Rats Alley

Continuing in our April Poetry Month serialization of “The Waste Land”  by T. S. Eliot, it’s come time to perform the next section of the poem, which I call “Rats Alley.”

It just happens that this week I got a copy of Martin Rowson’s “The Wasteland,”  a 1990 comic-book riff on Eliot’s poem as if written by hardboiled-detective fiction writer Raymond Chandler and filmed like “The Big Sleep”  or “The Maltese Falcon.”  Rowson notes that in “The Long Goodbye”  Chandler had referenced Eliot’s “Prufrock”  with a character quoting “In the rooms the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo” and having the character ask his detective Marlowe “Does that suggest anything to you sir?”

Marlowe replies, “Yeah—it suggests that the guy didn’t know very much about women.”

Though that’s clever repartee, charges that Eliot was naïve about women or even misogynistic can be difficult to disentangle from his general misanthropy. A female Chandler character may be given more apparent agency than the women in Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  but both the male and female voices of “The Waste Land”  are frankly damaged and the minor male characters, wraiths and zombies.

Rowson Wasteland1

Sometimes with a dame you gotta show’em some quotations in Greek or Latin.

 

In any case, Rowson’s comic-book/graphic novel is a lot of fun for fans of Film Noir and Chandler, or Eliot and Modernist lit. His drawings have more in-jokes than a season of “The Simpsons”  watched with a finger on the pause button. And from his notes Rowson supplies in my edition on dealing with Faber and Faber and the Eliot estate, it could have been even funnier if any of them had allowed the comedic-take to use any of the lines from the poem. I laughed often reading the Rowson, but never so much as when he recounts being refused the rights to use the ancient Greek and Latin quotes Eliot dropped into his poem, because Eliot’s rights now include them as part of a unique compilation. That may well be legally sound, but it’s also howlingly funny. Eliot as he wrote his “Waste Land”  was clearly borrowing widely from other authors’ work, because he thought it would show us something new when he put them in another context—the same thing that Rowson’s book sought to do.

Which is also what we try to do here as part of the Parlando Project, show you familiar and unfamiliar words in the context of different music and performance styles.

“We are in Rats Alley, where the dead men lost their bones”

“Rats Alley”  is a dialog, and the two speakers are clearly broken vessels. The woman dissatisfied, depressed, afraid, maybe even unstable. The man, numbed, haunted, unable to express even the short expressions of discontent the woman speaks. When he (once in the poem, three-times in my performance) breaks into the cryptic “We are in Rats Alley, where the dead men lost their bones” I decided to alter the voice, to make it a third voice. She’s asking him to speak, to tell her what’s going on, but she doesn’t seem to have heard him say anything, other than a litany, literally, of “nothing.” And so, I’m portraying the Rats Alley line as his inner torment, his monster, that is heard loudly, but only in his head.

That_Mysterious_Rag_1

“In the rooms the women come and go, digging riffs from Ahmad Jamal”

 

Rats Alley sounds like yet another reference to some dark Jacobean revenge play, samples from which Eliot has already peppered his poem with. If it is, no one has found that work. Some speculate it sounds like the darkly humored street-signs WWI trench-soldiers hung on their subsurface battle lines. If so, then the last voice, the fourth voice of the piece, an imaginary, comic ear-worm song Eliot has made up, “That Shakespearean Rag,”  could also be an internal voice. It’s sometimes been considered to reference Irving Berlin and Ted Snyder’s “That Mysterious Rag,”  a giant pre-WWI hit with lyrics that say “Did you hear it? Were you near it? If you weren’t then you’ve yet to fear it.” In the hit parade context, the lyrics turn out to be just bragging that this rag is a killer hook “because you never will forget it.” Eliot substitutes Shakespeare in his parody, but is this male voice a soldier, haunted by the trenches and dead comrades to whom old tunes now take on a new context, a sinister edge? It’s a bit of a stretch, but could Eliot have planned to use “That Mysterious Rag’s”  mock-dangerous lyrics as a counterpoint to his scene—wouldn’t that have been a powerful sample!—but was enjoined by copyright issues?

To hear my performance of “Rats Alley,”  today’s segment of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  use the player below. You can hear the first section, “The Burial of the Dead”  or the first part of the “A Game of Chess”  section which I performed as “Visions of Cleopatra”  by looking in our previous posts this April as we celebrate #NPM2018.

Dear March

We had a real Minnesota whip-saw this week, the aftermath of a 15-inch snowstorm as the week began and a day in the 50s as it ends.

Much digging out of cars, and wheels doing the whistle-spin on the ice beneath for three days. It’s been a long winter, but Sometimes It Snows in April  as Prince once sang.

Today, when it reached the lower 50s, people were out in shorts and T-shirts, with snow still covering yards, with the low rubble of white ruined walls still on the streets where cars had once been imprisoned. This is how Minnesotan’s celebrate unbelievable spring.

Now this Saturday brings the anniversary of Prince’s death, which was as unbelievable as Spring. I was looking for another poem to combine with music, and I reminded myself I hadn’t done an Emily Dickinson poem yet this April, and there can be no full celebration of U. S. National Poetry Month without Dickinson. As I looked, I came upon this poem, and it seemed right.

“Dear March”  has one of Dickinson’s bold apostrophes, but instead of death or some other imponderable, it’s Spring that gets to be portrayed as the caller, one who gets welcomed at the door with old-school manners. There’s delightful wit in this: the March winds portrayed as being out of breath, it must have walked the long way to get here! “I got your letter, and the birds.” But being Dickinson, she will add her slant. Just past halfway she bemoans the colorless landscape of winter that she’s been left with, as if it would be her job to color it in: “There was no purple suitable/you took it all with you.”

“There was no purple suitable, you took it all with you.”

I think again of Prince, and I think this is the poem to do.

The poem continues, and we can now understand that the wit has an undercurrent. Someone else is knocking. It’s April, more visitors—or are they both suitors? “I will not be pursued!” Dickinson is now ambivalent to more Spring, to more young man’s fancies. She’s not answering the door “He stayed away a year”—well so did March. The poem ends in ambivalence. She should doubt the constancy of these Spring suitors even with the flirting, the flattery and the gifts they bring, but then there’s joy in blaming them for their absence now that they have returned.

Prince in the studio

Prince: performer, songwriter, impresario, but I’ll think of him as the patron saint of studio rats

,

I don’t want to stretch things too far here, but there are a couple of similarities in Dickinson and Prince. Both known for wearing one color (white and purple). Both enigmatic to the public (“The Myth” and “The Glyph”) and increasingly reclusive. And both were capable of being prolific and artistically self-sufficient, though this is not as rare for poets as it is for musicians and songwriters who could (as Prince did) write and record all the parts. In the end, they are both American originals, not copies of anyone before or since.

To hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “Dear March”  use the player below. And let folks know about what we’re doing here, combining various words (mostly poetry) with original music in different ways. It’s #NPM2018, and you can dance to it.

 

Visions of Cleopatra

“Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule.” This famous line from T. S. Eliot’s modernist epic “The Waste Land” —oops! I’ve become confused here. As part of our celebration of National Poetry Month this April, I’ve been performing “The Waste Land”  and dropping the mixtape here as I complete a section. We’ve completed the first part “The Burial of the Dead,”  and this week I moved on to the start of the second section.

That section, sub-titled “A Game of Chess”  opens with an elaborate descriptive passage with lines quoted from older literature, with paraphrases and references of stories dating back to Classical Greek. It’s opening lines are cribbed from Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra. The section’s sub-title itself is taken from an allegorical play first performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

Throughout “The Waste Land”  Eliot does this. He’s sampling. He thinks these bits will add flavor, perhaps even to those that aren’t as well-read and as he was in 16th and 17th Century literature. But this is also part of one of his tactics in his poem, to portray the specific malaise and suffering throughout Europe after the First World War and his own personal depression and chaotic marriage as something adrift in time, an infinity echoing inside the museum of Western Culture.

In this opening section he’s describing a woman in an over-decorated room full of upper-class bling and old-fashioned mannerist art that makes only sentimental reference to searing tales. As he describes this his syntax is convoluted, his sentences run-on, his poetic line breaks disassociating. And all this is in service of a segment when nothing, absolutely and intendedly nothing, happens.

As I re-encountered this section I had that flash of metaphor that I love. Metaphor is the powerful fusion that occurs when two things unite into one expression. Eliot’s room may be decorated differently, but the room seemed familiar, the language usage brought forth déjà vu, the air in the radiator pipes rumbled, the heat pipes just coughed.

How much did T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”,  or this section of “The Waste Land” enter into Bob Dylan’s toolbox? The two poets share some common influences from French poetry. Both love to mix highbrow and lowbrow references. Both quote and paraphrase other writers, though in Eliot this is usually considered scholarly, and with Dylan it’s too often taken as evidence of plagiarism. Sometimes Dylan is just Eliot without footnotes.

All I have to go on is a passing reference to reading and finding some value in Eliot in Dylan’s memoir “Chronicles,”  and the line in Dylan’s own waste land epic “Desolation Row”  where “The Waste Land’s”  editor and dedicatee Ezra Pound and Eliot are fighting in the (ivory?) captain’s tower. That’s plainly thin evidence. The flash of metaphor don’t care,  these two moments of decorated stasis feel similar enough to inform this performance.

Eliot on Blonde Crop

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins—and Shatzberg, I know it’s cold out here, but can you at least focus the camera…”

 

I got part way into this recording of the first part of the second part of “The Waste Land”  as illuminated by Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna”  before I decided I’d go with more than memory and listen to the canonical recording from the “Blonde on Blonde”  record. I’ll have to say that my memory-track of “Visions of Johanna”  is mostly a mashup of the various live versions performed solo with acoustic guitar and harmonica in 1966, where Dylan’s “you’ll like it, or you won’t” singing makes every word tell. Dylan had a hard time getting an electric band version recorded that same year, perhaps because a Rock’n’Roll song about stasis is a hard thing to make. On reencountering the “Blonde on Blonde”  version, I took some inspiration from it: the organ player who gets lost partway in, the importance given to the bass part, and the drums that follow the ebb and flow of the singing. I’m not trying to duplicate the record, just tipping my hat to its effects.

This is the sort of thing we do here, even on months that aren’t National Poetry Month, bringing music to poetry and illuminating poetry with music, reencountering familiar poems to see something new in them, finding lesser known poems and presenting them. We do that a little different each time, as a visit to our archives on the right side of the page will demonstrate, but to hear this part of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” performed, use the player below.

 

Coincident of Douglass and Hayden

Yesterday’s post ran so long that I needed to improve it by removing some things that weren’t relevant to the story of Robert Hayden choosing a school of literary criticism to place not just his work, but his life, in context. But I love the minutiae I find when I’m researching these pieces. So here are some outtakes from yesterday’s post about Hayden’s sonnet praising Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass was not the name he went by as a slave. As with most enslaved persons, to the degree he needed a last name, the name used was from one of the families that had owned his. After his escape from slavery, it was suggested that a name change might help shield him from slave catchers that would kidnap and re-enslave Afro-Americans. He took the name “Douglass” from an immensely popular Scottish historical romance by Walter Scott, “The Lady of the Lake,”  where one of the main characters had that family name.

Sir Walter Scott was a huge cultural force in the 19th Century. His stories set in an idealized past of clans and medieval knights kicked off a revival of all kinds of Highlands Scottish culture. Alas, in another case of artists that cannot be held responsible for their fans, one far-flung example of Scott’s influence was his popularity in the American slave-holding south.

That’s right, Sir Walter Scott, and that romanticized Scottish past, is the reason that the post-Civil War terror organization styled itself as Knights of a Klan.

There you go, a renowned abolitionist and an infamous symbol of violent racism, both took their names from Sir Walter Scott.

I mentioned Hayden’s disagreements with those associated with the Black Arts Movement and some kinds of Black Nationalist politics in his later life during the 60s and 70s, still too large a subject, and one on which I lack authority. But since I was alive in that time, such things cause me to remember things.

To an under-recognized degree, mainly white radical movements in the mid-20th Century, admired, totemized and sought to copy those contemporary Afro-American movements. When I entered college myself in the 60s, my Irish-American Chicago-born roommate, a college football playing offensive-lineman with his knees already scarred from injuries playing for Lane Tech, kept a photo of John Carlos and Tommie Smith with their black fists raised on the Olympic podium. Within a year or two, that gesture would become a diversely popular gesture of radical protest.

Fred Hampton, the Chicago-based Black Panther killed in a highly questionable police raid was part of our conversations, a newspaper photogravure of his bedroom door scarred with dozens of bullet holes (all inward facing, the caption pointed out) was studied like a record album cover.

For some young serious musicians, Afro-American originated jazz and free-jazz were still examples of the highest forms of contemporary music-making. Some white musicians and artists sought to emulate the independence and syndicalist self-organization that Black Arts associated musicians had developed.

Sun Ra and the MC5 by Gary Grimshaw

How did Afro-Futurist Jazz  appear with hard-rockin’ punks the MC5?
Poster by Gary Grimshaw for a concert promoted by John Sinclair

 

For a moment, for a young white man in any area outside of a few urban enclaves to grow long hair was to a degree both real, and “that’s crazy, it’s not the same!” to become a voluntary Black person. Younger readers, let that sit in for a moment. Isn’t that a ludicrous thought?

I was there. Yes, surely there was much ignorance there, staggering naiveté. The term cultural appropriation hadn’t been invented yet, but surely this would be a cause to invent it. Yes, that comparison, that metaphor, was partly false, partly true.

Fifty years ago, in the Detroit area—where Robert Hayden was born and would spend much of his life—a white poet, arts-cooperative guru, and jazz-critic John Sinclair lead a small group to declare themselves the “White Panther Party,” issuing a manifesto that echoed the Black Panther party. Other than provocation, their chief asset was they had a rock band, which was better than the mimeograph most other movements could boast.

And so it was, that when I read of Robert Hayden, the poor Black kid, who struggled to attend Wayne State University during the Great Depression of the 1930s, a Black man who couldn’t volunteer, who’d have his own battles between the universal and the particular—when I read the name of that school where he went to learn poetry, a short, near-blind, unathletic kid, I thought of this performance by that rock band, the MC5, at Wayne State’s athletic field in 1970.

“Kick Out the Jams” is about irresistible musicians, but note, the crowd is 80% male.

Frederick Douglass

Today’s piece uses words by Robert Hayden, who was a 20th Century American poet who often wrote about that essential American subject, Afro-American history. He was born just before WWI, and was writing poetry both before and after WWII, during the rise of the New Criticism, which held that the poem exists as a thing created as a conscious work by an author but is best judged irrespective of who that author is.

Douglass and Hayden

Frederick Douglass used the power of the charismatic portrait as well as his  powerful words
Robert Hayden had to rely more on the words alone, but what words they are!

To the degree that this theory was actually practiced, it solves a number of problems. One of them are the issues of discrimination, old-boy networks, and literary log-rolling where who you know or where you are in the social and academic order pre-emptively decree the worth of writing. It helps deal with thorny problems, like having poetic Modernism’s great progenitor Ezra Pound becoming a Fascist propagandist during wartime. If it was still in vogue, it might assist in considering issues around artists in our time who’ve committed heinous acts or supported political opinions we judge to be beyond the pale.

There’s a saying: in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there is. Historically, the New Criticism as a critical movement didn’t consistently break down cultural barriers, though things like the post WWII GI Bill certainly did. Extra-academic movements like the Beats and their successors, and the Black Arts Movement did so as well. Great cultural shifts such as the civil rights movement have literary impact. In the end, the New Criticism seemed to restrict itself to giving students and academics a framework to discuss literature without the need to refer to the problems in their authors lives.

Perhaps too, it’s just easier to judge works based on friendship, affinity groups, or cultural and political stances. Even for an artist, how much can we live in an artistic world separated from the daily, inescapable effects of the political and economic world?

But let’s not be too unfair to the New Critics. They cared about the work as it exists, treating art not as inessential decoration for something else. They offered open structures, criteria that were open to any to master. When Robert Hayden, born in the crowded Detroit ghetto swelling with southern migrants looking for industrial work, mastered those structures, he (eventually) earned a place in the culture of his time. How did this play out as my generation, born after WWII, came of age? Let’s look at the tape.

15 minutes from a Robert Hayden interview in 1975.

This is a time capsule from over 40 years ago, yet it could be longer for all the patina of time. The monochrome of the film makes the impassive white interviewer, the smoke from his constant cigarette, and the later-life Hayden all look gray. You see the coke-bottle glasses on Hayden’s face, but not the tint of his skin that would have born him instant misjudgments throughout his life, misjudgments that he would have to have dealt with along with his art. You will hear him make the claim I made to describe him at the beginning of this: that he’s an American poet who will write about Afro-American subjects, and hear him begin to make the case as to why this distinction is important. I can clearly hear how important he believes this is.

Around 10 minutes in, he’s asked to engage with the separatist strain in Afro-American culture, and he offers his full-throated disagreement with what he thinks are their goals. That’s too big a subject to deal with here, but apparently at the point at which he was finally achieving some recognition for his poetry, some aligned with the Black Arts Movement saw him as an assimilationist. Some might view this part as a “damn kids, get off my lawn” generational moment.

Also, in the film Hayden reads two poems. One is probably his most well-known work “Those Winter Sundays,” and the other is today’s piece, “Frederick Douglass.”   In the later, using only the eloquent words in his sonnet, Hayden makes that argument that he could write a political statement timeless and yet incisive, and in the former, he writes a poem of gratitude to his foster father, an unpoetic man who made it possible for him to be a poet.

“Those Winter Sundays”  will be featured this month on Poetry In America on PBS. It’s a fine poem, and I’ll be interested in seeing what they do with that poem’s details, things that one needs to linger a bit to see. I, on the other hand, had already chosen to present “Frederick Douglass”  for my first Robert Hayden poem here. If you take the poems together, you’ll see two arguments for paying attention to Hayden. One the universalist for liberation (a political theory Hayden shared with Frederick Douglass) and the other the argument for gratitude to those, however imperfect, that helped us.

When I first read Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass”  this year I was immediately struck by the poem’s uncanny details, laid in-between the eloquent flow. It was written over 50 years ago, but it’s more current than that B&W film from 1975. Perhaps you’ll hear them too if you attend to them: freedom that can be beautiful and terrible, hunted aliens, metal statues more valued than lives made possible.

Here’s my performance of Hayden’s words about Douglass. Use the player to hear it.

Thanks to the publisher for permission to perform this. “Frederick Douglass”  is Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden. From COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT HAYDEN by Robert Hayden edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Company

The Burial of the Dead

Well, the rooks were wrong about Winter passing, at least for now. As much of Minnesota is covered with a foot or more of forgetful snow, with more remembering to fall over the top of us all day, it’s a good time to return to T. S. Eliot’s landmark of Modernist poetry “The Waste Land,”  the poem that, by beginning with the famous line “April is the cruelest month” is largely responsible for National Poetry Month being set in April.

The first lines of The Waste Land

Other than the “Dead” thing and the sinister Roman numeral,  seems normal enough;
but “The Waste Land” will soon get stranger and darker than anyone expected in 1922.

 

We’ve been performing it on the installment plan this month, following up on our performance of the first segment of it last April. But, it occurs to me that because so many of our listeners hear us via the podcast section of Spotify, which perversely doesn’t allow podcasts to be placed in playlists, that it might be good to combine what we have completed into one longer piece.

So, here’s the more-or-less complete first section of “The Waste Land”  titled “The Burial of the Dead.”   Eliot intended his poem to be musical, so even though it’s sprawling and includes many voices, it’s been fun to make audible the musical implications in it. As I do this, I’m reminded again of my first encounter with “The Waste Land.”  I didn’t understand any of it—well, that’s not completely true, I could extract meaning from a few lines—but the whole thing could just have well have been a symphony with notes in place of words. Even now, for me, “The Waste Land”  remains a hard poem to love, and unlike many poems and poets of our current scene, it’s not asking us to love it.

So, if it’s hard to understand, and hard to love, why listen to it?

Because it is a great poem? I doubt that would work. Because it was so influential historically? Well, that influence is now largely historical. It did move things powerfully one way, and then, after decades, things moved another way, in part in reaction to it. Because there are still fresh experiences to encounter in it? Now we’re getting closer. Art isn’t immortal only because it’s great in some ideal way, an art work’s immortality happens from our mortal human actions, our human reactions  to it, and some of those become richer when the work has become strange to us from a change in fashion.

But in the end, I ask you to listen to it consistent with our overall tactics here in the Parlando Project: listen to it as music first, do not worry at the overall meaning immediately. I hope I can illuminate some meaning with my performance and music, but simply to comprehend “The Waste Land”  as this suite of voices and moods is to comprehend much.

Here’s the player gadget to hear “The Burial of the Dead.”  Since it combines what had been four pieces issued separately here, it’s longer, at 13 minutes, than our usual stuff. If you’re looking for something brief, why not take a random walk through our archives for one of the more than 200 shorter pieces we’ve available.

 

Snow Storm on a Blank Page

Longtime readers will know that one of the principles for the Parlando Project is “Other People’s Stories.” I partly do this out of a contrarian streak, as the Internet is full of folks telling their own stories. Yet, obviously, I do not take my path due to a condemnation of personal stories. After all, without other’s stories, I would not have the ones I present and react to here.

I believe something additional happens in my process of presenting my encounters with other people’s stories. You, the valued readers and listeners here, add a third part to this. Do you see, what I see, as I am looking at, speaking someone else’s silent words; while you remain off to the side, with your ears at each side of your own mind and memory, your eyes parallel to your own mouth? No, you will see something slightly different.

Yet, this morning, let me violate my self-imposed principle, and write, as if this were a conventional blog, about myself.

I awoke today after a week that finally found promised 50 degree Fahrenheit temperatures to an utter snowstorm that had itself awakened from a night sky that fitfully dreamed rain, sleet, hail, and freezing rain. The wind outside had someplace to go in a hurry.

I am an Amateur of Velocipeaes by Leonara Carrington

Leonara Carrington dreams of bicycles with oversize tires

As a contrarian, I dressed and took to my marvelous Minnesota invention, the fat bike fitted with 4 inch wide studded and knobbed tires. A morning with few moving, yet full of noise. Snow crunching under the tires, wind restating its case more insistently over again, the typewriter of snow against my goggles.

Parked at the curbs, even the most fearsome cars were growing a white carapace, their windshield wipers stretched out, insect arms, quivering in the wind.

Windsheld wipers stretched out insect arms

“Insect arms, quivering in the wind”  wipers left out to keep them from being encased in ice

To be an old man on a bicycle is to know gratitude. Does a fierce April snowstorm tell a story? Perhaps it does. Is it beautiful, or a false and comfortable frightening that leaves others inside, deciding that internal pleasures are best this morning. But I wished to hear its story today, to see it. As I rode, the wind said yes and no in its one direction. The snow said music is frozen yet moving. The whiteness says color can only exist if you make it.

In the middle of the week I had driven two friends to the airport. They saw this sign “If you see something, say something.” I thought, isn’t that the fourth Imagist rule, one unstated by F. S. Flint and Ezra Pound? Yes, you must honor the thing and your reaction to it, using no word just because you believe you must use that word, and remember you are making music, not marching. But the first rule, which I understand now in the multitude of a blizzard: if you see something, say something.