When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

We’re about to begin April’s National Poetry Month in the U. S., but I’m going to begin celebrating #NPM2018 today with a piece that’s a good way to start things off, the opening two sections of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

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We’re aiming to present even more audio pieces than usual this April
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National Poetry Month isn’t just for American poems or for American poets, but if it was, Whitman would be all the more inescapable. In the middle of the 19th Century, he and Emily Dickinson forged two original styles whose sounds and tactics can still be found in contemporary verse—Dickinson, with small lines in small poems that bind-up with puzzles immensities; Whitman with long lines and epic poems that offer a catalog of exultation. One sees a single, small thing and says it represents the universe, the other beholds the diversity of the world and says it’s really one thing. Complementary opposites.

Both were working at a prodigious pace during the 1860s, during America’s great Civil War. On April 14th of 1865 Abraham Lincoln, the US President during that war, was shot. The next day he died. Within weeks Whitman had produced the first published version of this poem along with other poems about Lincoln and the ending of the Civil War which he published as “Drum Taps.”  It would not be like Whitman to hold his thoughts on those great events inside. In contrast, Tennyson’s epic elegy on the death of a beloved friend, “In Memoriam”  took him more than 15 years before he published it.

At over 200 lines in its entirety, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,”  taken as a whole, would exceed my usual mode here. I prefer my audio pieces more the length of the 45 RPM single records of my youth. So today, I present only the first two sections of Whitman’s poem. Whitman’s voice changes over the course of this long poem, but in these opening sections Whitman (albeit in free verse) is sounding somewhat like the poets his modernism would break from. Save for the absence of rhyme, his language here would not sound out of place in Tennyson (or even the earlier Romantics, like the Shelley of “Adonais.”)

Whitman's Parent's House

Is this the dooryard? Whitman was visiting his mother’s house when he heard Lincoln had died.
He stepped outside and saw the spring lilacs in bloom.

 

I did the same thing, presenting only the intro section, last April for the poem I believe is most responsible for April being National Poetry Month, T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland,”  which begins memorably “April is the cruelest month…” Those that can finish that first sentence may recall it continues “Breeding lilacs out of the dead land.” So, Whitman’s elegy and Eliot’s poetic apotheosis of High-Modernism written over 50 years later, both begin in April, and with lilacs.

We’ll be revisiting territories in “The Wasteland”  later this April, but today you can start where Whitman started his poem, and from where Eliot got some of his inspiration for his. Musically, this one is fairly simple, but I hope effective: acoustic guitar and piano with a little low synthesizer groan eventually joining in. Use the player below to hear it.

 

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Side-Walks

Here’s a tribute to a couple of other American originals who are inspirational to this Project.

“Side-Walks”  is the second piece here using words taken from a Laurie Anderson interview. In the earlier piece, Anderson was talking about how the sky of her Midwestern childhood taught her to realize that she was “nothing and everything.” Today’s words are quoted from a 2015 interview where she’s talking again about childhood, but particularly her childhood as she can revisit it in memory.

The phenomenon she talks about is extraordinarily common, while still extraordinary: the intense memory of childhood, rich enough that one feels they are experiencing it in fully dimensional, traversable, 3D space, with access to senses other than vision (such as smell and touch).

If you don’t feel you have this ability, Anderson suggests a method to engender it in her story. Although, I took this account of hers from a written interview, anyone familiar with Anderson’s speaking style from her work, may hear it in her performance voice, that slow, measured coo that never rises in intensity or volume, and varies only in a slight, auditory smile that can indicate any number of stances without determining one.

As I mentioned last time I used Laurie Anderson words, her performance voice is hypnotic, and influenced as I am, I can sort-of imitate it, but choose not to. But as I listened to this piece over and over as part of the mixing process, I began to realize that I was somewhat imitating the performance style of another influence of mine, Ken Nordine.

At some point, in another post, I’ll probably need to discuss Ken Nordine at some length, but hearing that echo, I said to myself “I bet no one has ever connected Laurie Anderson and Ken Nordine. Wait until I tell everyone about how these two unique American artists have these striking similarities!”

Ken Nordine-Laurie Anderson

Nordine and Anderson. What if I’m not a spoken-word artist, but a listening-word artist?

 

Because I write, my mind immediately starts writing, all in my head, all the ways their work connects. Both are native Midwesterners, who can carry that mindset to any cosmopolitan location. Both use that very even speaking style in performance, with Nordine allowing just slightly broader bemusement to sneak into his affect for contrast to Anderson’s often present, but more muted, smile. Both use music in combination with their hypnotic words, but both will choose music that is not calm, conventional “music beds.” Both love the sideways movement from one topic to another that seems alternately random and deeply meaningful, and both enjoy the shaggy-dog story conclusion that doesn’t overdetermine which.

I pop Laurie Anderson and Ken Nordine into a search engine, and find…

I’m too late. Laurie Anderson has been listening to Ken Nordine since her Chicago childhood. She’s a fan (her late partner, Lou Reed, too), and she knows Nordine influenced the development of her concepts.


Here’s a single dip into the 50 years or so of Ken Nordine’s audio pieces

 

Well then, let’s go back to Anderson’s story of how she can revisit a vivid childhood time, as many of us can. Her story is vivid too, even if she’s telling it off-the-cuff in an interview, not in performance, but what I found most striking were her conclusions. A couple of centuries ago, William Wordsworth wrote Intimations of Immortality from Memories of Early Childhood,”  the poem that ends with the line “Thoughts…too deep for tears.” Do we think that means, too sad for tears—and, if so, what does that mean? Or is it, as Wordsworth had it in his ode, the “meanest flower”—or as Ken Nordine and Laurie Anderson speak it, is it that smile, however broad, that is deeper?

The player for my performance of this brief story Laurie Anderson told is just below.

 

Conlon Nancarrow

A great deal of what you hear me play here is made possible by a 1983 invention, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), a standard for communicating musical commands. MIDI lets me create piano parts I can’t play with my non-pianist fingers. I tell MIDI what to play, and MIDI then instantly responds by playing those notes on an instrument so I can see if they fit.

Given MIDI, I as the composer can have the equivalent of a pair or more of pianists willing to play as simply or complexly as I want them to, and not only are my MIDI pianists totally compliant, they can be preternaturally skilled as well, willing to play odd rhythmic displacements or impossible fingerings.

In the years between WWI and WWII, a young musician of no great wealth or social background was studying composition in Boston. He was said to have crossed paths with some of the giants of 20th Century music there, including Walter Piston, whose Harmony  book I once started many decades ago, and Nicolas Slonimsky whose book on scales later became a huge influence on John Coltrane and Frank Zappa.

However, the titanic forces of world events would soon sweep him away from all this. In the 1930s he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Americans who volunteered to fight the Fascist forces seeking to overthrow a republic in Spain during a war that served as a beta-test for World War II. This was a complex event, but all we need to know for our young man is that the anti-Fascist coalition was defeated, and the survivors who had fought for the Spanish Republic ended up as men without a country.

Earlier this year I was reading some 1939 writing by Herbert Read where he was appealing for support for a plan to transport these Spanish war survivors from French refugee camps to Latin America. Our young man, who’d hobnobbed with key musical theorists before becoming a “premature anti-Fascist,” soon found himself in Mexico City, perhaps as a result of this plan.

It was there our exiled young man took a technological step as a composer. He chose to write his music using “player pianos.” Player pianos, also called “reproducing pianos,” were a home entertainment fad from the era before better quality electronic recordings. An elaborate clockwork rolled a scroll of punched paper across mechanical sensors inside the piano which then drove the hammers to strike the piano strings. Scrolls of piano music, some recorded and played by the famous performers of the early 20th Century could be purchased, and when inserted into the home player piano, and played back with musical fidelity.

Our young man’s name was Conlon Nancarrow. Over the next few decades he exploited the player piano, not for parlor entertainment, but to create striking Modernist music of otherwise unplayable complexity. He was hip to new varieties of rhythm and harmony not only from other 20th Century “serious composers,” but from Jazz too—and the mathematical structures of Bach-like cannons were well suited to the looping scrolls he would punch himself. He wasn’t reproducing music someone played, he was producing music he conceived and punched into the controlling scrolls.

In the first few decades of his work Nancarrow had no funds, no grants, no copyist/assistants, no local orchestral resources to realize his musical ideas; but this one artist, a player piano, and his own score-roll punching could produce work needing only himself and his ideas to sound inside his small Mexican apartment.

Except for it’s painstaking, mechanical, cuckoo-clock handwork, what Nancarrow did is schematically like how one can use MIDI today. In a tip to this heritage, MIDI scores are still shown on the lit-up computer screen like player piano scrolls.

Nancarrow Piano Part MIDI score

“Stuck in holes which once were dots”
One of the piano parts for today’s piece shown in MIDI “piano roll” notation

 

In 1969, using the high-fidelity home entertainment media of its age, an LP record of Nancarrow’s works was issued on a major, well-distributed record label (Columbia, the record company of Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap). That’s when I first heard him. Acclaim in avant-garde music circles, and some grants and touring followed until his death in 1997.

In some ways the typical Nancarrow piece sounds like an artist who when finding out the vast capabilities of his new technology decides to use all of them. At once. A lot. Typical tempos sound like someone playing a recording at the wrong speed—and backwards. The number of simultaneous notes can be overwhelming, the intervals jarring, the rhythms insane. It’s challenging you to understand it, and it’s not a matter if you want to, you likely cannot. As with some avant-garde music, repeated listening (if one allows it) can increase comprehension of the ideas, but Nancarrow is never going to be shoving Billy Joel off the piano bench in popularity.



“Punched polyphony in a row” A Nancarrow scroll plays.

 

No, the reason I wrote this to celebrate Nancarrow isn’t because I think you’ll like his music, or even because he’d figure in any Desert Island Discs episode in my future (though through castaway days one might find the time to try to untie all the knotted ideas in a Nancarrow piece). No, it’s because I admire that kind of audacity and perseverance.

I originally wrote music of an acoustic guitar “folk song” sort, even though the poem sought to make use of eccentric meters and a tricky rhyme scheme to reference some of Nancarrow’s ideas. Today’s version has new music I wrote which fits the words better. Using MIDI-controlled pianos, it’s sort of “Nancarrow-lite” musically. To hear my audio piece for “Conlon Nancarrow,”  use the player below.

 

I Hear an Army

Metaphors, implied or direct, are a form of an equation. If E=mc2 or 2+2=4 then should fog=little cats feet? Well, not exactly. But for some poems the metaphor, the image and “what it means,” is surprisingly equal at each side of the equals sign.

Here’s a poem that Ezra Pound included in the first Imagist anthology in 1914, written by someone we don’t normally think of as an Imagist, or even as a poet: James Joyce. While Joyce didn’t consider himself a member of the Imagist movement, his fellow Modernist Pound considered this work consistent with its principles.

Oddly, the case for Joyce as poet instead of the instigator of the modern literary short story form and the creator of increasingly avant-garde novels has been largely carried forward by folks (like me) who wish to combine words with music. The James Joyce poem I first knew, “Golden Hair,”  came to me from Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett’s lovely setting written in the 1960s and used beautifully a decade or so ago to begin Tom Stoppard’s play “Rock’n’Roll.” Today’s words from Joyce, “I Hear an Army”  was set to a complex piano accompaniment by famed 20th Century composer Samuel Barber along with two other Joyce poems as his 1939 Three Songs” (Op. 10).”

James_Joyce_Kicks_out_the_Jams

James “Blind Boy”Joyce kicks out the jams

 

As words, “I Hear an Army”  is very musical (the consonance of “whirling laughter” alone is exquisite!), but that element wasn’t rated as highly by mid-20th Century critics who redefined poetry as a literature of complex and hermetic language. Still, its central image shows a bilateralism that I’d like to point out. I think most will see this first as a love song with a strong and strange metaphor of loneliness and separation from one’s beloved as feeling like the invasion of a grotesque and threatening army. Loneliness=as oppressive and overwhelming as an invading army.

But what if we reverse the equation? Is an invading army, this oncoming hoard, this force of arrogance, also like the absence of love, the sundered heart and the steeled will? Invasion, war=separation from love and our beloved—separation for not only the invaded but the invaders.

When an image can sustain this kind of bilateralism, it gains tremendous power. Maybe not mass times the speed of light squared, the force that hung over my youth, cleaving dreams, and whose blinding flame is seeking to haunt us again, but power none-the-less.

Vase or Faces

Vase or faces? Bilateralism in imagery.

 

Not to dis Barber, a giant, but I think there’s room for a different way to present “I Hear an Army”  combined with music. If you use the player below, you’ll hear my original music for this, not Barber’s. Some take the Barber at rapid tempo, horses at full gallop. I don’t have a score to say what guidance Barber gave for that, but there’s a power in slowing dread—after all it’s a cinematic cliché to show an onrushing threat in slow-motion.

My predominant accompaniment for “I Hear an Army”  is a vocal chorus using different vocal timbres, including a low part using Himalayan Tuvan throat singing where two pitches are sung simultaneously. Other than the two short rock band interludes, the only “instrument” used is electric bass.

 

Ruined Refrigerator

Cleverness in poetry or writing can be a mixed blessing. While poetry without cleverness can be bland and unexciting, poetry with too much of it can seem a show-offy exercise exhibiting the most exorbitant self in self-expression.

Unlike my pleasant puzzlement with H. D.’s “The Pool”  last time, I can speak with authority about the author’s intent on today’s piece “Ruined Refrigerator,”  because I wrote this set of words. A short aside for those that are new here: this isn’t the way the Parlando Project generally works, we’re normally about “Other people’s stories,” our audio encounters with other author’s words.

But since I wrote this I can say a bit about how this worked with “Ruined Refrigerator.”  This started out as a sonnet I wrote in 1978. I’ve always been attracted to the 14-liner. It’s just about the perfect size to develop a point with a turn or even two, while still asking for concision. The 14 lines can be divided in many eccentric ways into stanzas, sections, and rhyme schemes. And since Shakespeare used it for his best poetry, you have a mighty model to measure up against.

The problem with the sonnet and Shakespeare as a model is that it can fall into clever complexity. Shakespeare was intoxicated with flowery language, language that loves using extra words and similes to express itself. Given the youthful vigor of the mostly modern English of Shakespeare’s day, and Shakespeare’s genius, this is not as tiresome in his best poems as it would too often be in those that were written after him.

Artists already have too much to worry about, but perhaps we should be more careful when we invent something, as any imitators will exploit all the faults in the invention—and so, eventually Shakespeare’s poetics can descend into “poetic language” that violates the call to concision that lyric poetry should heed, and to merely clever works that exercise the skills but not the aims and ends of great poetry.

I can tell you that as an author, writing clever poetry is great fun. Finding what you believe is a new way to say something is wonderful. Engaging in the music of thought where a theme emerges in a surprising and even mysterious way is as great a joy in words as it is when composing music. Fitting the stuff of a poem into the puzzle of meter and rhyme and stanza forms takes effort, but like any number of enjoyable crafts, it’s satisfying. The dance of metaphor as it leaps back and forth from the compared thing to the thing can feel in creation almost God-like.

These things have degrees of difficulty and achievement, yes, but the greater difficulty is engaging an audience for them. What is enjoyable and satisfying to the author is not necessarily the same to the reader or listener. Too little cleverness and the result is bland, too much and the reader will decide: too much effort for too little reward. Or they may read on and decide that it’s much ado about nothing. What the author thinks is clever, based on their effort and self-evaluation, seems mundane to the more sophisticated reader or obtusely obscure to the naïve one. Audiences don’t love or hate cleverness, they just want it to be worth their while.

were_only_in_it_for_the_money_bottom

Subliminal inspiration? Lower section the “We’re Only In It for the Money” album cover
created by Calvin Schenkel, Frank Zappa and Jerry Schatzberg 1967.

 

“Ruined Refrigerator”  may suffer from these issues, from failed attempts at cleverness. I wrote a complete draft around 40 years ago*, and I must have liked the “deep ecology” idea enough that I revised it 15 years ago. So far (small) audiences haven’t cared for it much. Maybe that’s my failing, or maybe it’s the audiences’—though I believe the audiences were good ones. Maybe on the first day of spring in a time when global warming is on more minds this will make more of a connection?

As an artist, you can negotiate a treaty with that failure, knowing that all artists fail—sometimes, depending on the audience. Artists can succeed with some audiences by making the choices that will certainly cause them to fail with others. One can always choose to fail better or differently. The important thing is to try, in the way you think best to try.

Here’s my performance and try of “Ruined Refrigerator.”

 

 

*A note on the 2004 draft I have of this says the first draft (lost) was from 1978. But I also recall stealing the germ of the idea from a Gary Larson “The Far Side” one-panel cartoon, though I have not been able to find that cartoon, and “The Far Side” was first published in 1980.

London between snows

One more post where we slide the Parlando Project and “other people’s stories” to the side and become more like a conventional blog. Last night in London was a blustery snow squall, but as Minnesotans who know that the Theater of the Seasons plays in Repertory, we were up and around throughout the day. Our target was the area around the Strand and Trafalgar Square to hit the National Gallery. We really only struck Trafalgar Square a glancing blow, though it seems an impressive urban plaza. As we approached through the flakes and gusts, I pointed to the back of the column and asked my wife why they had a monument to Captain Crunch here.

Admiral or Captain

Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, and close up of the statue at the top

 

Faux-naïve humor aside, some of the best parts of the day were the little things. As we passed a small library I saw a poster in the window about Sylvia Pankhurst, the most radical of that suffragette clan. Inside was a small exhibit detailing the middle of her career in anarcho-syndicalist circles which lead her to a steadfast effort to warn against the rise of Italian Fascism in the years between the wars. Some of the exhibit showed the efforts to extend Fascism to Britain through local London groups, which included the information that the library building itself had been formerly the headquarters hall of the Italian Fascist organization.

Shortly after entering the National Gallery we noticed these mock Roman mosaics on the floor leading into the central gallery. At first glance, one assumed they’d be the sort of stolid decoration museums are known for—but wait, is that Bertram Russell? Winston Churchill? Turns out they are a set of witty between-the-wars comments on the modern virtues. “Don’t tread on Gretta Garbo…” sings Ray Davies in my mind.

Lucidity with Bertram Russell

Lucidity on the ground in mosaics

 

We’d come for a Pre-Raphaelite exhibit which showed how much these original hipsters loved to put mirrors, particularly convex mirrors, in their paintings. At the exhibit I learned that the art Academy the PRB bros rebelled against had been in a wing of the National Gallery building, a museum then full of the lush late Renaissance paintings loved by the 19th Century. As young rebels are wont to do, they instead looked to the earlier painters with their sharp Colorforms palette.

We took a side-trip down the Strand until we came upon the Savoy Theater and then the grand Savoy Hotel. Our bootheels had to do some wandering, but, sure enough, we found the alley where the “Don’t Look Back”-“Subterranean Homesick Blues” was filmed, and where more than a hundred years earlier William Blake had lived and worked on his Dante “Divine Comedy” etchings as he lay dying. We couldn’t see the Thames to confirm if flowed like gold, what with all the buildings the years put there between Blake’s place and the river, but you could still see Dylan and Allen Ginsberg standing in that alley.

The Savoy Alley yesterday and today

Click the link in this caption to learn more about Angels in the Alley by the Savoy Hotel

 

That evening we went to a mostly Mozart concert at Saint Martins in the Field, which was fine. Now that I actually try to write string parts and play them via virtual instruments, it was nice to see hands play the articulations from a front-row seat. But, before the concert, we ate at “The Crypt” beneath the church, which is not just a goth-sounding marketing name, but the actual crypt, complete with grave markers. My wife wandered about the area, reading the grave markers, noting one for a five-year-old child.

Everything in the past is beneath and beside us. Everything in the future is too, but we cannot see nor feel it yet.

The Pool

With a poem, mystery and ambiguity can be often served best alongside brevity. H. D.’s “The Pool,”  which supplies today’s words, is a fine example of this. It’s a condensed tale of an encounter that takes seconds to read, but longer to absorb.

We last met H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) here with her tiny but fierce poem “Oread.” In that case, the title let us start off the poem knowing the main character of the poem. “The Pool”  offers us no such clue with it’s somewhat generic title, and it throws us in the deep end by beginning with a question: “Are you alive?” Five spare lines later it ends still listing questions: “What are you..?” It’s called “The Pool,” but the unnamed thing in the pool seems the subject.

Hilda Doolittle Fashion

H. D. with a more timeless look than her spouse.

 

Go ahead, listen to the musical performance of “The Pool”  now (the player is below), because encountering it in mystery is important. The poem is so short and yet multi-faceted, I repeat some of its words, extending the listener’s experience of the words a bit longer, encouraging you to not let go of them too fast.

H. D. must have intended this to be mysterious. Various “solutions” have been suggested, though they would reduce the poem to a riddle. When I first read it, I assumed the object the poem’s speaker is questioning in the pool was a fish, taking the metaphor of it quivering “Like a sea-fish” literally—but would someone describe a fish as “like a fish?” Over at the always “Interesting Literature” blog a commenter suggested it could be H. D.’s unborn child, an ingenious solution, consistent with the quivering and the water and possibly with the “banded one” epithet for the object, if one thinks of the womb as a band. H.D. was pregnant for the first time in the year the poem was published, and if this is part of the poet’s intent, the opening question is achingly poignant, since that pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. But if that is the largely intended experience to be drawn from the poem, H. D. has given us no internal clues in the words to lead us there without knowing now obscure biographical details regarding her life and the poem’s publishing date.

Is that meaning there unintentionally? That’s certainly possible. The New Criticism writers assumed intent, honoring the artist, but modern Deconstructionists would find this a moot point. It wouldn’t even matter to them if H. D. had written the poem a year or more before it was published, before her pregnancy, as a reader could choose to experience the poem as about pregnancy with no intent on the part of the author.

My second reading of the poem takes from another context, H. D.’s love for classical Greek lyric poetry. Any situation involving looking into a pool and becoming entranced with what one sees suggests strongly the myth of Narcissus. At the very least from H. D.’s other work, we can assume that H. D. would have recognized the likelihood of this reading. But if this was her intent, why not call the poem “Narcissus?”

In the tiny amount of words in this poem, the net and the “banded one” are all that lead us away from Narcissus. Is this poem in fact a representation of a modern experience stated directly with no excess words in the manner of the Imagist credo? If so, what could one see in a pool that is banded and is like a fish. Some crabs have banded leg markings, that possibility exists, and the “I touch you” line takes on a new context if one imagines the crustacean strangeness and pincher-claw danger of touching a crab in a tide pool to see if it is alive.

red banded hermit crab

“I touch you”—or not. A banded hermit crab.

 

Or the modern, direct experience could be intended as an echo of Narcissus, a moment when the speaker of the poem sees their reflection in water and assumes, as Narcissus did in the myth, that this thing in the pool is an entrancing other. And the net then, an expression of the inability to capture our selves. Interesting Literature suggests that the “banded” could be the net interrupting the reflection with its strands. An echo then of a Narcissus’ reflection, and Echo is the name of the nymph who tricked Narcissus into the reflection lock.

That would explain why the poem isn’t called “Narcissus.” In this modern encounter, the speaker doesn’t lock forever in contemplation of the unknowable reflection, spending five lines there, aware of Narcissus’s plight. The net becomes the thing that, this time, breaks the spell. And what of the “banded one?” Is there a pun there? I didn’t see it reading the poem on the page, but my overlapping voices in the performance made the phrase sound like “abandoned one.” Narcissus wouldn’t abandon the entrancing reflection, and by extension, is bound by his attraction to his perception of himself.

Perhaps H. D.’s “The Pool” is all of these things, perhaps even something else as well. Mystery and ambiguity is sometimes best served by brevity. Go ahead and listen to my performance of “The Pool” again, it may reflect something else.