A month ago I began our celebration of the U. S. National Poetry Month with an audio piece using the words of Walt Whitman. Today I bring our month of music meeting poetry to a close with another piece by Whitman: “Poets to Come.”
Which is appropriate, as modern American poetry begins with Whitman.
From time to time in his work, Whitman reminds us that he knows he hasn’t fully realized his poetic project. This isn’t just false modesty. He revised and added to Leaves of Grass throughout his lifetime, but it wasn’t because he thought perfection was one more edit away. Whitman seems to accept that it’s better to try to do what his ideals say to aim for, to make the effort to become the artist his art asks to exist. It’s better to be 80%, or even half or less, of that ideal Whitman he writes of, sounding his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world, than for no Whitman to dare exist.
Note though that Whitman isn’t asking himself to do this for self -expression. His expression, even with the particularities of his own person being unavoidable, is cultural expression. He sought to sing into existence the culture he wanted America and the world to have.
Which is what makes this poem a great basis for the last post of this Poetry Month. He had faith for the poets who would follow his innovations and audacity. Many did come forth after him, many of which we’ve presented here. Whitman had, I might suppose, faith in the intentions of the Parlando Project—and I, if I pay attention to the spirit he wrote of, I should have faith too.
Good Gray Poet, Thin White Duke.. David Bowie sang “Ain’t there a pen that will write before they die?” Whitman’s caption says he was about 4 blocks from Sigma Sound studios were Bowie recorded that. TSOP!
During April I’ve created and presented 16 combinations of various words with my music, more than any other month in the year and a half of this project. I took a crack at preforming all of that “April is the cruelest month” modernist epic of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” —and only got near half-way done. I worked on the finding and understanding the words I’ve used, or composing, playing, and recording music for several hours every day this month.
And you’ve listened to these pieces, and if you’re here, you’ve even read my words about the process, for which I’m grateful. I’ll be back tomorrow with a piece by Dave Moore and the LYL Band for May Day and there may yet be more LYL Band recording before this Spring is over. I do expect to take a bit of a rest after the efforts of this April though. I have a pile of books I want and need to read, a whole lot of interesting blogs I’ve gotten behind reading too, and I’m looking forward to listening to music I didn’t have to think up first.
If you want more, I remind everyone that we have over 200 pieces here in the archives on the right. There’s lots of stuff that you may find better, worse, or at least additionally different there. If you, or someone you know would just like to hear the musical combinations we do, the Parlando Project music is available on all the major podcast services like Spotify, Google Play Music, or Apple podcasts.
Here’s Whitman’s “Poets to Come” performed with my music. Use the player below to hear it, and if you like it, please tell other folks about the Parlando Project.
In search of words to combine with music here, I sometimes find it necessary to translate from other languages. Poetry translation involves following strange paths.
Here’s the path I followed to present today’s piece, Jules Laforgue’s “My Poor Bagpipes.” Throughout this month I’ve been presenting parts of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as part of my celebration of April as National Poetry Month. This causes me to look more at Eliot and where he derived his sense of modern poetry from. Eliot’s own testimony says that a late 19th Century French poet, Jules Laforgue was very important to his own poetics. That’s about all I knew about Laforgue: important to Eliot.
I search and find some Laforgue poems, though only a couple in English translation. Luckily, there’s a site, laforgue.org that has put a great deal of his work online in its original French. I pick out a handful that have interesting titles or first lines and see what rough machine translations will show me.
As I looked at the rough translations I was struck by déjà vu—only in English of course. “Hey, that sounds familiar! I’ve read something like this poem.” In French it was “Poètes a Venir,” and of course it was Walt Whitman’s “Poets to Come.” It appears that Laforgue may have been among the first to translate America’s Whitman to French in 1886, while Whitman was still alive. And from his work translating Whitman, Laforgue began to write “vers libre”—free verse, himself, helping to pioneer that idea in French poetry.
“The very illustrious company of the black cat with his famous shadow plays, his poets his composers.” Remembered by its posters long after it closed, the Chat Noir cabaret was a place where music and poetry mixed in 19th Century Paris. A very Parlando Project thing, no?
I will not be translating Laforgue’s translations of Whitman back to English here. I picked his “Air de Biniou” to try, primarily because I was intrigued by the first line “No, No, my poor bagpipes.” I’m attracted to incongruity and black humor, and I kept double-checking to make sure that line’s “cornemuse” in French must mean “bagpipes.” The poem’s first verse seemed to refer to the bagpipes’ famously raw timbre and pitch issues: “everything is a mistake, everything turns out bad” claims Laforgue’s first stanza.
Inserting gratuitous bagpipe joke:
Why do bagpipers walk while they play?
To get away from the sound.
As I worked on it, I had trouble with several words, two or three of which I’m still unsure I’ve translated correctly. This may be a general issue for anyone translating Laforgue, as he liked to play with language and meanings, sometimes using unusual words. But I soon had a more serious issue, after dealing with “occit” in the second stanza. A poet’s images are not his literal manifesto, and irony was part of Laforgue’s stance. In this second stanza he says Nature is a wife the artist will kill. I get his point: the artist thinks they can better the mundaness of nature and create something new and above it. And it’s nature—an inanimate concept, not a person. Yet and all, it’s still a too-casual image of a too-serious and widespread problem, domestic violence, for me to be happy with it. Looks like this is a general issue with Laforgue too. He consistently used images of women, sex and relations with women as a repository for his issues with our biologic nature. In a word: misogyny.
Clearly he’s not alone in this. It could be one of the things Eliot picked up from him too. Like Eliot, he’s not stinting on masculine failures, but this can reveal an attitude that men fail because of their souls while women fail because of their gender. I tried to mitigate that stanza by dealing with another problematic word in it: “carambole.” It’s a word usually used for a particular fruit, but it’s also a bumper pool game, and something like that later meaning I think was what Laforgue intended. I was going to use something like rebound or carom in my translation, but at the time I performed it, I went with a more archaic meaning of the word where it may refer to cannons. At least that put the poet and Nature in a running battle. I may have made a wrong choice there, but that’s one of the things you run into in translation, needing to convey the author’s outlook which may not be your own.
We have little space left to wander more in the twisted paths you find when translating. I think it can be tremendously helpful for poetry composition, because it puts you, hand in hand with another poet, trying to find the right word with the right sound and connotations.
“Je suis bagpiper!” says the man in the center. “Daddy, can we talk about the patriarchy and your intonation issues.” says the girl on the right.
But one last thing, those surreal bagpipes in this French poem. Laforgue’s family was from Breton France. Bretons are a Celtic culture, and yes, they have bagpipes. As to my music here, while I enjoy composing string parts and breaking out the classical guitar, sometimes I don’t want to be careful, I just want to grab electric guitars and bash something out. “Everything is a mistake” says Laforgue. Nonetheless. Use the player below to hear it.
Here’s a poem by Sara Teasdale, an American poet of the first part of the 20th Century. I was actually planning to drop another piece using words by Teasdale today as part of my April National Poetry Month celebration, but I changed my plans and quickly worked up this one when I found out belatedly that Tom Rapp, songwriter and founder of the “transcendent folk” band Pearls Before Swine had died.
I’ll need to say more about Sara Teasdale later this spring
Rapp loved this poem, and set it to his own music in the 1960s. It was performed on Pearls Before Swine’s first album on ESP-Disk when he was still a teenager, and he later performed it along with his setting of Shakespeare’s “Full Fathom Five” on another LP in the Seventies. I’ve always loved his version, and Rapp’s work in general, so this is a tribute to him. I didn’t use his music for my version today, nor did I sing Teasdale’s words, as Rapp did beautifully. His version is of course better, but I wanted to do this today anyway.
Musically, classical guitar, two simple cello parts, and a number of South Asian instruments in the background mixed low. They’re there to resonate with the main tones of the guitar and the cellos the way a sitar or Hardanger fiddle does. The player to hear my version of “I Shall Not Care” is below. One of Rapp’s versions is linked in in the post before this one.
Isn’t it odd how you know, and yet don’t know things, even in this world of instant communications and webs world-wide. Yesterday I started work on a new Parlando Project piece, and this morning I returned from a brisk ride to breakfast on a cool sunny April day to write about this piece whose words were written by Sara Teasdale.
I would have said that I was introduced to Teasdale from an LP record by one of my musical influences, Tom Rapp. I figured I’d link to something about him…
…and there I learned, that he had died more than two months ago.
So, I’ll link to this, his performance, Parlando Project-like, of Shakespeare’s song “Full Fathom Five” from The Tempest combined with Teasdale’s “I Shall Not Care.”
Even though that’s an example of the Parlando Project principle: “Other Peoples’ Stories,” that is to say, it is words Rapp didn’t write, it conveys something of the impact Tom Rapp can have if one is open and receptive to his presentation. He didn’t need to use Teasdale’s words or Shakespeare’s, because Rapp is one of the best singer-songwriters you likely don’t know about.
Let me not inflict too much biography on you. Rapp is another child of the Midwest, born on the Dakota plains, raised some in Minnesota. While still a grade-schooler, he bested a teenager from Hibbing— kid named Bobby Zimmerman —in a talent contest in Minnesota. That Zimmerman kid moved to New York and changed his name to Dylan. Rapp ended up in Florida in the middle 1960s and formed a band with other kids in his high school. He named the band from a phrase from the Sermon on the Mount: Pearls Before Swine. Their first LP from 1967, with a cover taken from Hieronymus Bosch painting was the only one with any appreciable sales, and Rapp issued a handful of albums afterward to ever declining audiences. Why?
As you’ve heard me proclaim here “All artists fail.” Even the most successful, have multitudes remaining who couldn’t care less what they have done; and unique ones do not get any advantage. Rapp wrote fewer songs about romantic love, and his best songs did not offer any easy comforting. And he’s as far from get-down, party until you forget as any musician who ever lived. Rapp is a writer of look, and then look deeper, and remember.
Unique can mean mostly that the audience is not shouting for more like him or her. Yet, I’m sure there are in this troubled world a great many who could find solace, as I did, in Tom Rapp.
You can be the 82nd person to listen to this since 2014.
When I found that link to the LP cut of the song he made from Shakespeare and Teasdale on YouTube, I saw that it had exactly 80 views since it was uploaded four years ago. Let that sink in for a minute. 80 views. The clumsiest unboxing video for some appliance will easily garner more. There have been a few successful “songwriters you should have heard” stories this century, where decades-old work becomes better known—Nick Drake or Rodriquez come to mind—but to succeed in finding an audience, such things require luck, and we’ll only allow a few to win when we re-spin Fortuna’s wheel. Pearls before swine indeed.
While performing and posting about T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” bit by bit this month, have I mentioned enough how artistically revolutionary it was? For today’s section let me talk first about form and then about subject, and I’ll share a little-known episode in Eliot’s life that may have contributed.
I call today’s part of “The Waste Land” “Goodnight Ladies.” Formally, even today, nearly a century later, a section of a major poem written like this would be provocative. First off, it’s not “poetic” in its language. While there’s a minimal irregular structure from the interjected closing-time refrain of the bartender’s call, there’s no striking images, meter, rhyme, melodic flow, and certainly no “poetic diction” in it. It’s part in the musical structure of this very musical poem is to present a section with no music in its words. While politically and culturally apart from the Dadaists working at the same time outside of England, Eliot’s structure for “The Waste Land” is to throw in jarring and unannounced cuts in voice and setting. Even sophisticated, educated readers cannot agree how many voices and scenes are present in the “A Game of Chess,” which this passage concludes. I made it three pieces, three scenes, others think differently. Eliot has already used plenty of high culture references in the “A Game of Chess” section of “The Waste Land” before today’s scene: Shakespeare, Ovid, and obscure Jacobean playwright Middleton—but he’s also thrown-in a pop song parody. Now he concludes “A Game of Chess” with a bit of working-class pub dialog absent of any literary allusions (until the very end).
The speaker, an unreliable narrator, as well as her subject are working-class women. There is no sentimentality. This isn’t a “salt of the earth” bit of condescending or ennobling praise. The speaker is unkind and perhaps duplicitous (the implication is that she will, or has, put a move on the subject’s husband), and her subject, Lil, is a woman described uncharitably as looking “antique” at age 31, after multiple difficult pregnancies and an induced abortion.
The monolog, if not poetry, feels authentic. The depiction of class and sexual politics, is sharp and unstinting. A poet like Carl Sandburg, the radical and newspaperman, could have heard such dialog—but where the hell did T. S. Eliot, upper middle class raised, prep-schooled, Sorbonne and Harvard (legacy) educated, international banking officer, and furthermore, a man with a reputation as stand-offish and diffident toward women—even those of his class and cultural background—get informed enough to write this passage?
I couldn’t let that question go without some research, and I think I found an answer. It’s one of those “this would make a great movie” moments in literary biography. I knew Eliot had taken a crack at teaching school at a boys-only school in Highgate. That’s the start of the story, he taught French, Latin, math, history, drawing, beside duties coaching baseball (!) and swimming. One of his students: a 9-year-old John Betjeman.
Schoolteachers will know what kind of workload that entails. The bank officer job that followed was a relief to Eliot.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Through some connections, he was introduced to the Workers Educational Association. They were organizing college-level night school classes in Southall. Eliot applied to teach Modern English Literature there, and he continued to do this from 1916 through 1919. Since WWI was on, with many men overseas, the classes were ¾ women.
The weekly classes were a lecture followed by an hour of discussion. Regular papers and reading were required of the students.
What was the experience like for Eliot and his working-class students? Surprisingly rewarding for Eliot, and (as far as we know) for the students. In letters home to America, Eliot praised the minds of his best students, singling out several women. In an account he provided for the Association’s 50th Anniversary in 1959, he could still recall one in particular:
“There was one poor young woman who was one of my best students, but was an elementary schoolmistress with a very large class of little children in the daytime and (she)…died, I am sorry to say, of overwork.”
Was Eliot being polite in both his contemporary letters and his remembrance letter to the Association? Perhaps he did gloss over, or was unaware of, the difficulties one could imagine between himself and his students—but he did this for three years, as a second job that was presumably not his main source of income, and each year, he asked to do one more. Each year, he developed a new syllabus covering additional authors for his literature night-students, some of whom stayed with him for his entire run.
Inscription on a gift copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse signed by his students on the day of Eliot’s last lecture. The longer article about this is a must read for those interested in this little-known period of Eliot’s life.
Was that worn-out school-teacher, or some other night-school student, a model for Lil in today’s portion of “The Waste Land?” It seems possible. After reading this, my thoughts went to those students, hungry to learn and experience more about literature in the London night speculating of Zeppelin raids. How I wish we had accounts from the students as well! In “The Waste Land,” Eliot wasn’t going to give us anything he learned about their joys, or any compensations they found for the travails of their lives, anymore than he gives anyone that. We’re left, in today’s piece, with this mean girl’s account of Lil, unsparing in scorn, revealing Lil’s burdens as more of the weight of the timeless waste land on post-WWI Europe. Eliot doesn’t even give her story, told so meagerly, any ennobling literary references, nor any poetry, does he? Just a story in a bar.
Wait. Her name’s Lil. Lillith? Possible, but I think not. How did this poem begin? “April…breeding lilacs out of the dead land.” And the last line, the one I use for the title of this performance? It’s no longer the recounter of Lil’s life speaking (she who says it “goonight” not “good night”). The voice has shifted again, without warning in this unpredictable poem. It’s the voice of Ophelia exiting to her death by water in Hamlet.
Ophelia by John Millais. Almost nothing to do with Eliot and “The Waste Land,” but it’s been too long since I’ve been able to put a Pre-Raphaelite painting in a post.
The reader in this performance is Heidi Randen, who does a great job with the words and keeps me from having to inflict my voice in too many pieces here. To hear it use the player below.
I do make something of an effort to look for other folks doing something interesting with poetry and music online, and to check out the blogs of folks who’ve commented or otherwise contributed here. I really should be more consistent in doing this, but particularly this month as I’ve attempted to ramp up production of Parlando Project pieces as part of the National Poetry Month celebration, I’ve fallen behind. Come May I’ll have a lot of blog reading to catch up on!
As we read over the poems composed by the students, it was fascinating to see how many of them – the majority of the group, in fact – had fixated on the idea of more modern distractions from nature, and in particular, the role of smartphones in quite literally ‘filtering’ nature for us. While William’s poem admonishes its addressee to abandon books and ‘hear the woodland linnet’, the year ten pupils from Keswick School used their poems as a chance to reflect on the need to abandon their phones and enjoy nature in its own right.
I keep asking my middle-school aged son what his generation has decided the rapidly aging Millennials don’t understand and that his generation will have to fix. He looked at me funny when I asked him again this week
. “Is that some kind of Dad joke?”
Perhaps he just doesn’t want to divulge yet his generations secret plans to fix the worst mistakes of those who came before, or maybe he’s still formulating the answer. But one of the time-tested ways to look for answers or better questions is to skip back a few generations and see what someone observed and thought before those now running things made their decisions.
It may be U. S. National Poetry Month, but one can’t deny the impact that English poets have had on poetry, particularly before the Modernists launched with significant American participation.
Modernism, as practiced by those early 20th Century Imagists sought to cleanse poetry of the rust and rot of “poetic language” and rote abstract metaphors. Strong, exact words, no more complex or numerous than necessary were to describe things that were actual things, not merely decorative analogies to describe something else. By the 1920s, that American import, T. S. Eliot, became the standard of one large stream of Modernism. Although inspired by this fresh use of language, the Eliot wing of Modernism sought to rid poetry of “romanticism,” defined as a relentlessly subjective expression of personal experience unshaped by a greater historical and cultural understanding. Poetic language might be refreshed, but the cult of the great poem returned, and said that poetry is best to be in service of great themes and elaborate—rather than elegant—structures of thought.
Early Imagist/Modernist poems were about moments. The High Modernism of Eliot allowed it to be about eras. Imagists prized images of things formerly ignored or costumed only in the rhetorical finery in 19th Century poetry. High Modernism still allowed the mundane to stand for sublime thoughts, but it often sought to display a level of knowledge and literary scholarship along with the everyday in its choice of images.
This is why it’s important to look at the early part of artistic movements. Often their best ideas become mutated as the movements develop. Their revolutions become the new orthodoxy.
Today’s piece, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (Daffodils)” is by English poet William Wordsworth, one of the founders of Romanticism. It’s a poem that can be attached to an exact (April, Poetry Month) date: April 15th, 1802, and to a walk that Wordsworth and his sister took in rural England. But that’s not how the poem was written. Wordsworth wrote it a couple of years later. He referred to his sister’s detailed journal entry about the April walk to refresh his particulars. His wife supplied two critical lines for the final stanza. This was not a spontaneous outburst of subjective personal feeling at all.
I couldn’t make it to the Lake District, but even a month ago, daffodils were blooming during an English Spring in Kew Gardens
In a few weeks my lawn will look like this in Minnesota—only dandelions, not daffodils.
When I performed the version you’ll hear below, I made one significant change and one minor one. The minor change? I dropped the adjective golden from his line “A host, of golden daffodils.” I suspect I did this by accident as I performed it. Not to dis Wordsworth (and by the way, Billy, what’s with that obvious pen name “Words-worth” for your poetry gig?) but I think I improved the line when I sung it as “A host, a host of daffodils.” First off, daffodils are a common flower, and they are in the wild always yellow. Strict Imagists would say the golden adjective is therefore unnecessary—and it is, well, a gilding of the lily. I can’t recall my reason for the major change, dropping the next to last stanza—I may have desired to shorten the piece for performance—but it is the weakest stanza in the poem.
I do retain something else Wordsworth does here, something I don’t recall the Imagists doing much. “Daffodils” is presented in a framing device, while the Imagists were all about the presentation of immediacy. Wordsworth doesn’t say merely that looking at all these wildflowers, the temporary exultation of spring, was transfixing—and he says that less with that next-to-last stanza removed. This is not a poem only about letting us see them in their wild, external multitude through his eye on an April walk in nature.
No, the poem starts, deliberately, in past tense. “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” And the poem closes even more removed. The speaker of the poem is not the energetic nature-walker strolling in Spring. In the actual, unknown, later time of the poem, he’s lying on a daybed, vacant or pensive. These daffodils are now only obtainable by the “inward eye” of recollection.
Setting something in the past can be seen as a tactic of sentimentality, something the Modernists distained, but what we have here is worth that risk. How so?
I thought it a delightful little nature poem when I read it as a teenager. Then I read it decades later, as my Eagle Scout father, the angler long accustomed to waiting perpendicular on the flat surface of lakes, the man who had bicycled across his rural state many times—while then, as I re-read, he was further and further confined to lying flat in rooms with the erasing of days. In that later time, noting the wild daffodils bliss is told to us in memory, I reversed Wordsworth’s famous dictum on the origin of poetry. In my reading, in that time, it became a poem, a song, of tranquility recollected in emotion.
Here’s my performance of “Daffodils” as I sang and accompanied it on acoustic guitar.