiction of Shelley’s drowned corpse, which looks better than some of us do alive.

 

In the 1960s Byron, Keats and Shelley were the rock stars in my textbooks. To the generation before the coming of the 20th Century Modernists, they seemed that too, even if “rock star” wasn’t yet a metaphor in the shops. So, Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to be Byron, Keats and Shelley too. In America, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Paul Laurence Dunbar showed that you didn’t have to be male or white to feel that urge. Even unique figures like Rabindranath Tagore were touched by their model.

Well, despite the notoriety, the tangled amorous relationships, and the requirement of a tragic early death—yes, in spite of this—in the end the romantic, idealist stance doesn’t remove the poet from the mundane tasks of writing poetry any more than drugs and sex remove from a rock star the need to come up with, well, some music once in a while.

Such is the case here of “Ozymandias.”  Did this poem strike Shelley’s poetic soul in a flash of hashish inspiration while adventuring in the Middle East? Well, no. If we were to continue the musical analogies, it instead came from a silent, slow-motion, written-poetry equivalent of a Battle of the Bands, a Rap Battle, or a songwriter’s Song Pull, a friendly contest undertaken with another poet, Shelley’s contemporary Horace Smith. They both were working off the same short passage from 1st Century BC Greek historian Diodorus, which gives both of them the plot. Here’s Smith’s “Ozymandias:”

Horace Smiths Ozymandias

Horace Smith’s version of “Ozymandias.” Not found in schoolbooks.

 

After they finished their competing works, I wonder how Smith felt. If one goes to poetry for meaning, these two poems make near the same point. Imagery-wise, Shelley’s choice and portrayal of the broken statue on a barren desert does have better selection of detail. And Smith, trying to make his rhyme, has one particularly awkward line, the one ending “holding the Wolf in chace” (“chace” is an Old-French word that was once used in English to mean hunt). But where Shelley kills it here, is his word-music. If you look at Shelley’s manuscript of “Ozymandias”  you can see some of how he worked on these things, so they wouldn’t be “lifeless things.”

Art is not a competition. Criteria are slippery things, and what works in one poem, fails in another. Even day to day, within our own singular selves, what we seek from, or need from, art differs—but Smith’s “Ozymandias”  was rightfully eclipsed by Shelley’s.

In my music and performance of “Ozymandias”  I went counter to other presentations I’ve heard. The poem’s lyricism and the later 19th Century acceptance of Shelley as a portrayer of ideal beauty has masked the Shelley that was a political radical and iconoclast. As a result, many read it lightly, bringing out its sonic beauty or its pathos. I don’t know how Shelley, the radical, would want it read, but I’ve always felt that the traveler who’s telling this tale knows all too well, in non-historic terms, about living under a hand that mocked them with a sneer of cold command.

Therefore, I emulated the spirit of another English iconoclast, Kevin Coyne, for this piece. I love the probably apocryphal story of Coyne being approached about replacing Jim Morrison in The Doors, that rock star/poet hybrid. In Coyne’s telling, he turned them down because he “didn’t like the leather trousers.”  To hear my sans culottes performance of “Ozymandias,”  with more disgust at tyranny and less pathos at time’s ravages, use the player below.

 

I mention Rupi Kaur in an attempt at getting more followers

I refer to it less, but this ongoing Parlando Project actually causes me to spend more time with music—composing, playing, recording, and mixing it—than with the words. The words, of course, are mostly poetry, as condensed expression is so often found there mixed with musical devices in word form.

I’m not alone in thinking there’s a natural connection there. Perhaps that’s why you’re reading this, rather than a blog on cinema, graphic novels, or the interesting things I did last night. From what comments I get, the words, mostly poetry, are the larger draw and concern—or it may be that it’s easier to talk about words and their potential messages than it is about music.

But speaking now of America and the English-speaking musical world, what if it largely functioned in this manner…. Insert woozy musical cue here indicating we’ve moved away from our mundane current world into some speculative alternate reality as a new voice takes over this blog:

 

Music is a sublime art, which alas is much ignored and misunderstood by most people. Oh yes, there are occasional times when folks seem to pay some attention to what they think is music, but in fact it’s not really music they are listening to. For someone younger than I, it seems it’s always been so. How did this happen?

In my youth there were people who listened to a highly commercial aggregation of “musicians” who went under the name “The Beatles.” In their unsophisticated way The Beatles would bash away for a couple of minutes, never showing the development and dynamic range of actual music, and then they’d publish their “songs” on recordings that would be played on abysmal “record players” that were aptly named because they could only spin the vinyl record at something approximating the correct speed and could only transduce the rude noise to an even cruder racket. The Beatles, to be honest, weren’t the worst of those “pop musicians”—they were Stravinsky compared to some others in their field—clearly actual musical quality was beside the point.

Perhaps I shouldn’t object too much now to this commercial enterprise once undertaken by those naive or craven young men back in the 1960s, but what happened next was worse. Some actual musicians and musical critics started to give them big heads, and as a result, even worse crimes were committed. Throwing aside centuries of established artistic criteria, these commercial appeasers called what The Beatles and “pop musicians” were doing music. They would search for even a hint of actual compositional intent or accomplishment in these works, and praise them if they could pretend they found it.

Soon, The Beatles started to tack on elements used by actual musicians in their recordings. It was all transparently fake, and perhaps I should find it strange that even audiences ignorant of what real music is and can accomplish allowed it was art rather than pathetic pretense. And so, they presented recordings with string quartets, when none of them knew so much as which side of the bow to apply to the strings. They made fraudulent representations of actual music, using paid studio technicians who modified their feeble attempts at playing music so that they sounded profound to those “listeners” who didn’t know any better.

And now as I survey what could otherwise be our musical landscape and see young people who “listen” to what they “think” is “music” while playing their “video games”, dancing their interminable “dancing,” “streaming” it on their “phones” ( that they actually don’t use to make phone calls on), while “Tweeting” and “Instagraming” with tiny screen keyboards that make it hard to enclose every other word with quote-marks like an intelligent person.

I said I should be surprised. I take that back. In a world that has given us Donald Trump and Brexit and inconsistent intra-city train service, we cannot count on most people to have an authentic understanding of what they’re missing when they call such things music.

7-8th of Alban Berg is invisible

Now you know.

 

But let us, the intelligent critics who understand art and its important criteria, acknowledge the consequences of this commercial folly. Now we have people claiming to be musicians who do not play instruments, save perhaps for something called a synthesizer (a name like something from Aldous Huxley), a sequencer (gene therapy?), or drum machines (oh, such industrial nomenclature invades art in our year of Ford). They don’t know that 7/8ths of an Alban Berg is invisible, they can’t tell their krummhorn from their sackbut. When asked to defend this false and phony “art,” audiences say they “enjoy” it.

And while this pretense continues, actual musicians—people who create and perform complex compositions that take years of study to create, and nearly as many years of study to understand, are ignored.

Since when did enjoyment have anything to do with the sublime art of music?

 

Reprise that spooky musical cue that says we now return to our real world, and to Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet. Yes, our real world has musical snobs and exclusive musical passions, but in general, those haven’t harmed the ubiquity of music in our culture. Yes, musicians who produce music that challenges your expectations, usually have a harder time finding an audience, but a broad-based, vibrant musical culture has always allowed some of them to sneak in to a wider listenership, not prevented it. And musicians tend to be sensualists more than aesthetic puritans.

What can poets and literary critics learn from musicians?

 

 

(As to the title and occasion for this satire, an article has caused some discussion lately in poetry circles.)

The Wood-Pile

Robert Frost is every bit the master of word music as Yeats and Millay. What makes Frost stand out is that he was every bit the thoroughgoing early 20th Century modernist as any of his free-verse contemporaries, while retaining an ease with accentual syllabic meter.

Here’s an example of Frost handling a subject just as a free-verse Imagist would. His aims, his presentation, hold to the Imagists’ principles. He deals with the thing directly (as we shall see, two things, but still…), and there are no tacked-on metaphors, no stock comparisons, no extraneous “poetic” language. Context is shown, but not explained. He loosens and varies his meter, so the poem sings and never seems to be a shackled march. At 40 lines, it’s a bit longer than Yeats’ poem considering “The Wild Swans at Coole,”  but Frost’s extra detail is even more specific and concrete than Yeats, though both begin their poem with the poet walking in a rural wetland. Yeats slough is a well-known place to him, conditioned with 19 previous visits. Frost is far enough into his swamp to not know exactly where he is, and so experiences what he sees with a first-time immediacy. Yeats’ slough then contains tradition, Frosts’ the more Modernist “Make it new!” place.

Though presented as one simple rural scene and story, “The Wood-Pile”  is more at two poems, though each part speaks to the other. As Frost’s tale starts, we are in the midst of one of his characteristic journeys, just as we are in other famous Frost poems. There’s a need for decision (“Turn back” or “go on farther”) and his choice, also made in other Frost poems, is to go on regardless of whatever doubts brought the question. If he’s lost in the dark by a wood on a snowy evening, keep going. If you come to a fork in the road, pick one and go on. If you’re walking in a swamp in winter and your foot is sometimes falling through the frozen crust, well, keep going “and we shall see.”

And so, here he sees his bird. No Keatsian nightingale, not Millay’s elusive flying swans with their awkward dangling legs and cries, nor Yeats’ majestic 59 swans, but a small bird. This bird becomes a mirror to the poet. Frost’s bird too must make choices in direction, and the poet, sensibly, thinks the bird’s guided by fear. “Keep something between little me and the big lummox trodding through the winter swamp,” he humansplains. And there’s a bit of humor at human’s expense as the poet muses that the bird, like humans with their self-importance, may think that the only reason for Frost to be out in the swamp is to go after the little bird.

Gackle with white tail feather

“He thought I was after him for a feather—the white one in his tail”

 

But, we don’t know why Frost is out in the frozen swamp explicitly. The only reason he’s given, or will give, is the Imagist poets’ reason: “and we shall see.”

The bird leads Frost to the second thing the poem wants to present: an abandoned fire-wood cache. Here Frost zooms in close. Every detail of the cut wood and the once neatly stacked and propped wood-pile is stated. Frost turns forensic, like some New England Sherlock Holmes: this pile has been abandoned for years. Mature vines have grown through it.

wood-pile

“The slow smokeless burning of decay”

 

Here is another context left unsaid. Why would someone abandon a purposeful wood-pile in a swamp? Frost leaves it for us to be detective and to solve the mystery. This isn’t some lot of fire-wood left temporarily to be gathered later in the day, care has been taken to stack and prop it.

The only thing I can think: someone once built a shack (now completely disappeared) on the swamp land. Frost muses, sardonically, that only someone so busy with “fresh tasks” could abandon such effort in cutting and stacking. Does he mean to say, “only a fool would be so industrious to cut and stack this wood and yet not notice he was building his shack on a swamp that would not support a homestead?”

Now, the small bird with his “little fears” and oh-so-human misapprehensions of reality—and now, the steadfast Frost of miles to keep going, even if you may be lost, are set in contrast to this choice. Your fears may lie to you—but so will your optimism.

I once heard an astringent biological statement that the length of our lives can be reduced to a slow-burning chemical reaction. Frost’s last line here is a sad and beautiful analog to that truth.

Turn back or go farther? Go on, and we shall hear my performance of Robert Frost’s “The Wood-Pile”  with my original music. Just use the player below.