Wrapping Up National Poetry Month 2019

It’s been quite the April here as we ramped up activity to celebrate U. S. National Poetry Month. A lot of effort and time on my part, but since this project is based on the joy one finds in looking and listening to something and seeing what the encounter brings out, it’s been fun for me. I hope some of that always self-replenishing curiosity comes across to you as you read and listen here.

Here’s some of what happened this month.

Most blog posts here ever, nearly a daily schedule! There are blogs, ones that try to do different things than this one, that can carry on at that level for an extended period, but it took quite a lot of effort considering this project’s goals.

I completed a #npm2019 goal of performing all of T. S. Eliot’s longest section of “The Waste Land,” “The Fire Sermon,”  this month. I warned readers here that “The Waste Land”  isn’t poetry comfort food, but as I dived in, looking for things I could connect with in order to perform it, I found some unexpected things.

Before I started this serial performance, I thought I might struggle with misogynist/other portrayals of the women in Eliot’s masterpiece, but instead I found more empathetic depth there. Yes, it’s a bleak world for all in “The Waste Land,”  but I also got to experience a surprising amount of gender-blurring in the voices of “The Fire Sermon.”

In researching it this year I finally grasped the level of extensive sampling tactics used, where nearly every line references some prior artistic creation. I love an in-joke, the pendant in me rejoices in odd connections, but even as I came to better understand the sources I’ve left much of that out of my writing about it, because I believe the poem still communicates its experience out of the sound of juxtapositions and the variety of voices without one needing to know who first wrote the words or sang the songs Eliot drops into his poem. Considering hearing it this way: “The Waste Land” is a collage—you don’t have to know where the picture was clipped from to sense that you’re being asked to see unlike things next to each other.

t s eliot micophone

With a T and a S and L-I-@ / Here to rock this mic with my alley rats / Think you’re a sick rhymer with a mad dose / I’ve been to a Swiss asylum and been diagnosed / Dis a soft Thames flow while I sing my song / you might end up drowned like that Phoenician / Peace (that passeth all understanding) Out!

 

 

And lastly, I’m grateful for the broad music-ness of the poem that let me use what I think was a nice variety of musical styles along with Eliot’s words. Eliot wrote “You are the music while the music lasts”  and Stevie Wonder wrote “Music is what gives us memories, and the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it.” Eliot’s immediate experience of music is all over the poem. My task was to take those memories of another poet’s mind and to make them sound again.

Besides presenting a couple of poems by Emily Dickinson, I also enjoyed my “Roots of Emily Dickinson” series this April. Comparing Emily’s Bronte and Dickinson on hope was a great “aha!” moment for me. And Helen Hunt Jackson, who got skewered with a single funny scene in the recent Wild Nights with Emily  film, was a fascinating background character to run across, and Jackson’s “Poppies on the Wheat”  has been one of the most popular pieces here so far this spring.

Wild Nights with a chaperone 600

Would Emily Dickinson’s and family’s wild nights have been tamer if Gloria Bell was their chaperone? Discuss.

 

My own personal questions on what Emily Dickinson’s thoughts were about Afro-Americans and slavery, or even the bloody civil war that coincided with her most productive years as a poet, are still largely unanswered, but if I hadn’t gone looking for them I wouldn’t have run into the remarkable story of her Amherst contemporary Angeline Palmer and the bravery of three servants.

The blog audience has grown in response to this additional content, with April’s unique page views far exceeding any previous month. Listenership to the audio pieces were up too, and this April will likely set a record for the most listened to as well, though by a narrower margin than blog views.

As a practical matter, the amount of time and effort I put into things this National Poetry Month in April can’t be sustained. Unlike most blogs this is a two-pronged effort, with the production of the audio pieces coming first and then the blog post follows. I write almost all of the music for the audio pieces and I play and record the majority of the instrumental parts. But after that’s done, I’ve only started because then it’s time to write something interesting or illuminating about my encounter with the texts. Your readership tells me I’m succeeding sometimes.

This May I’m going to start some work on re-doing my main music production space. This is going to involve a lot of work, much of which I’ll need to do myself. My goal is to make it an even more streamlined, organized and functioning space. This will predictably reduce the amount of new audio pieces here for an interval, but afterward I hope it’ll make it possible to return to our normal 8-10 or so new pieces a month schedule.

However, because we’ve been at this a long time, there’s a lot of material in the archives, over 330 pieces, so there’s things here you may not have encountered yet. I try to mix the well-known with the nearly unknown. You can take a flyer on someone you’ve never heard, use the search function on the blog, or just try a random dive into the archives going back to 2016. Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening. Thanks for the likes, the follows, and particularly thanks for the shares and the links!

To Carthage then I Came

Here’s my performance of the concluding segment of “The Fire Sermon”  portion of “The Waste Land”  which I presented for this year’s National Poetry Month celebration. If you want to hear the earlier sections, they’re all here along with over 300 other audio pieces presenting a variety of poetry combined with original music.

The middle of the “The Fire Sermon”  is one of the few times in “The Waste Land”  when who’s speaking identifies themselves, and where they are allowed to speak more than a single line or so, but as “The Fire Sermon”  concludes here, it’s once again altogether confusing who’s talking. Eliot identifies who’s speaking in his footnotes for the poem as the three Rhinemaidens/river nymphs, who had been singing non-words in the previous section—but without the footnotes* I’d have never guessed that.

Miss_Rheingold_1949

The Rhinemaidens are from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. However, when I hear Rheingold, I think of the New York beer.

 

Even more so than the Typist/Man Carbuncular coupling or the subtle come on from Mr. Eumenides earlier in “The Fire Sermon,”  this is the dirty-book section of the poem. A speaker tells of having sex, flat on their back in a canoe** and furthermore (this may be another speaker/river nymph) tells of another sex act with their “heart under [their] feet.”***

This ends in tears and a question that many who’ve suffered from depression cannot answer from within their hall of dark mirrors: “What should I resent?”

If Eliot’s footnotes are saying it’s just the river nymphs talking, it soon gets specifically personal. The next stanza (“Margate Sands”) refers to the off-season resort where Eliot was taking one of those “rest cures” for his own depression. It wasn’t enough, he next went to a psychiatric hospital “By the waters of [lake] Leman.”

The final stanza (“To Carthage then I came”) is made up of quotes from St. Augustine, who as a teenager traveled to the famous African city to battle his own demons of human sexuality and spirituality, mixed with a refrain from the Buddha’s “Fire Sermon”  which says that all things are burning, consuming any constancy in desire and wanting. Joking doesn’t change what it’s about and what’s at stake: the wheel of suffering. But joking, if observed correctly, is also a demonstration of earthly things passing from significance.

John Fahey

John Fahey. Il miglior fabbro.

 

I performed this seriously as a solo acoustic guitar piece in Sebastopol tuning, using what I once absorbed from the playing of John Fahey, another man who had both demons and angels to laugh at. To hear it, use the player below. If you’d like to read along as I perform it, the whole poem, including this year’s part “The Fire Sermon”  is here.

 

 

 

*At last, I get to write a footnote on the footnotes! Oh, pendant’s delight! Eliot wrote extensive footnotes for the poem that appeared when an American publisher agreed to print a book containing the poem. These footnotes have always been controversial. Ezra Pound said they were only included to pad out the size of the book. Eliot himself said he originally wrote them to properly cite all the literature that he’d sampled in this extensively collaged work of text, and he sometimes expressed regrets at allowing the notes to be published with the poem, making “The Waste Land”  seem some scholarly treatise instead of an anguished cry.

**As the joke goes. “Q: Why is drinking American beer like having sex in a canoe? A: Because it’s f…ing close to water.” Note “The Waste Land”  was written by a serious poet, who was seriously depressed by the world and his life, and in this section he’s using sexual exploitation as image for that. How serious was he? Eliot took lay religious vows which included a vow of chastity just six years after this poem was published. This footnote is included for scholarly purposes only and you shouldn’t laugh at it.

***Class, if we turn to our Kama Sutras that’s page 112, where the person on the bottom is on their stomach and their legs are bent upward so that their feet are over their thorax. Also, there’s the connotation that one’s heart is being stomped on. More pedantic or podiatric joy: a foot note that’s a note on feet.

Wild Nights with Emily

I’ve been looking forward to this Emily Dickinson biopic since I first heard of it a few months back. I acknowledge the difficulty of making a film about writers, particularly if the film wants to give due weight to their writing, the least cinematic of art forms—but just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried.

From indications I was expecting Wild Nights with Emily to be irreverent, but I often like some irreverence, even about things I admire. The advance publicity used the hook that it was going to go strong on the theory that Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert were lovers. That’s a legitimate theory, with evidence to support it, but the trailer and the promo clip I saw indicated it was going to be one of those “Hey, famous artists go through all the wacky and awkward stuff we do, especially when they fall in love.”

Does that sort of thing diminish art or the people that make it? We should laugh at both devils and angels some of the time (just not all the time). For an example of literary irreverence that worked for me, I’ll point out Upstart Crow,  a series that turned Shakespeare into something between the Dick Van Dyke Show  and 30 Rock  using a passel of modern critical theories as comic premises.

Wild Night with Emily Poster

What’s with all the black. More Emily Dickinson goth moves?

 

As it turns out, Wild Nights with Emily  didn’t consistently work for me, though I’m glad I saw it and I admire the effort. It’s awkward in ways that alternately charm, puzzle, and just seem off. It tries for a complex structure that jumbles time-lines back and forth and the individual scenes seem very separate. There’s little character development, little sense of change or dynamics of Character A’s actions changing the course of Character B’s life outlook, even in the central love story. We see a scene or two of Susan and Emily falling in love as teenagers, but there’s no attempt to explain why Susan or Emily were attracted to each other instead of someone else, they just are. Nor is this attempted for any of the other relationships—some kind of lust/attraction spark occurs and bang they go off. It’s consistent enough that I think the writer/director Madeleine Olnek is making a point of this. Oddly, these connections go badly for the couples other than Susan and Emily. It’s kind of a bokeh effect thing: our lead couple just want each other, and that sort of works out, and everyone else is just mindlessly and brainlessly lusting.

Indeed, my impression was that the writer/director really was interested in making a point, or series of points. The film isn’t a biographical narrative* or love story or sex-positive comedy or an exploration of creativity, it’s more an illustrated lecture with actors given to illustrate those points. The disconnection of the scenes is just a new slide in the deck being shown. The points are all worthy ones, most of which I’d agree with. Dickinson was a mocker and questioner, not a conventional sentimentalist. No one understood how revolutionary her poetry was. Families are weird, and their secrets show that. The Patriarchy is blind to a whole lot of things.

Some of the scenes work well as illustrations for me. Some don’t. Your mileage may vary. Many scenes use humor to make their point. A couple of the scenes were Dada-weird (e.g. Lavinia and her fake cat). Others are very much “see the broadly underlined point.” Some are emotionally riveting in the same way that actors doing single scene can be as they instantly inhabit a character, but again, the film isn’t really a narrative. Nor does it go out of its way to say “I’m not a narrative” like other attempts to subvert the artist biopic genre like 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould  or  I’m Not There.  If you go to see it, go with that expectation and I think you’ll be more primed to absorb what it’s trying to do.

A couple of Olnek’s points I’m less sure of (she may be right, I’m no Dickinson scholar). She seems to be overcorrecting on the Dickinson was a hermit, always sequestered in her room thing. As far as her film shows it, it’s all a misunderstanding, and she just didn’t like Mabel Todd. The impression I get from my Dickinson biography research is that a much more sociable person did become increasingly withdrawn as she aged. And she seems to be saying that Dickinson directly sought publication, only to be rebuffed by the Philistines. Maybe there’s an earlier period I’m unaware of, but the testimony of among others, Susan Gilbert Dickenson herself included, was that the scattered publication of 11 or so poems in her lifetime was largely due to the efforts of others which Dickinson did not encourage.

A few times in the movie they use Dickinson’s poetry, spoken and with subtitles with scenes portraying something they relate to the poems. I’m favorable to that tactic—after all, the Parlando Project is doing that with music instead of film. I think that works in the film. The “Hope’ is a thing with feathers”  and “I died for beauty but was scarce”  examples were particularly memorable for me.

That’s my reaction to the film. I appreciate the effort that went into it, and the task it set out for itself isn’t easy.  Is it the best possible way to spread greater, deeper appreciation of Dickinson? Hell if I know. Worth a try.

 

*Maybe it’s just me, but has anyone done a straightforward Emily Dickinson timeline that says what Emily Dickinson was thought to be doing year to year? A good one would include links to the various theories regarding people that came and went in her life. I find some of this hard to keep straight and the non-linear choice of this movie obviously didn’t aim to help me. For example, the Mabel Todd/Austin Dickinson affair that started in 1882 happened very late in Emily’s life, more than a decade after she’s thought to have written the vast majority of her poems. And the first meeting with Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1862 was when her amazing productivity was accelerating.

By the way the film’s bokeh effect makes Higginson and Helen Hunt Jackson look like comic idiots. Given the heroic things they tried to do in their time, I give them a little more credit than that.

The River Sweats

It seems like a long way back to the beginning of National Poetry Month this April. One long tradition I’ve followed here for Poetry Month is to perform parts of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  accompanied by original music I write myself. I started doing this back in 2017, performing just two and a half minutes of the great poem’s “April is the cruelest month…” opening, and this year I’ve been tackling the poem’s longest section: “The Fire Sermon.”

Now April, cruel or not, is nearly over and we’re near the end of that section. “The Fire Sermon”  started by the side of a dirty urban river, London’s Thames, and the poet asked the river to flow softly until he’d finished his song. And so today we’re back where “The Fire Sermon”  started, with an unnamed narrator viewing the river. Even when “The Waste Land”  isn’t shifting voices or shapeshifting who the narrator is, it’s likely to be drawing from it’s great mixtape of references to just about anything, and that’s pretty much what happens in this section. The busy commercial Thames circa 1920 that opens the poem gives way to brief singing by river nymphs,* who we were told had departed when “The Fire Sermon”  opened—but they’re in earshot now, at least in the narrator’s imagination. And their singing gives way to—what!—Queen Elizabeth moving down the river on the royal barge.

No, not that Queen Elizabeth, the other one, the one before Roman numerals were necessary—but if there’s to be a barge sailing down the Thames connected with some royal jubilee, I was hoping for the Sex Pistols in my small r republican heart.

Two Royal Barges

Either/Oars: the Elizabethan royal barge the first time. The Sex Pistols on their Thames barge trying to drown out Elizabeth “The Deuce’s” Diamond Jubilee with their river nymph song.

 

Elizabeth is with her most constant suitor on the gilded royal barge, the Earl of Leicester, but historically the “Virgin Queen” never married. Some point to this couple as a continuation of “The Fire Sermon’s”  main topic: the corruption and inconstancy of sex and love, but my reading of this barge episode is more at a vision of the passing of glory. Elizabeth and Leicester may not have been a fulfilled relationship, but it’s a great contrast to the man carbuncular and the poor typist from earlier in “The Fire Sermon,”  and an Elizabethan gilded barge is a contrast to the commercial barge traffic of Eliot’s time.

When I first looked at this section this spring, for some reason I thought I’d try to do something musically referencing one of my favorite rock bands, Television. That’s not how this turned out. I can still see tiny bits of that idea in the chord sequence and the melodic top line I played on electric guitar. Instead, the arrangement developed as I worked to sonically depict passing glory.

Want to hear how it turned out? The player gadget is below.

 

 

 

*The nymphs’ song is from the Rhinemaidens in Wagner’s Das Rheingold,  the start of his epic Ring Cycle,  something I’m not very familiar with. Themes of water, fire, and the renunciation of love are present I’m told, and if so, that fits in well with the overall themes of “The Waste Land”.

In the department of coincidence, Wikipedia says the Rhinemaiden’s song melody is Eb, F, Ab, Bb and C, and the cadence in the main part of my music here is Eb, Ab, C, Ab, Db, Eb.

Still, the Dick Wagner I’m more au fait with would be the guy who played guitar on Lou Reed’s Berlin  and Rock’n’Roll Animal  records.

An Arbor Day during National Poetry Month

Today is Arbor Day, a curious holiday, born in the American Midwest, meant to celebrate and cultivate trees. It’s more established than the uncounted more recent designated days, special weeks and “National Months” like Poetry Month, but its observance is spotty.

Birdsey Northrop

Wikipedia says this is someone named “Birdsey Northrup” who helped popularize Arbor Day. Since this isn’t April Fools Day should we believe that?

 

I can’t say I remember and keep it myself, though I’ve always had an attraction to trees. I remember an old tree with exposed root tops outside my earliest remembered childhood schooldays, its roots large and far enough apart that we small school children would sit between them as if it was ground-level-low bench with bark covered armrests. And I remember forgetting where the tree was, like the location of Eden is forgotten, and being unable to locate it even only a decade or so later. That tree is no doubt gone, as many of those school children are gone by place of current location or end of life.

The backyard of the house I grew up in had four large walnut trees, majestic if a bit messy when the nuts fell, littering the ground like a green elfin golf-driving range. I remember that a major branch of one of them had a full long-handled scythe, like the grim reaper’s side-arm, crooked in a joint above anyone’s head or reach, it’s blade now being held in the teeth of the bark which had healed its wound. This I noted as a child, long before I thought to write, or write poetry, and it exists in my memory like a poem that doesn’t need to be written because it just was.

When I was looking for the house I live in now I wanted a yard with trees, which it has. The largest is outside the window as I write this, being old as a tree is and budding like the geriatric Sarah. I note that when Sarah’s husband Abraham met the three angels who told him that he, 100 years old, was to have son with his wife of near the same age, that he met these angels and heard this news under a great oak tree. Abraham, being a patriarch, and therefore by definition part of The Patriarchy,  had his wife get busy making a quick meal for the angels, who as divine beings might not need earthly bread and could have said to Sarah, “Oh, don’t bother, we’ve already eaten.”

Anyway, in what is surely the strangest conversation with angels in a book of strange things, Sarah, hard at work on whatever quick-bread recipe that an antediluvian Epicurious might provide is said—right there in the first book of the books of Moses, the Holy Bible, in Genesis 18, in father Abraham’s tent—to have laughed.

Now the angels—who knows here what angels know—might have figured that Sarah’s laugh was the wisest thing they’d ever heard from a mortal, but it doesn’t say that in Genesis. Yes, it’s revered by many as a holy book, so the author may have figured he’d do something subtle here—or maybe it’s a blunder by a non-inspired editor somewhere down the line. Genesis just has Abraham being told they heard that laugh. Do angels joke? Did one of them wink to the others? Do angels wink? And then, to wind up the old geezer Abraham, who knows they’re angels, and is doing all he can to show how well he treats divine messengers who might only appear to be strangers who’ve wandered up to his tent, the angel looks Abraham in the eye and tells him “We heard Sarah’s laugh you know.”  The term pregnant pause was invented then I think.

giovanni_andrea_de_ferrari_-_abraham_and_the_three_angels

“I dunno, should we threaten to give him a bad Yelp review or something?” Sarah and Abraham with the 3 angels. Oak tree not pictured.

 

I don’t know what kind of pants folks wore in those days, if they even wore pants at all. If they did, let’s hope Abraham was wearing an old, brown pair. A divine being has just implied that your wife has been impolite, maybe even blasphemous. Genesis has other stories about what happens when you don’t treat angels right.

And 90-something Sarah, who’s just been told she’s about to become pregnant at that age, Sarah who laughed, quickly looses her wisdom—as we mortals who may find wisdom in a moment only to loose it in the next do—and she tells the angels she didn’t laugh. And the angels just said back, like trees do when we laugh beneath them, “Yes, you did laugh.”

 

No new audio piece today, but I hope to work on the next part of our National Poetry Month serialization of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  this weekend. Here’s a fairly recent piece that’s in our archives along with over 300 other ones, one that seems right for Arbor Day: Charlotte Mew’s “The Trees are Down.”  You can read more about Mew and the poem here, or the full text here. But to hear the LYL Band perform it, use the player below.

 

The Lamp burns sure

What did Emily Dickinson think about the American Civil War, that great national trauma that occurred during her most productive time as a poet? And what did she think about the great national sin that was the cause of that war, slavery?

Emily Dickinson often writes puzzling poems, compressed like a set of speaker’s reminder notes on an index card. Despite occasional antique words and references to obsolete technology, Dickinson’s poems don’t really seem to dwell in a particular time or have any anchors in a time’s signature events. Instead we are left with the multiple capitalized idealized concepts that in the hands of most poets would doom a poem to vapid incorporeality—but the speed and brio of a Dickinson poem seems like the rush of thoughts, and that and they carry us along. All of this lets us see a remarkable mind thinking, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us the conclusions, only the methods by which it tries to reach them.

With many other American poets of her day we can tell what they thought of the Civil War and where they stood on the issues of slavery. Of course, we no longer read most of them, and we continue to read Dickinson. Even though my curiosity about these matters is personal, and in the end it doesn’t significantly change the originality and attraction of Dickinson’s work, I’ve still looked to see what I could find.

Dickinson’s father, Edward, was a politician, a member of the short-lived Whig party, and so there are political stands associated with him. The American Whig party, particularly for northern Whigs, was a “free soil” party. This meant that they did not stand for the abolition of existing slavery but wished to limit any expansion of the practice. Southern slaveholder interests were not content with that as a compromise. In an era when new territories and states were being added to the Union, they feared that they would eventually be too small a minority in a growing United States. In the 19th century before the Civil War, time and again these interests would come into conflict, and it was generally the Whigs who worked out some compromise that put off the Civil War. Edward Dickinson seems to have been an orthodox Whig, he supported those compromises, including voting for one of the last and most fateful of them, the Compromise of 1850 that gave the slave holders a Federal Fugitive Slave Act, giving license for bounty hunters of dubious ethics to haul escaped slaves back to the South (and financial rewards if they over-reached and just grabbed a free black person “by mistake”) and requiring local state authorities to assist in their efforts.

The injustices of the Fugitive Slave Act enraged Afro-Americans and energized abolitionist sentiments. And in the slave states who would secede at the start of the Civil War one of their chief complaints was that the Federal Government wasn’t doing enough to enforce this Fugitive Slave law against individual states that were hampering rather than aiding these “slave catcher” bounty hunters.

The Whig parties balancing act fell off the high wire shortly after that. It essentially split into two parties, the new Republican Party which was more adamant about free soil with no compromises, and eventually became the “party of Lincoln” and slavery’s abolition. The other part was the Constitutional Unionist Party which wanted to continue the Whig-style balancing act. Edward Dickinson seems to have aligned with the Constitutional Unionist faction, which completed the rapidly increasing progression to irrelevance for the Whigs.

On the other hand, both Edward and Emily Dickinson were on friendly terms with those who went the Republican route and even the more radical abolitionist bent. If yesterday’s story of Angeline Palmer might lead you to see a 19th century Massachusetts casting of To Kill a Mockingbird  with Edward as Atticus Finch and the young Emily as Scout, the reality of the Dickinsons is much more ambiguous.

I’ve found various critics and commentators who have sought to answer my questions about what Emily Dickinson thought on these things. Some point to Dickinson poems and have suggested readings of them, but these are most often unconvincing to me. She does have poems mentioning warrior courage, duty and loss, but none of them seem to say anything about the causes or necessity of the pressing war in her time. Even more rare are references to slavery or people of color in the poems.

The Lamp burns sure

Mysterious and burning. Dickinson’s mind by lamplight

 

The poem I use for today’s piece is one of those rare ones. “The Lamp burns sure”  is Dickinson at her most compressed and ambiguous. The poem’s plot is clear enough, an oil lamp whose oil is supplied by slaves or serfs (the poem says both at first, muddying the waters if it’s talking about slavery) runs out of oil because they have stopped filling the reservoir. The lamp’s wick is so busy burning that it doesn’t notice that it’s out of fuel and would in the normal course of events burn itself out shortly. The poem does not proceed to that end however. It leaves us only with the wick’s obliviousness, and then breaking the tie between the oil bringer’s role as being a serf or a slave, leaves us with the final statement that the busily burning wick is also unaware that the oil is out because “the Slave —  is gone.” We don’t get to find out if the lamp is some Hanukkah mystery that will go on burning longer miraculously.

So, what does it mean, if it indeed means one thing? Some read it as a parable of creativity, that we’ll work ourselves past our resources in our passion. A key word there would be “within” indicating some imaginary inner lamp and the slave is just our body and emotional resources.

Some read it as a comment on the base labors that support a civilization that in turn supports arts, science or spiritual pursuits, and in that reading it’s an acknowledgment of the necessity of those labors—take them away, no light! The confusion of serf and slaves is a necessary confusion as it’s talking generally about civilizations.

And then some think, since this is a poem written in 1861 as the Civil War has broken out, and all the slave labor that has supported a large portion of the agricultural economy of the nation is now in question along with that nation itself, that this is not a generalized metaphor. The slave who’s gone, is an American slave, the light is an American light that will burn golden on.

Emily Dickinson's desk

Emily Dickinson’s desk with a whale oil lamp, a little luxury that could extend her writing hours

 

That last one would make it the closest to an Emily Dickinson statement on slavery and the Civil War. As I burn my own midnight oil tonight and I think of Emily Dickinson who wrote at night by the light of an oil lamp, I lean to the first reading. But some other day I might see something else and read it another way. I’d like to be surprised and to find out that Emily Dickinson’s keen and questioning mind could see what only some in her time could see about people of color and slavery, but that might not be the case. But here’s what I do find when I go to the music of that mind: a mind unafraid to be original and like Frederick Douglass in Robert Hayden’s poem, to believe freedom thought to be as needful as a heartbeat. Even if she didn’t free anyone from slavery like Lewis Frazier and his fellow servants in our last post, or agitate and orate like Douglass, I find there’s liberation there that burns sure.

Here’s my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “The Lamp burns sure.”  Use the player below to hear it.

 

Angeline Palmer

Here’s a story. You can decide for yourself if it’s a sad or happy one.

It was a spring day in 1840 in a town in rural Massachusetts named Belchertown. For children you might expect that would be a fine day for play, but that’s not what this story is about, though it is about a child, one with a beautiful name: Angeline Palmer.

Angeline was a poor orphan and ten years old. Playtime was not on her mind. About a year back, the town poorhouse in which she’d lived since she was two years old had bonded her out as a servant to a prominent family in Belchertown. The town’s council ran the poorhouse, and Angeline was their ward legally, but such arrangements reduced the cost of running the almshouse.

I can’t be sure what work a nine or ten-year-old servant performed in those days in that place, but of course there were no appliances, and in rural towns there were not even stores stocked with things we might buy to save a household from having to make them. Households then were very labor intensive, so there must have been work for Angeline.

A servant like Angeline might dream of a better life on a spring day. Some would learn trades in household service that would allow them to start their own businesses. Or they might marry and start households of their own, where even if their lot would be the same sort of household work, they’d be servants of their own.

But Angeline wasn’t dreaming of a better life that day. Instead the future looked ominous. The man who owned the house was now staying in Georgia, looking for new business ventures. He had sent his wife all the way to Massachusetts to check on things at his house in Belchertown, and while she was there, a letter arrived. The letter had instructions for raising some money for his new business: ship Angeline Palmer down to Georgia. The letter figured she’d be worth $600 cash sold as a slave there. That’s about $17,000 today.

You see, Angeline Palmer was Afro-American. She was an orphan, poor, a servant—all things that limited her life, but she was free.

Servants in the house heard this letter being discussed, and quickly sent news of it back to the town where Angeline had been born. She had a half-brother there, Lewis Frazier, barely more than a teenager himself, he arranged a delegation to the town’s council, the men who were by law Angeline’s effective parents. The council wouldn’t take action.

Angeline was allowed to return to Amherst to say goodbye before the trip to Georgia and slavery. Her Grandmother was a servant at the home of the town’s postmaster. She asked him what could be done. Alas, the postmaster was the brother-in-law of the wife who’d been sent the letter. Instead of stopping this, he warned the Belchertown people that someone might be trying to stop the shipment of Angeline.

The postmaster worried someone might try to interrupt Angeline’s trip back to Belchertown by the scheduled stagecoach. Figuring they’d try something on the open road, he hired a liveryman to take her back by special wagon over a different route.

The postmaster was right. Angeline’s half-brother and a friend did flag down that stage, and of course Angeline was not on it. Slowly the pair walked back to town, sure that they’d failed.

But the liveryman had a servant too, and he knew the slower roundabout route the liveryman was taking back to Belchertown with Angeline. The town’s butcher loaned the liveryman’s servant a wagon and the now trio of rescuers sped off to Belchertown.

Despite the liveryman’s slow route, Angeline was already there, back in the house where she’d been a servant and from where she’d soon be shipped off to slavery. There was no time to waste, no one left to appeal to. Leaving the other two in the wagon, Lewis Frazier rushed into the house and found Angeline. Those in the house quickly reacted, and locked Angeline and her would-be rescuer in a room.

The other two men who’d raced from Amherst then left the safety of the buggy, ran up the stairs, pushed aside those trying to stop them, opened the door and took Angeline and her half-brother back down the stairs to their borrowed buggy. A crowd was beginning to form. Angeline and the three men didn’t wait to see what they might do, whipping back out of town as fast as their team could pull.

Angeline was secreted out of Amherst to an underground railroad safe house. Lewis Frazier and his two accomplices were arrested and charged. Though they’d stopped the fraudulent theft of a human being who would have been turned into property, who would have been owned along with her offspring, and bought and sold like livestock, the trio was charged with assault and kidnapping. The evil scheme of the man in Georgia was beyond the local court’s jurisdiction, and besides the three men had prevented that crime.

I don’t know how Belchertown looked upon this matter, but some in Amherst seemed to support the rescuers. Amherst’s most prestigious lawyer defended the trio of Afro-American men at the trial. That lawyer’s name was Edward Dickinson. Dickinson had a red-headed daughter, only a year older than Angeline Palmer, and her name was Emily Dickinson, who later would become known as a poet. Despite Dickinson’s efforts, the trio were convicted. They were given a sentence of 3 months, but it would be stayed if they would reveal where Angeline was hiding.

The dutiful trio didn’t take that deal, but the jailer seemed to be another who sympathized with them. While they slept in the jail at night during their sentence, he granted them liberty each day, and it’s said that townsfolk brought them gifts of extra food. The three men gave up some of their liberty for a short time but prevented a life of slavery.

So, what happened to Angeline Palmer? After a decade had passed, she returned to Amherst and married a relative of one of the men who had rescued her. She died, likely in childbirth, a few years after that. That may sound sad, but that was also the ordinary risk of a free woman living a married life in that time. They’d tried to steal her away and make her a slave, but a network of servants and three African-American men who cared for her risked all to prevent it. So, is that a sad story or a happy one?

For today’s audio piece, here’s my reading of Robert Hayden’s poem “Frederick Douglass”  about a man who stole his own freedom. Thanks again 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.

My chief source for the story of Angeline Palmer is this blog post by Cliff McCarthy of Belchertown. The web site that includes that post has  other stories about Afro-Americans in Emily Dickinson’s time and region.

The player gadget for my reading of “Frederick Douglass”  is below. The text of Hayden’s sonnet for those who wish to read along, is here.

 

Neanderthal Handprints

A recent comment here by Mr. Steele has reminded me of this sonnet I wrote several years back. Part of the idea for the poem came from reading some theories about the earliest humans and what may have been the beginnings of human speech and art.

No one can say exactly when recognizably human speech began, or how sophisticated it became how quickly, or even when it became anatomically possible. DNA evidence has told us a lot of things in the last decade or so, but it apparently can’t answer this question, and bone and fossil evidence is hampered by the largely soft-tissue aspects of our voice boxes. Work with apes and other animals has suggested that they can learn fairly complex symbolic communication even if they don’t have the vocal chord apparatus to speak in a conventional sense, and of course animals do communicate sonically otherwise, from birdsong to the elaborate EDM-like sounds of marine mammals. Human brains with symbolic thought preceding human voice boxes could have communicated in other ways too, ways that might sound musical. Steele’s comment includes lots of links.

Neanderthal Handprints

These stenciled handprints have been dated to Neanderthal times

 

One thing we do know about paleolithic age humans: they had a thing for handprints. Any child who’s made a Thanksgiving turkey by tracing their fingers, or any parent who’s received it, knows something of that art-form. Stone age people used a stencil method. A hand would be placed on a rock wall and a mouth would be filled with some ochre pigment which would be blown over the hand, leaving a negative stencil. The colorful drawings of hunted animals on cave walls may be striking artistic creations, but these handprints of humans who lived tens of thousands of years ago touch one—yes, I use that word deliberately.

Neaderthal Handprints

And later, the written word. Here’s the text of my sonnet.

 

The poem opens by assuming that Neanderthals, who may not have had the ability to articulate speech, and who likely didn’t have projectile weapons, could have used silent hand signals when hunting. The poem closes by referring to a find which was first interpreted as evidence of a Neanderthal ritualized burial: a stone-age body’s bones mixed with flower pollen covered by a rock. I bring that into our times by using an altered phrase from the hymn “Amazing Grace”  and wondering who may see our bone fragments mixed with flowers in an unimaginable future time.

This poem has never impacted anyone I’ve performed it for as much as it does me. It could be that few are interested in these earliest humans and the nature of their lives so long ago, and so this is a poor choice for an image, or that could be from other faults in its writing—but I get misty every time I perform it. To consider that someone, a creature more or less like me—who has the knowledge that they will someday die, who perhaps has no other way to say they were here, once—made a stencil of their hand maybe 50,000 years ago is moving to me. If I were to stand beside them while they were doing this, it would be certain that neither of us would have spoken language to discuss this. But we could both point to that hand, stenciled on the rock. That’s art.

They player gadget to hear my performance of  my “Neanderthal Handprints”  is below.

Are Song Lyrics Poetry? Part Three

In the first two parts I’ve tried as briefly as I can to outline two things surrounding this issue. In part one, I surveyed how poetry moved from an ancient form performed with music to a modern form most typically associated with printed text on a page. In part two I looked at the surprising result of a political decision made in the 1930s that led to a rich cultural mix being encouraged to compose music for non-commercial purposes linked to folk music. 25 years after this decision, a singular singer-songwriter linked that idea with many of the discoveries of Modernist poetry and revolutionized what song lyrics could do.

These two things, the move of poetry away from music and performance in general and the move of song lyrics to utilize all the elements pioneered by the Modernist poets naturally bring this question of “Are these lyrics poetry?” to the fore.

I’m going to try (again as briefly as I can) to deal with the issues brought up by this question. Before I do, I’ll spoil the suspense: I believe song lyrics are poetry, even though I agree to some level with the objections to that idea. On one level, a matter of definition, it ought to be simple to agree: the argument isn’t really that song lyrics aren’t poetry (or that various kinds of performed poetry aren’t poetry) it’s an argument that those things aren’t (or aren’t very often) any good as poetry. As I argued here a couple of years back, “not so great poetry” isn’t worthless, and I doubt the arguments that not so great poetry harms those poems we feel are greater or more accomplished.

What are those objections?

Without music or when printed silently on the page many song lyrics, even effective ones, seem much less effective. It may be 20th century comedian Steve Allen who originated the gag where a pop music lyric is intoned as if it’s a deathless ode.  Laughs ensue. Allen liked to remind us that he was a songwriter and the author of serious books, but here, for the bit’s sake he’s showing us his skills as a performer. The unintended air of seriousness is incongruous to the material, he leans hard on the choral repetitions—which are used in poetry, but are used much more often in sung lyrics—and any infelicities in songwriter Gene Vincent’s words that we might ignore in the flow of Vincent’s performance get a raised eyebrow in Allen’s. A performer could do the same to “The Waste Land”  or Emily Dickinson and make it ludicrous. And Bullwinkle J. Moose could present the once worthy Longfellow for laughs too.


“Drink in the simple beauty and the profundity of the sentiment…Skitch…”

 

 

Context is important in art. “The Waste Land”  gained part of its launch velocity because of the trauma of WWI and because the Modernist movement was primed for a weighty masterpiece. But context is even more important in performed work, “Be Bop a-Lula”  is designed to be heard sung with music.

Allen was taking a jazz-snob swipe at rock’n’roll. Here he is providing appropriate context for Jack Kerouac. “In Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry.”

 

That if considered as poetry, using the same criteria a critic would apply to poems, many song lyrics fail to meet those criteria. Well, a great many poems that have never heard a note sounded beside them probably fail those criteria too. There are arguments that complex song lyrics fail because  they are performed which I deal with below, but I ask: how sure are you your criteria are universal? When folks argue that Kendrick Lamar or Bob Dylan are bad poetry they are almost never arguing “Well, they just don’t work for me.” Instead they maintain that those who feel they do work have been duped or lack the intelligence and skills to appreciate something they posit as more worthy. How many Modernist, now cannon-resident poems, met the criteria of 19th century poetry? Did the Modernists forget how to be modernists? What part of “Make it new” did we forget?

The more I look at poetry, the more I’m surprised that a great many ways of “making poetry” seem to work. I’m pleased by that discovery, while I suspect the criteria people coming across the same discovery would be somewhere between puzzled and disappointed.

When folks answer this question by pointing out ways that song lyrics (generalized in some way) are different from poetry (generalized as well), I often wonder just how narrow their generalized view of poetry is. Poetry expresses itself in so many different ways even without leaving the page. The differences between how Du Fu’s “Spring View”  and Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  allow us to feel somewhat similar responses to similar situations are immense, larger than the differences between “The Waste Land”  and Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”

Complex poetry cannot be appreciated in performance, much less with the distraction of music. I’ve dealt with this briefly elsewhere in this series, but we also need to ask: is complex, analytic, response always called for? In every other art-form I can think of, we allow for various levels of involvement with the art. Because complex poetry can reward deep examination, must it always be approached in all times and places by all people in that way? Audiences differ in their need to understand immediately. “Be Bop a-Lula”  is designed to be absorbed with immediacy as expression and as a series of pleasing sounds. Donald Glover’s “This Is America”  isn’t, and indeed it’s designed to make you question your pleasure in a text that works like “Be Bob a-Lula.”  What the Bob Dylan revolution proved (regardless of how you rate Dylan) is that audiences will accept complex and unconventional expression in song lyrics. Not every hit song has complex lyrics, but complex lyrics can be a hit song.

If lyrics were good in the way complex poetry is good, that’s immaterial or it may even detract from the music which is the main thing an audience wants from a song. Yes, audiences come to songs for various reasons. Have you never loved a song for evolving reasons? With page-poetry I have certainly been attracted to a poem because of the way it sounded, and that pleasure indicated I might want to stick with it a bit (or re-experience that sound-pleasure) to see what else it might be expressing.

Sure, the ancients performed poetry with music, but that was a primitive solution. Literacy and mass-distributed printed matter is a better medium for poetry. I’m not sure about this. I agree that printed poetry allows for a different experience of the text. Alternate reader here Dave Moore has reminded me that it’s helpful if I provide access to the text of what is performed here. Good point! But the Parlando Project is in part a big experiment to see what works if various kinds of poetry are performed along with various music in various ways. I expect to fail, and I expect to succeed.

Speaking of success and failure, if you’re still here, I appreciate the time and attention you have given to read this. I’m both apologetic for its length and its brevity. Here’s a short audio piece, my translation (with a slight 21st century American adaptation I couldn’t resist) of that four-stanza poem that Du Fu wrote about the trauma of a broken country in springtime, the “Spring View”  I mentioned above. Here’s a more literal translation of the text. The player for my performance is below.

 

Are Song Lyrics Poetry? Part Two

Last post I rapidly traced poetry from the era of Homer and Sappho and the Confucian Odes,  jumped to English language poetry and finally ended with early 20th century Americans. I traveled fast, and simplified much, but it wouldn’t be out of line to say this is a progression from poetry that was expected to be performed with music to a poetry that wasn’t. Widespread literacy and the printing press, and by the Modernist era, a desire to include complex allusions and layers of ambiguity all helped this progression along.

Today let’s start in the 20th Century in America and follow the songwriter’s side of things. Popular songwriting had become industrialized. Composers and lyricists churned out uncountable numbers—and first by sheet music and then by recordings, film, and broadcasts, these productions could be distributed widely. Barriers to entry were low in this business, but rewards for popular success were high. Lyricists came from a wide range of backgrounds—some were middle class, even college educated, but many were immigrants or descendants of recent immigrants for whom English was a fresh language.

As with any mass art or market, much of what they produced was forgettable, a job of work, their ears may have sometimes bent to the muse, but their hands were looking for a paycheck.

Poets and literary critics occasionally paid a little bit of attention to that work in their time. Lively arts and all, some notice was taken.* With the music inspired by Jazz, the cultural force of the music could not be denied, even if the words that came along with it might be condescended to.

Then, in the mid-1930s, a decision was made, outside of music and poetry—a political decision—that eventually changed the course of popular music lyrics. For political reasons both international and U. S. national, the Soviet Union-dominated international Comintern and the U. S. Communist Party decided to switch tactics from a more purist “only the Communist Party is the solution” stance to a popular front position, where anyone to the left of the then rising Fascist forces were considered valid allies.**

In the U. S. this led to such slogans as “Communism is the Americanism of the 20th Century.” On a political level this meant that the Roosevelt New Deal wouldn’t be portrayed as capitalists pushing insufficient reforms to stave off the inevitable revolution, and that actual “card-carrying Communists” would be mixing more generally with socialists, liberals and centrists. But for our purposes, we need to look at how this played out in the cultural sector.

Popular arts, which could have been perceived as hopelessly compromised tools of the capitalist system, became more acceptable; but a more pure, folk expression that was seen as coming directly from and for the workers and the exploited, a music existing outside of the commercial infrastructure of entertainment, was even more ideal.

So here, twenty years before the “Great Folk Scare” of the 1950s were the roots of the folk revival.*** It’s in this pre-WWII period that Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie came of age and shaped their songwriting. Seeger was a Harvard drop-out and son of two musicologists.**** Guthrie was none of those things. The Popular Front meant that the likes of those two, and many others with high to low culture backgrounds, would mix it up.



My apologies to my Christian readers for posting this example of extraordinary Popular Front songwriting on Easter when it’s more a Good Friday kind of thing. Billie Holiday sings the harrowing “Strange Fruit.”

 

As songwriters this could have meant dour issue-of-the-month songs cleared by some central committee. And to be honest, each of them sang and wrote some of those, but both of them had Emersonian Individualist streaks.*****

And they listened too, had big ears. Afro-American music and musicians, isolated southern U. S. musicians who songs and styles were time-capsules of old British Isles tunes. Blues and “Hillbilly” music benefited somewhat from being a source and occasional fellow-traveler with this movement.

The Afro-American Harlem Renaissance is shaped by the gravitational pull of this political decision too. Civil Rights before the ‘30s was often aspirational, and though the folk traditions were honored before, this new emphasis on embracing popular and folk arts increased the interest and respect for them among an emerging new Afro-American cultural consensus.

Now we jump ahead again, it’s that un-named but important straddle decade of the late ‘50s to early 60s. Communist connections are poison. Illness had made Guthrie bedridden. Seeger is persevering outside of any first-tier commercial structure as a road-dog performer. “Folk Music” is now a commercial genre with a still bohemian/left-wing underground. Into this we inject the man who will expand the idea of what song lyrics will be allowed to do: Bob Dylan.

You don’t have to like Bob Dylan as a person, performer or songwriter to accept this truth: there are song lyrics before Dylan’s 1963-66 period and there are song lyrics afterward, but song lyrics are a completely different field after the change he proved was possible. This is why an artist as strong in his own right as Leonard Cohen can say in one of his last public statements: “Giving a Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan is like pinning a medal on Mt. Everest for being the highest mountain.”

But a Bob Dylan has causes, has a context in which he can happen. That choice Communist bureaucrats made for pragmatic political reasons in the mid-1930s led to a folk music scene 20 years later in which Afro-American blues and weird old folk music mixes with poetic Modernism inside the mind of one songwriter, and what comes out is strange and compelling.

Song lyrics don’t have to be a piece of work aiming for an established commercial target. Song lyrics don’t have to make clear front-to-back sense the first or the fifteenth time you hear them, they can mystify you and still have listeners. Songs with narrative elements don’t have to progress in a linear manner. Song lyrics can be about anything, can use any kind of imagery. Love songs can be ambiguous. Political points can be made metaphorically. You can combine different kinds of diction, even sample and reference various existing sources, and it doesn’t have to seem out of place or from the lack of original things to say.

One can point to song lyrics that did one or two of these things before Dylan, but after Dylan used many of them together and repeated that demonstration often, many songwriters wanted to try using any and all of these things, and their attempts caused other songwriters to do the same. A chain-reaction occurred.

Modernist poetry had done all these things already, and often—but Modernist poets didn’t write songs, and for the most part they didn’t read and perform their poetry charismatically. Some Beat poets, that faction of the Modernist movement that had vowed to remain resolutely bohemian, who had read their poems in front of jazz combos, recognized this was a different level of music combined with words. Allen Ginsberg heard a copy of Bob Dylan’s second LP in 1963. As the first side of that record moved inward toward the ouroboros groove in its middle, as “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”  played, he says he wept. Did he weep, feeling he was now displaced? Did he weep because this not yet 40-year-old poet might be replaced by this just over 20 singer-songwriter? No.

He wept, with an outlook of gratitude, because “There’s a saying among the Buddhists. If the student is not greater than the teacher, then the teacher is a failure.”


A long excerpt from “A Hard Rain Is a-Gonna Fall” with Ginsberg’s statement cut in.

 

Good story. But this was far from the end of the matter. A great many important poets and critics didn’t feel Ginsberg, or any of his Beat cohort, were very good poets. Therefore, Ginsberg’s say-so didn’t make Dylan a “real poet.”

You can’t say songwriting accepted or didn’t accept Bob Dylan, because acceptance is too meager a word for what happened—he changed how songwriting worked. The question of poetry “accepting” Bob Dylan, or songwriters in general, is still open.

Will I ever answer the question in the title? I beg your patience. This is by far the longest piece ever published here, even though I’m skimming over a lot of things. In Part Three I’ll finally get down to the answer that makes the most sense to me.

For an audio piece today I’ll suggest this one, one of the rare times here that I perform my own writing, a live version of “On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde”  by the LYL Band. The audio player is below. Thank you for reading and listening! Part Three, that should be the conclusion, comes soon.

 

 

 

 

 

*Decades after this era in 1990 literature professor Phillip Furia published his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley  which helped convince this fan of more “authentic” songwriters that these commercial lyricists were not without considerable art.

**As in the case I’ll make later regarding Dylan, please don’t let any personal feelings or judgements you may have regarding Communism or the Comintern blind you to the historical connections here.

***I can’t not mention one poet and musician who jumped the gun on this, Carl Sandburg, who published his important folk song collection American Songbag  in 1927. And for length reasons, I’ve largely left out the 20th century development of Afro-American blues and jazz. Charlie Patton didn’t wait for the Comintern to get in touch with him to forge his new alloy of styles.

****One of his father’s prize students was Modernist composer Henry Cowell. His step-mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger was in some opinions the most significant female American Modernist composer of the first half of the 20th century.

*****We can think of songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Bells of Rhymey,” “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,”  or “This Land is Your Land”  as exceeding requirements for that kind of song. Abel Meerpool’s “Strange Fruit”  is an excellent example of a lyric, written as a song, that would stand alongside poetry intended for the page.