London between rain showers

Last night I saw the London production of “The Girl from the North Country.”  The play’s production illustrates well how context can change a work of art.

I traveled 4,000 miles to see a play in London written by an Irishman integrating work by a Jewish iron-ranger with a British cast portraying a multi-racial rooming house in what was once Minnesota’s second largest city in the 1930s. The Irish playwright is Conor McPherson and the integrated work was 20-some songs by Bob Dylan.

How much went wrong in such an enterprise? I suppose plenty. I could see seams, but it seamed not to matter much. The core idea, of placing Dylan’s songs in the context of the 1930s worked well. Songs you believed needed to be set in the beatnik early 60s or the cultural turmoil of the around 10 years we don’t name as a decade after that, or  against the Reagan/Thatcher or Christian fundamentalist revival and so on, lived inside different lives anachronistically.

Is it a Dylan musical? Not really. Minutes taken out of context could look like that somewhat new form, the Jukebox Musical, but the dramatic material is darker and more substantial than the kind of utilitarian connective material in a Jukebox Musical’s book. This is play with music, not music connected by play. The songs are all sung by the actors, and the musicians are all on stage, sometimes mingling in tableau. In one brilliant little piece of business, a drum set placed upstage has various actors in the cast sitting at it and banging out simple but effective Basement Tapes backing.

In the best moments, the songs (or portions of songs, few are sung in anything close to their entirety) function like an ancient Greek chorus, or at least as I read those classic Greek plays in English translation. The play (or book if you must) reminded me of Eugene O’Neill, someone I have not read or seen in performance  in decades. Poetic dialog was uttered often, but character context kept this from being overly artificial (it’s a very unusual cast of  characters).

The parts are well sung, and the all-acoustic band with period-correct instruments does well. Same with the acting, which ranged from excellent to good, in a performance that demands a lot from it’s cast. As an evening of theater my wife and I thought it was transcendent, as theater should be. At the end of the performance, about a third of the audience jumped up in standing ovation, followed slowly by another portion, perhaps a third again. As we walked out we heard the reaction of some of that sitting third, disappointed at what has been a very well-reviewed production. I have no idea what the London-usual is for ovations, but in the Twin Cities, everyone stands almost all the time.

My wife doubts it will ever have a U.S. production. She thinks the material is too dark to appeal to audiences seeking uplift for their expensive theater tickets. I’d add that the play’s plot is very indirect with lots and lots of dead ends and shaggy dog story elements. If one is open to that (as I am) this doesn’t hurt anything, but some will miss the comfort of standard story through-lines. By chance I saw “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri”  on the plane trip over, and its Irish screenwriter, Martin McDonagh, also setting his story in America, has a similar shaggy storyline, and asks for similar emotional commitment for unexpected sharp plot turns. McDonagh’s screenplay however, treats  most of its characters, most of the time, as morons. This is not a metaphorical epithet. I found it puzzling and ultimately disrespectful for no good effect that so many in “Three Billboards”  were played as being so dumb.

By contrast, in “Girl from the North Country” McPherson has two characters who frankly have mental disabilities, and yet even they are offered more discernment and respect from their author creator in his play.

You do not have to be a Dylan fan to enjoy this play, but you do have to accept a tale that starts with all in trouble  and finishes with things worse for almost all, and with a singing of “Forever Young” that could cause you to never hear the song the same way again.

 Keats Pharmacy crop

Actual storefront in Hampstead. A sour joke:
vaccination against consumption was not available to apothecary/surgeon John Keats

Today we paired my wife’s love of nature with my love of Keats by visiting the Keats House near Hampstead Heath. Keats House is the duplex that was Keats last rental home, and the place where he wrote many of his best poems. There are few real Keats artifacts, but the house contains some of them and replicas of others. Seeing Keats marked-up Milton books, covered with underlined passages and marginalia in Keats own cramped hand was one highlight. I’m no expert on early 19th Century English living standards, but the  living quarters seemed surprisingly middle class adjusted for the time considering what I knew of Keats struggles with money.

My wife caught a break in the grey gloom and rain showers to spend some time roaming the heath while I nursed a cup of tea and started some blog posts and people watching. I have no Bob Dylan to share today, but here’s a version of John Keats “In the Drear-Nighted December” performed by the LYL Band.

The Poplar

We’ve already met most of the small circle of poetic Modernists that assembled itself in London before World War I. From the United States, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) and her one-time fiancé Ezra Pound; and from England, the combative and influential T. E. Hulme, and the risen from poverty F. S. Flint. Other poets, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost, touched them tangent in England, but were still bent with the gravity of what Flint called, and Pound promoted, as Imagism. If you’re new here, you can check our archives (now almost 200 audio pieces) and you’ll find all of them represented.

Today we use the words of the man we’ve left out, Richard Aldington. Another Englishman, he married the American H. D. in 1913. He worked with Pound to promote T. S. Eliot. Unlike T. E. Hulme, he survived WWI, but many said his combat experience changed Aldington, and retroactively the diagnosis of PTSD has been associated with him.

His long career had more than a few bridge-burning episodes, all disputes which I know not enough to have an opinion on. Partially because of this, Aldington is not well-remembered as a poet, even though at the start of the Imagist movement he was universally considered a principal.

Richard Aldington in sweater

Aldington, wearing an example of regrettable fashions of the early 20th Century

 

Like his partner H. D., Aldington looked to, and translated, classical Greek poetry; and like Pound he was fascinated by Chinese and Japanese compressed poetic forms, and produced work connected with these traditions. Today’s piece, “The Poplar”  isn’t one of those poems. In some ways “The Poplar”  reminds me of F. S. Flint (that other too often forgotten early English Modernist), as it’s free verse in Flint’s “unrhymed cadences” mode. It’s blissfully easy to read. It’s homey and unfussy images remind me of T. E. Hulme. It’s odd now that we think of Modernist poetry as requiring obtuse and learned images, when it’s founders like Hulme and Aldington in this poem have no images that wouldn’t be clear to a grade-school student.

Musically, today’s piece has a core guitar part that I played on a small acoustic guitar I’ve owned for 35 years now, but instead of “real strings” (which in my case would be “virtual instruments” where various notes and articulations of actual acoustic string instruments are sampled and then played by a keyboard or a guitar MIDI controller) I used a virtual instrument which sampled a 1970’s vintage keyboard “strings” instrument. I feel the dual falsity of this instrument, a simulation of a simulation, produces something that has its own validity. I also wanted to use a harmonium, but I don’t have that available as a real instrument or a sampled one. The closest I could come was a slightly modified “toy organ” patch which had some of the wheezy reed timbre I wanted.

Enjoy “The Poplar”  by using the player below. Even though it’s from the dawn of modern English poetry, it remains fresh because it’s not that well-known; and it doesn’t ask you to enter some dimly-lit labyrinth of images you cannot decipher. Yes, elusive images can have their pleasures, but so do these.

 

A reminder to regular readers of this blog

I’m traveling some this month, including another visit to London. This will reduce my production of new audio pieces at times. When I return, there are plans to see what Dave Moore and the LYL Band can bring forth, but in the short-term there’s likely to be additional setup work that goes into that. I’m mostly twice a week with new pieces here, but there may be some longer intervals.

Did you perhaps check-in looking to see if anything’s new? “Literature is news that stays news” said Ezra Pound. Although I learn things as I do this, this is not a blog with an over-arching narrative, and most pieces here can be read and listened to in any order. You can try the blog search box to hunt for poets, or just browse through the archives listed by month on the right.

Another piece of business. Why, for a blog that keeps talking about Modernists are there no modern authors? Don’t get me started! For all intents and purposes, U.S. law prevents me from using anything written after 1923. In theory, I might be able to get permission from rights holders. In practice they largely ignore me when I try to figure out who that might be—or I’m knocking on the wrong door. Luckily, I find the early Modernists still have a lot to show and teach us, but still…

And the most popular piece here last season was…

Musician jokes have a cruel streak, though most musicians love them.

 

“How can you tell if there’s a drummer knocking at your door?”

“Because his knocking speeds up and slows down, and he doesn’t know when to come in”

 

 

“Did you hear about the banjo player who played in tune?”

“Neither did I.”

 

 

“How do you get an electric guitarist to turn down?”

“Put sheet music in front of him.”

 

 

Here’s my favorite. A doctor, a lawyer, and a musician each win 100 million dollars in the lottery. The doctor is all smiles and says, “Oh, this is great! I don’t have to worry any more about arcane billing codes and insurance bureaucracy. I can just treat my patients!”

And the lawyer claps his hands on hearing, and says, “I’m going to just take all my cases pro bono and never again have to represent someone just because they can hire me.”

The musician though is downcast, he says, “Well, I guess I can keep gigging until the money runs out.”

The most popular piece for the Parlando Project this past Winter was Fenton Johnson’s “The Banjo Player.”  Johnson’s poem is essentially another musician joke, but one elaborated with some telling details observed from Johnson’s early 20th Century life.

The banjo is an African-American instrument, something often forgotten in my time until a few folklorists made efforts to set things straight. Fenton Johnson, born in 1888, just one year after Papa Charlie Jackson, knew that world before the guitar picker became the bluesman.

PapaCharlieJackson_GetAlong

Hype-man ad copy circa 1924 for the first ever to record self-accompanied blues .

 

Yes, he’s poking a little fun at his banjo player, but Johnson’s real case is for his value. It was a cold 20 and icy this March morning, and Johnson says the banjo player’s music is welcome “as the violets in March.”

And the section where I do a bit of a sticks and harmonica breakdown is the heart of the poem: children, who won’t even be able to pay the banjo player dimes like the adults in the saloon, love him like Santa Claus.

Here’s an irony darker than the joke of the banjo player who doesn’t know what a troubadour is. Fenton Johnson, Chicago’s pioneering Afro-American modernist poet had a life a bit like those three in the lottery joke. There was no 100 million, but he was born into an Afro-American family that had somehow accumulated some wealth. He was able to attend college. He dressed well, drove his electric motor car around the city. Like our joke’s doctor and lawyer, he wanted to use his good fortune and talents for good, to raise the status of Black Americans, the present task then for the early 20th Century “Talented Tenth.” And so, he established literary magazines, hoping to start a Chicago variation of the Harlem Renaissance, to promote the arts. But he was also like the musician in the lottery joke. Slowly, as literary magazines often do, those enterprises drained his efforts and his finances. He spent the last half of his life living on diminished means, his pioneering verse forgotten by all but a handful in Chicago.

There’s probably a good novel, play, or movie in Fenton Johnson’s story, but here at the Parlando Project we ask only that you listen for a few minutes to the compressed expression of poetry and some music, best as I can make it. The player is below.

 

Well that’s it for our look back that most liked and listened to pieces this past Winter. I’ll return soon with some new audio pieces.

March 2018 Parlando Top 10 Part 3

We return with the next three in the count-down of the most listened to and liked audio pieces of last Winter. Like last time, all poets who worked in the 19th Century, but in this group, all men.

Two out of the three today are from the British Isles. In may be no surprise, given its head start in English literature, that Britain is an outsized contributor both in words to be used and the Parlando Project’s reader/listenership.

I’ll be taking my second, short low-budget trip to London this month, and I’m frankly not sure what I will find this time, other than planning a side-trip to Margate to see the Turner art museum there and its small exhibition commemorating Eliot’s “The Wasteland” which was partially written in Margate. I’ll no doubt re-visit the Blake room at the V&A, and who knows, maybe I should try to find that alley beside the Savoy Hotel?

JMW Turner Waves Breaking on a Lee Shore at Margate

The London forecast calls for rain, hopefully not JMW Turner stormy though!

4. Ring out Wild Bells

When I posted this for New Year’s I noted Tennyson’s level of fame when alive, something that even the most popular Instagram poet cannot reach now. What I found out afterward was even more intriguing, that this section of his long poem “In Memoriam A.H. H.”  has become a tradition in Sweden to be read at the turn of the year, sort of how the Times Square ball-drop is ceremoniously repeated in New York, or how Guy Lombardo would once appear with his Royal Canadians near the top of the hour on TV to play a Scottish tune.

As evidence of Tennyson’s fame, I noted that my little Iowa hometown had a major street named for him when it was platted back in the 19th Century. Eventually the town and it surrounding farms were settled largely by Swedish immigrants. The Tennyson and bell-ringing tradition in Sweden started in 1927, long after the town was founded and settled, but wouldn’t it have been good in the town’s heyday if the farmers, shopkeepers, and schoolchildren had gathered on the sides of the street on New Years Eve to hear a poem?

Instagram poets get knocked for the shortness of their verse and it’s focus more on remediation than demonstrating literary skill. Tennyson built “In Memoriam”  into a book length series of poems, but his focus too was on remediation, in his case, of grief.

 

3. The Wild Swans at Coole

Yeats was Irish, and for decades I’ve met monthly with a group of poets the majority of whom were Irish-Americans. Yeats seems to have seamlessly transported himself between the 19th and 20th Centuries, changing so smoothly that he could not be observed changing. Somewhere around the turn of those centuries he decided that poetry should be chanted (not sung) to music, and yet we seem to know little about how exactly that sounded. Contemporary reports (and that’s what we have, there are no recordings I’m aware of) were decidedly mixed, even derisive, and Yeats eventually set that quest aside. The recordings of Yeats reading that we do have are from decades later, and in them there may still be traces of that concept audible in his, by then unaccompanied, reading style.

Yeats warns listeners that his chant may not necessarily enchant.

Reports also tell us that Yeats suffered from a difficulty carrying a tune, much as I do. His chanted, not sung, idea did not come from that he tells us, rather it came because conventional art song had too much ornament and melodic elaboration, deducting from the inherent music in the words.

In the course of the Parlando Project I take various stabs at what Yeats was trying to do, recreation in the literal sense, trying to create from the ancient and natural connection between music and poetry some combination that doesn’t privilege one over the other. Sometimes it’s spoken word, sometimes it’s “talk-singing,” and sometimes I think it necessary to sing.

I avoid apologizing for my musical shortcomings. It never mitigates anything anyway, and I’ve always found the humble-brag distasteful. I’ve hesitated at—and decided against—releasing performances most often because of failures of my singing voice. This performance came close to staying in the can. At times it works, not from my skills, but because there’s a certain match in the failings in the voice and the meaning of the poem.

 

2. My Childhood Home I See Again

One last 19th Century poet, an American. Long-time readers here will know that US President George Washington’s teenage love poem “Frances”  has been a surprisingly persistent “hit” with listeners here. It didn’t make the Top 10 this season, but we now have another Presidential/Poetical contender in Abraham Lincoln. If Washington was all youthful alt-rock persistence, Lincoln is more goth, with a downcast you-can’t-go-home-again tale of all he finds missing when he re-visits his hometown in his thirties.

Lincoln’s “My Childhood Home I See Again”  was very close to the popularity of the Number 1 this season. If didn’t count the substantial Spotify plays the Number 1 received, Lincoln would have topped this season’s list.

I posted this for what was once a common U.S. holiday, Lincoln’s Birthday. Also on this season’s Top 10 are the Tennyson New Year’s post and Rossetti’s Christmas song posted on Christmas Eve. Not sure if this is a trend, but listeners did like the holiday poems this winter.

 

Tomorrow, the most popular audio piece.

March 2018 Parlando Top 10 Part 2

An artist named Linnea Hadaway made a book earlier this year. It had no words in it. She said it had no words because it was about listening.

Today is International Women’s Day, an arbitrary thing like all special days, months and years. I can hear some grumbling off in the distance as some read this: “Another one of those special-interest things. I go to poetry and music to get away from that faddish nonsense.” There’s consistency in that opinion: if one is upset at “identity politics,” dividing the world in halves is just as deplorable as dividing it into tenths or smaller.

Are there dangers in division? There certainly are. But I don’t see these sorts of things as division, but as requesting attention—and attention is what art, and this Parlando Project is about. You see, life is incarcerated in the ultimate special interest group, the ultimate identity, political and otherwise: our own selves. Breaking the cellular barrier to spill our selves, or enticing us into opening a tiny pore to stare across at the skin holding another self inside another world, the still unexplored world we share, is the whole of art.

There is no apportionment so small as to be smaller than that. There is no way out but the way of art, to pay attention. Our ears cannot see, they can only listen.

No planning in this, but the next three audio pieces in our Top 10 count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces this past winter use words written by women.

Carrington 3

Surrealist Leonora Carrington captures the Parlando Project recording another audio piece

 

7. We Grow Accustomed to the Dark

I think I’ve used more Emily Dickinson pieces for words here than any other writer. I didn’t plan it that way. I’m not sure that Dickinson planned it that way either. Obviously, she meant what she did, assiduously creating and collating the more than a thousand short and engagingly enigmatic poems that we now see as a cornerstone of American poetry.

But as a careerist she’s a mess. She showed some of her work to friends and family, but like most friends and family they probably saw them as artifacts of the ordinary Emily, that stubborn particular. Perhaps they understood or didn’t understand her poems better than we do; but we, her current readers, believe it’s the later.

She had a lucky break with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the critic and social activist who answered her letter and saw something there. Even in the intellectual ferment of Transcendentalist New England, how many would have? The posthumous publication he shepherded, made possible the Dickinson we have today. But did he understand her art? We, as posterity, think otherwise.

So, like the woman in “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark”  Dickinson pressed on, walking, almost straight, and like the bravest, aware that the comedy of striding face-first into a tree was possible.

 

The Emily DIckinson Internal Difference

I was there! What a concert! The music was good too.

6. A Certain Slant of Light

I didn’t think about this while writing the music for and performing “A Certain Slant of Light”  and “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark,”  but these two Emily Dickinson poems are companion pieces. The Dark poem is more clear, even comedic, the Light poem more mysterious.

In my original post I decided to not talk about what I think the poem means. In some ways, I think that’s true to the poem’s “Where the Meanings, are.” I had fun with the mock psychedelic rock poster I created to illustrate it, but I think the core experience of the poem is the same that some were seduced into having by ingesting drugs, the insight that the universe’s meaning may be unknowable and its substitute only available by fiat.

Cure the cod-sitar sounds, and stereotyped sparkle-eyed hippie whooshing “Oh, Wow!” Of course, we must laugh. This is an insight available even to the young that can apparently be induced by mere intoxication.

But it’s true. It may be easier to see the borders of truth if one comes upon it without chemical aids; but even true, it’s an insight that’s hard to integrate into an active life and compassion. Dickinson integrated it with these little packets of poems. “None may teach it,” she says, but I can let you see my experience of it.

 

5. In the Bleak Midwinter

And one slot higher in the countdown, a woman who isn’t Dickinson, but is roughly her contemporary, English poet Christina Rossetti. Her’s is a Christmas and Christian poem, faith is her fiat; and a shaped and received story is her poems plot.

As this post talks about division, opposites—and how, if one distrusts them, one must cross them, sometimes listening, rather than shouting at them to come down—“In the Bleak Midwinter”  is all about divisions and opposites, and where they fail to hold.

In the moment of Rossetti’s beautiful song, even if earth is iron and water stone, heaven cannot contain God, nor can the earth sustain winter or meagre poverty.

I remember someone asking one of the earnest folk-singers of my generation (alas, I can’t remember who) if a song could change the world. Their reply was something like, “Of course not, but during the time the song is being sung the world is changed.” Perhaps an argument for longer songs, better memories, or us slowly learning how to integrate the experience of art into the rest of our lives.

 

I plan to return tomorrow with the next three in our Top 10 count-down of the most popular pieces over the past Winter.

March 2018 Parlando Top 10 Part 1

It’s time for that quarterly exercise where we look back for the most popular audio pieces here at the Parlando Project over the past season. I’m going to follow the format we used last time, and break the countdown into four episodes. I base the popularity on the number of likes following their posting here, and the streams the audio pieces received directly from the blog, or on iTunes, Spotify, or other podcast sources. Let’s start the count from the 10th most popular as we move up the list to number 1:

10. Rosemary

Even though these pieces were listened to in the Winter for most of our listeners*, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s words have a kind of spring-cleaning of the heart vibe, and so may be apropos for opening the windows and letting the curtains blow around—or at least they will in a few weeks when it warms up here in the northern part of the northern hemisphere. I awoke to 10 degrees Fahrenheit and snow and polished ice myself today.

I rather liked the music I wrote and performed for this one, just as I have liked going back to Millay to reassess the strengths she brought to poetry. Millay’s popular reading audience, once substantial, hasn’t completely disappeared, and there’s a welcome re-assessment of her poetry starting in academic circles.

 

9. Stopping by a Woods On a Snowy Evening

I’ve featured Robert Frost’s words quite a bit here, perhaps to atone for my dismissal of him when I was a teenager as the kind of worthy poetry in our schoolbooks that we needed to move beyond. Two things were key to my learning to love Frost: his uncanny ability to write lyrical verse that sounds natural, and my finally noticing the dry wit and stoicism that underlies most of his work.

Frost, alone of his American generation, has retained a level of popular appeal and critical approval. He’s double-edged in maintaining that. Some are captured by the surface of his poetry, hearing and maintaining in their memory the catchy moral-of-the-story “big choruses” of Frost. In this poem, it’s the “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep” at the ending. Others listen carefully to the verses, the parts other than the lines we most remember, the parts we can come back to and find that we’ve forgotten were there. When I came to work musically with this poem, I’d forgotten those. There’s no lovely woods to see in this dark night. He may be lost. He’s so dark and alone that he can hear snowflakes sweeping across snowbanks between the jingle of his rig’s harness bells.

Musically, I was obligated to add shaker bells percussion to stand for those harness bells, but then, more obscurely, I decided to add a South-Asian tambura drone for the sweep of snow.

 

amedeo-modigliani-pierre-reverdy

Modigliani’s portrait of Pierre Reverdy

 

8. Clear Winter

I was a terrible French student in my little Iowa high school and my little Iowa college. I seem to have no ability with languages, and less than no ability to handle those accents and the reforming of the mouth that makes speaking a foreign language possible. But I love poetry translation. I feel like a paleontologist removing the clods of sediment from a skeleton. Slowly, painstakingly, there it is, just as it was in its moment of sudden! But then my task shifts, and I must become the process of fossilization, to find the minerals of English that can fill in for the sinew and feathers of it’s original language.

I had a great time with the challenge of Pierre Reverdy’s “Clair Hiver.” I’m unsure of the accuracy of the “tea-kettle” section of my translation, but I fell in love with it, and could not abandon it, even if the light behind Pierre Reverdy’s eyes cannot reach the little anteroom behind mine.

 

*web stats I get for the streams tell me I have as many recent listeners in Australia as I have in Texas—and one listener in New Zealand. Bret, please tell Jemaine that there’s a lot of good stuff to read and listen to in the archives you’ll see listed by months on the right.