The Poet to Death

Here’s a short piece using a poem by a person who started out as a poet but who spent the greater part of her life working for her country, India’s, independence: Sarojini Naidu.

Sarojini Naidu, like Edna St. Vincent Millay around the same time in the U. S., impressed people as a capable poet while still a teenager. Her talents lead to her being sent abroad to England for college, and eventually she connected with the Rhymer’s Club, the turn of the century London organization that was the last stop in the 19th Century for some of the poets who would launch the poetry of the 20th century.

Today’s piece, “The Poet to Death”  was first published in England as part of Naidu’s initial collection of poetry The Golden Threshold  in 1905. Fluent in several languages, the pieces in The Golden Threshold  are in Naidu’s own English. Some accounts say that the young Sarojini was modest about her poetry at the time, worried that her work was less-substantial because it is lyrical and song-like; and retroactively English-language Modernism did discount that sort of poetic gift. So, while her poetic work is still remembered in her homeland, where Wikipedia says she’s called the “Nightingale of India,” Sarojini Naidu will be a new name to most of our reader/listeners.

During the WWI years Naidu transferred her focus from poetry to working for Indian independence, a cause in which she became a principal, alongside Gandhi and the other independence leaders.

Did the world loose a poet for India to gain its independence? Perhaps. I do not know enough to say. In her English poetry, I can see the influence of the earlier 19th Century English romantics, but her language is less extravagant. She can remind me at times of Christina Rossetti (readers here will know I consider that a good thing), and “The Poet to Death”  is a concise version of a trope Keats used as well.

Sarojini Naidu Real Folk Blues

India gave us chess. Chicago gave us Muddy Waters on Chess records.

 

Today’s music employs a polyrhythmic blues. Perhaps I was subconsciously moved by the “till I am satisfied” line in Naidu’s poem to think of Muddy Waters and his “I can’t be satisfied,” though what I ended up playing has some elements of Skip James’ guitar style too. At a conscious level, I was working on this while thinking of poet Donald Hall, having read a review of his new collection of essays coming out this month, and then hearing later in the same day that he had died at age 89. In his last couple of decades, Hall has often written of what continues until it ends in the course of aging.

Donald Hall
Donald Hall. His book of essays “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety” drops in July.

 

For some reason the version of the text I worked with did not have Naidu’s first stanza, which specifically speaks, as a younger poet, for death to stay his hand. In the remaining two stanzas, the age of the speaker is less determined, and so the situation is joined whether it is a young poet or old. The blossoms are always there a short time, at any age.

To hear my performance of Sarojini Naidu’s “The Poet to Death,”  use the player below.

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A Visit from the Angels

Back more than 200 years ago, poet, painter, engraver and mystic William Blake was reported to be conversing with angels in English trees. Last episode we had William Carlos Williams celebrating celebrity scientist Einstein in a blooming New Jersey night early in the 20th Century. Today we have Dave Moore in his backyard garden in Minnesota in our present century.

Blake Angels on spiral

William Blake illustration of Dave’s Minneapolis garden night, sort of.

Is this poetry, song, or story-telling? It might be a little bit of all of them, but then labels are just sticky paper. Let me refrain this time from talking so much about the piece, but I encourage you to just listen to the LYL Band and Dave Moore tell the story. Use the player gadget below to hear it.

St. Francis Einstein of the Daffodils

Metaphor, that stuff that helps make the music of thought in poetry, is the linking or liking of things. This is like that. This stands for that. The sensation of this is like the sensation of that. This reminds us of something else. The way I say this recalls the way one says that. Metaphor recombines the stuff of our world even though it’s a combination that only exists in the imagination.

Metaphor can make something clearer to an audience. It’s so useful in that way that one can barely explain anything challenging to an audience, even in the most prosaic day-to-day business world, without falling into metaphor. In poetry however, the bounds of increased clarity can be stretched, broken, and abandoned. Depending on one’s mood as a reader, this can be frustrating or a pleasing play of the mind. With the Parlando Project we perform the poems with music. One hope from this is that you can relax and let the beauty or strangeness of the words carry you over gaps in meaning. Sometimes you can enjoy a poem before you understand it.

William Carlos Williams who wrote the words in today’s piece, gives us Spring weather with Spring flowers and fruit blossoms, gardens and orchards, and all under a title that combines a famous saint with his era’s most famous scientist. He gives us almost no help in combining that title with the poem, other than yoking them together. The linkage of metaphor is much strained here, even when he further explains his title by adding a sub-title: “On the first visit of Professor Einstein to the United States in the spring of 1921.”

How are we to make the connection that will construct the metaphor?

William Carlos Williams with typewriter

Just another hipster with his typewriter. William Carlos Williams throws off his covers.

 

My best understanding so far is that the connection is wonder and change. Recall our last post, where in his “Queen Mab”  Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic early-19th Century poet, gave us a vision of the wonder of an immense cosmos, which Shelley’s own notes tell us he could also sense through the poetic/mathematical meter of the speed of light. The theoretical scientist and the visionary poet each seek to grasp some new metaphor of the world. Einstein was changing physics in the time that Williams and his fellow Modernists were seeking to change the apparatus of art. Williams elaborates on this theme mostly by vivid descriptions of the change of Spring. In the only mention of Einstein in the body of the poem, Einstein is “tall as a violet.” He is the Spring’s new growth.

There are a couple of obscure literary references in one section, the sort of thing T. S. Eliot or his imitators would have used. Who is “Samos, dead and buried?” I’m not sure, but my guess is that it’s Pythagoras of Samos, the famous classical Greek philosopher for whom science and the arts were one. And Lesbia? Catullus’ Roman poetic beloved, who we’ve met here in Elizabethan guise. It may be enough that they have ancient sounding names, and of such ancient classical modes, Williams, who is in some ways the Anti-T. S. Eliot, says “Sing of it no longer.” He moves right back into a present day of Spring. Pythagoras is dead, Catullus’ Lesbia is dead, and so is a black cat buried in a newly planted garden. Awhile later in the poem we may get one more connection to that cat part of this buried trio. A chicken-raising man who puts out poisoned fish-heads to keep the cats from his chickens. That man becomes like the Modernists, needing to kill the ancients to protect the new flock he’s raising.

As a side note, this poem’s chicken farmer, the white-haired negro, was quite likely the man whose rain-glistened red wheelbarrow sat next to the white chickens in William’s famous poem of admiration.

The poem closes with a sensuous image of Spring change, a night that grows warm as an orchard owner opens his windows and throws off the covers that were needed in the cold. In an earlier version of the poem, Williams had woven Einstein by name in and out of those Spring images explicitly, including this last one where Einstein was named as that man with the blossoming orchard, another grower of renewed things. In this later version, all these stated links to Einstein are removed (save for that one Einstein as a violet).

Professor Einstein Narcissus

Not a violet, but the “Professor Einstein Narcissus.” Has “great curb appeal” and “deer won’t eat” says this garden center.

 

Was that a right choice? The resulting poem is shorter and more mysterious, but it also doesn’t make it easy to see what Williams is getting at. He’s using metaphor, but he’s removed all the connections. I decided to perform the later version. I think it performs slightly better, and perhaps the music makes the obscurities less taunting.

A simple musical arrangement this time, just acoustic guitar and subdued electric bass. To hear my performance of William Carlos Williams’ “St. Francis Einstein of the Daffodils,”  use the player below.

 

From Queen Mab Canto II

It’s not often that we think of English Romantic poets along with science. We tend to think of them as pure examples, an engraved picture of an enraptured youth subject to the throws of inspiration, to be found next to the words “poet” or “fool” in a dictionary.

Percy Bysshe Shelley is no exception to this. In my mid-20th Century American school-days he was seated with the Romantics, and biographically some mention would be made of his notoriety during his lifetime, the matter of which would be ascribed with a summary of libertine sexual behavior in the Byron and Shelley households. I suspect many of those descriptions, brief and bloodless as they might have been, were attempts to woo additional interest in poetry from otherwise little-interested adolescents.

Part of the joy of this project is finding surprising things in poetry among the accidents and intents of looking for material. At the end of last week, I read of the memorial service held for physicist Stephen Hawking at Westminster Abbey.

Vangelis is going to stream a musical piece with Hawking’s famously synthesized voice out to the galaxies! Somewhere out there, the odds say, a curious alien will detect this light-years from now; though probabilities also say they will have likely forgotten to bring earbuds along on their saucer-ride.

And there were celebrities! Elgar, Stravinsky and Holst got played! The ticket application form allowed future birthdates, in case time-travelers wanted to apply to attend!

But reading on I find that astronaut Tim Peake read a bit of, what, Shelley. From “Queen Mab”  accounts said.

I find a copy of “Queen Mab.”  Turns out it’s another kind of Shelley from the school-book aesthete. “Queen Mab”  is a fairly long blank-verse epic, but I didn’t have to read far to find the parts you’d want to read for a cosmological tie-in. Right there in Canto II, Mab, the queen of the fairies, has Uber’ed up a human soul to her palace, which is more or less an atheist’s heaven, which is to say a philosophical location above the cosmos—and there, the human soul gets to observe the wonder of this perspective. Mind-blowingness ensues.

This is the kind of thing which visionary poets and scientists share, and that thing is wonder. Stacks of SciFi books would lift one nearly that high; but why couldn’t poetry, the literary artform best-suited to grasp tiny pieces of the un-graspable do that too?

percy_shelley

What if instead of sitting at a cave entrance, I was at a place of immense gravity, where even light falls into it? If I ever go back to England that’ll make a good bedtime story for little Ada, who’s always too busy using her wooden blocks to solve equations.

 

Here’s something else I found remarkable, a series of notes on the issues in the poem, written by Shelly, a young man of 18 in the early 19th Century. Here’s a portion of the first one:

Light consists either of vibrations propagated through a subtle medium, or of numerous minute particles repelled in all directions from the luminous body. Its velocity greatly exceeds that of any substance with which we are acquainted: observations on the eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites have demonstrated that light takes up no more than 8′ 7″ in passing from the sun to the earth, a distance of 95,000,000 miles.—Some idea may be gained of the immense distance of the fixed stars when it is computed that many years would elapse before light could reach this earth from the nearest of them; yet in one year light travels 5,422,400,000,000 miles, which is a distance 5,707,600 times greater than that of the sun from the earth.

I was an English major, I had to look this up. Shelley, or early 19th century science, was off several billion miles on the length of a light-year, and a couple of million miles off on earth-sun distance—hey, I knew that last measurement, though from an early-childhood advertising jingle. However, ask yourself, how likely would it be that the most facile poet in any first-year college creative-writing class be conversant in those measurements, and how they are empirically proved?

So, thanks Stephen Hawking, Tim Peake, and whoever planned that part of the Westminster Abbey internment service. I now think of Percy Bysshe Shelly differently.

Musically, I started by noting in Shelley’s poem the description of deep-space orbs “in mazy motion.” I thought immediately of Mazzy Star, that late 20th Century indie band. Does mazzy/mazy go back that far? Turns out that the word mazy was something of a English Romantic poet favorite. Wordsworth, Southey, and Keats all used the word. Coleridge used it in “Kubla Kahn.”  Mazzy Star is a band with a predominate sound, and though they have some great cuts with wild electric guitar, there’s more often a strummed acoustic guitar, a droning organ, and some occasional violin, all the songs are taken at a slow tempo and modest volume. The band’s lead singer,  Hope Sandoval, has a style that superficially sounds easy to do, but in practice isn’t, and so my singing skills deferred trying.

So, it’s spoken word, not sung, but here are those words of Shelley’s used this month to memorialize Stephen Hawking. Use the player below to hear it.

 

Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street

Today I step aside from our usual practice here, and present words I wrote. With opportunity, next week I should be able to return to “Other People’s Stories.”

“Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street”  was written recently, and includes elements of observations I made during a bike ride to school with my son in early May. In the course of writing the poem and revising it, I modified the events of that day. This is not unusual. The events of one’s own life have a fractal branching of meaningfulness that frustrate encapsulation. It may be useful to use those endless edges as perforations to tear away from all things remembered the shape of a poem.

I tested the revision before this one with a group of poet friends, and alas, it didn’t seem to work well for them. They were slightly puzzled why the speaker in the poem didn’t ask the child to stop and smell the blossoms, but altogether bewildered by the question (or the way I presented it) when the speaker asks near the end of the poem about memory being able to remember the smell of something overlooked in one’s past. That was useful information. They also made a very specific suggestion. Originally the blossoms had been tree blossoms, and though they were extravagantly fragrant on the morning that inspired the poem, I did not know in fact what kind of tree was bearing them. No matter, they suggested, it works better if you make them a specific tree.

Blossoming Plum Tree

OK, it was some kind of fruit tree blossoming, let’s make it a plum.

 

I read something once particularly wise regarding such honest critiques about one’s writing. It may have been from Kurt Vonnegut, or it may have been someone else, but the gist of it was that if good, honest, readers find a problem in a piece they are almost always right, even if they are often wrong about how to fix it. The suggestion to name the type of tree was simply right I thought, but how to deal with what they saw as the troublesome puzzle about memory?

What I was trying to suggest in my poem’s story was that we can indeed remember things retroactively. Things that were not noted at the time consciously, that were not filled out as if a contemporaneous diary as experienced, can still be recalled when we later find them important or precious. We do this partially from our subconscious, perhaps even from what the Transcendentalists would call the over-soul, but mostly this is augmented because our minds are great pattern makers, able to fill in gaps with all the other things we recall.

The readers who noted this as a problem were smart, perceptive people. They likely knew of this, but I still had perplexed them.

I could not remove this, for me it was the point of the poem. Sometimes, what folks most object to in a poem (or other art) is, paradoxically, why it needs to exist.

I made some slight changes in a couple of lines around that concluding question, hoping in this version to make this natural phenomenon of memory clearer, without hindering the “music of thought” as well as “music of words” that I think poetry should have. Maybe it works better now.

To hear my performance of “Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street”  use the player below.

 

 

The Hunter

A couple of mornings ago, I awoke after a night’s sleep, and as I took my bicycle out to the alley to ride off for breakfast, I was surprised to see the road dusted in torn blossoms and several small tree branches cast about on the wet ground.

While I had been still and sleeping, a storm must have come up.

That contrast, the stillness and the broken change is at the heart of today’s poem by William Carlos Williams, “The Hunter.”   Williams opens his poem with an allusive image. “In the flashes and black shadows of July.” Is this the lightning of a summer storm? I thought so at first. But it might be just what one sees lying on summer grass and looking up through the boughs of a tree. The whims of a breeze or the caprices of squirrels and birds on the thin branches will flutter the leaves’ fan of shade revealing the sun in a flash.

Yet, summer “seems still.” The animals of summer appear “at ease.” But what if there is danger in the world, as in the unmet character in the poem’s title, the hunter?

William Carlos Williams with Kittens2

In a last-ditch attempt to increase readership of his poetry, William Carlos Williams decided to try that Internet staple: cute kittens.

 

In Williams’ poem, the hunter does not appear, ready to shoot the game. The hunter is invisible, as the hunter is time, the hunter is change.

For today’s music I combined an orchestral ensemble and electric guitar with an appearance of a harpsichord.  The player gadget to hear my performance of “The Hunter”  is at the bottom of this post.

I’ve noted that there has been a steady listenership for the other William Carlos Williams poems posted in the archives lately, and that helped inspire me to look for more of his work to present. As we move into summer, I remind visitors that there are over 220 pieces available here. Use the search box or just wander through the monthly links on the right.

 

The Most Popular Parlando Project Piece for Spring 2018

I’ve already mentioned in this count-down that I’m sometimes surprised at what Parlando Project pieces are the most listened to. It’s not just that it isn’t always the best-known poems, a surprise factor that I’ve already mentioned, but that it sometimes isn’t a performance that I think I pulled off well.

Such is the case with the repeat number one in this countdown covering activity this past spring: Fenton Johnson’s “The Banjo Player.”  My personal discovery of Fenton Johnson goes back to reading James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry.  Fenton Johnson’s work included there immediately stood out for me in its range of expression, from the hymn-like “God Is In the All Time”  through the startling confrontation of spirituality with reality in “A Dream,” to the frank and compressed expression of despair in “Tired.” I vowed to do my best to present Johnson’s range here.

Fenton Johnson

Fenton Johnson

Which lead me to perform “The Banjo Player.”  It’s frankly a humorous piece, though if one pauses after the laugh, there is a serious point being made. Explaining jokes always risks creating more comedy, but the serious point embedded in the joke here is that the banjo playing songster in the poem knows something of his value, but he still feels like he’s a failure because an otherwise uncharacterized woman called him a troubadour, and he’s not even sure if that’s a compliment.

That problematic name for the banjo player is the only way we can characterize that woman who spoke it. Is she, like Fenton Johnson himself, a member of the Talented Tenth, Afro-Americans who had gone to college and who had been charged in the early part of the 20th Century to “raise” the race with their achievements? Or is she a white Modernist admirer of para-literary poetry? We can’t say for sure, and since either is meaningful, the poem works either way; but I lean to the later if only for the word she used.

As so often with Modernism, you can trace something back to Ezra Pound. Just as the Pre-Raphaelites before him, or some hipsters today, Pound looked to the past to find models for a changed, modern future. One source he used was classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, but another was medieval European troubadour poetry.

So even at his lightest, Fenton Johnson makes a sophisticated point here, one that he reinforces by using a location, “The Last Chance Saloon,” in both “The Banjo Player” and his now most-anthologized poem, “Tired.”  In the former it’s a place of some solace, in the later it’s the place were the absence of dignity is numbed.

Returning from those more important points to my issues with my performance of “The Banjo Player.”  I tried to cop a little of that Afro-American banjo tradition. It just seemed the inescapable choice for this. I think I failed, if only because I’m not a banjo player. Such things may be inevitable with the production schedule I’ve practiced with the Parlando Project this past couple of years (something I’ll talk about soon), but to be honest, I’m slightly embarrassed that this piece is listened to so much.

But that’s because of me, not Fenton Johnson. Below is the gadget for my performance of “The Banjo Player,”  but consider listening to some of the other pieces I’ve presented using the words of Fenton Johnson too.