Here’s more of our “Before they were Modernists” series, another by Ezra Pound from his 1908 pre-Imagist collection A Lume Spento.“And Thus in Nineveh” is a curious short poem, kind of a humble brag where the speaker starts right out saying “I am a poet” but then goes on to assess that craft in a mixed manner.
In the following lines the poem’s speaker, perhaps Pound himself at this point in his young life, takes the personae of a poet in the ancient middle eastern city of Nineveh and makes these claims:
Poetry does not belong to the speaker. I at first took this as a reference to poetry being inspired by the muses, where the poet’s job is as an attentive transmitter of that, but on further reflection I think he’s claiming more that to be a poet is a sort of civic job.
The populace’s attention to poetry is mixed. They will celebrate a poet at their death, they seem to sort of expect poetry to be around, even plentiful, but in the auditorium where poetry is sung, they might just doze off.
“Surely someday the citizens of Nineveh will recognize the sublime beauty of your ironic yet rootsy banjo sonatas.”
Other poets are judged to some degree to be better than our speaker. The poet’s humble-brag makes a show of agreeing with that, those better poets are more subtle (perhaps not as vigorous and direct?) and their song has a “wind of flowers” (literally, flowery, all fragrance and filigree?) while our poet’s work is “wave-worn” (sturdy and long-tested).
And in a final claim, the poet says that the reason he’ll be remembered in the end is that his poetry is more full of life and experience than those “better” poets.
In summary, the poem claims that the true poet, or at least Pound’s expectations of himself at this point early in his career, has a calling, a job he’s been asked to do by a culture that may not consistently pay attention to his efforts. If he perseveres, he will only get his due appreciation at death when his efforts will be summed up.
The language is deliberately archaic again (Pound is still under the pull of the Pre-Raphaelites) and it’s distanced in another way by being set in the exotic Middle East, quite possibly in ancient times. This too may be part of the Pre-Raphaelite influence: Middle Eastern scenes and Biblical stories were a common subject for the painters in that movement. Why were the two particular proper names chosen? I’m not sure. Nineveh is legendary as an ancient city, but not the only choice there. I thought of Nineveh as the city that the Biblical prophet Jonah was supposed to go and speak to when he chickens-out and whale-belly-ins. If Pound thought of that too, then it could be more subtext for the idea that that poet personae should persist in heeding his calling. Raama is also a name mentioned in the Bible.
“You using prophets for bait? I’ve been having good luck with leaches, I’ll stick with those.”
I myself went through a period in my youth when I elevated the writer’s profession into something between prophet and preacher. That has a clarity, a purity, that is far too simple. However earnest and self-aware Pound was when he wrote this, what attracted me to it now much later in my life was the idea implied in the middle of the poem: that art’s job is asked for by a culture that knows somehow its value while commonly forgetting that.
Maybe there’s a new level in the final couplet of today’s poem? By persisting in working on art we are as deluded as an intoxicated person, we see our work through “beer goggles,” and all possibilities look more beautiful then, than in the cold light of day. We “drink of life as lesser men drink wine.”
Foolish? Well, so be it. This is the fool we choose to be.
The musical setting today is a languid mix of guitars, fretless bass, and vibraphone. The player to hear my performance of Pound’s “And Thus in Nineveh” is below. The full text of the poem can be found here.
Whose fault is it when a poem is hard to comprehend, to understand? The first thought may be that it’s the fault, or even intent, of the author. Communication via written language has its weaknesses, but we know from our day to day lives that it can convey information successfully. Poetry, particularly poetry of literary repute, has a reputation for frustrating expectations of understanding.
For thoughtful people there should be second thoughts on this matter. If a writer, a poet, asks for a certain level of engagement, knowledge, curiosity, and openness are they always being unfair? I’m willing to grant they can ask too much, but asking too little of an audience of readers has costs as well. Here’s a principle worth remembering as you approach poetry (or other arts): poetry isn’t about ideas, it’s about the experience of ideas. Experience isn’t permanent, one-sided or clearly binary. If we for an instant experience something as a simple truth, a moment of clarity, poetry can express that—but properly comprehended simple truths exist in a contradictory and changing world. Sometimes we can misunderstand a simple poem as much as a more esoteric and confusing one.
Early English Modernist poetry, particularly those poets around the Imagists, wanted to explore these things. It may surprise you, but many of its pioneers before WWI made a choice for clarity, for simplicity. It did to me. I came to the early works late, already steeped in the poetry of the post-WWI High Modernists: Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Paul Eluard and Dada and Surrealist associated writers. But look at the pre-WWI work of some English modernists, like this poem by T. E. Hulme, a poem that has been identified as the first Modernist poem in English, “Autumn.”*
A touch of cold in the Autumn night—
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.
Does it seem strange to you that such a poem could change things? It’s so un-assuming, so easily grasped. Two homey images that require nothing in the way of pre-requisites to visualize, though it may be helpful to be as Hulme was, a rural person who had migrated from the fields of his childhood.** If one pauses and looks again, notice what’s not here: length, words naming emotions instead of objective description (save the single “wistful” which carries power in its exception) and rhyme. A not strict, but appreciable meter appears gradually with the final three lines, but the previous four are free
Today’s audio piece presents another poem by T. E. Hulme, one that isn’t easily understood at all. Hulme often wrote his pieces to demonstrate the theories of Modern English poetry he wanted to bring to the fore critically, and like “Autumn,” the rest of his extant work has a radical clarity. Hulme scholar and professor Oliver Tearle reports that today’s piece “Conversion” may have literally been a blackboard example of a revamped kind of poetry. If so, those looking at the chalk marks may have been as puzzled then as we are now.
“Conversion” starts off conventionally enough: a walk in nature, and hyacinths are in bloom. It’s beautiful and fragrant. We are altogether conventional here, save for the free verse. Then the next two lines are a clear image, but not necessarily an expected one: imaginarily our poet is drugged and kidnapped. In Hulme’s era a rag soaked in some ether or chloroform was a standard illustrated weekly/pulp fiction trope for this, but flowers as an agent is not unprecedented either (Midsummer Night’s Dream) and in the poem the scent of the flowers is associated with this. For all Hulme’s Modernist intent, this does seem to follow a lot of fairy story plots from Tam Lin to “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” The two lines that end the kidnap incident are uncharacteristically sound rich for Hulme: “Motionless and faint of breath/By loveliness that is her own eunuch.” It’s like Yeats or de la Mare broke into the poem for a moment.
I have a theory, one that greater scholarship or historical knowledge than I have might bolster. The word “eunuch” in the poem is our fuse. Eunuch in the context of Hulme’s time would likely bring to mind the Ottoman Empire and the exotic non-Christian Middle East. Exoticism is a complex thing, elements of fascination and sublimated desires are part of it, as are, alas, stereotypes and racism. But one common trope in the European mind of the time was the kidnapping and sexual enslavement of women in eunuch-run harems of Ottoman rulers. My guess is that’s what Hulme is referring to here, and that it might have been familiar enough to his time and audience to assume the reference would be understandable even in this highly condensed poem. The poem’s hard to explain title “Conversion” could also be fit to this idea.
Mysterious Victorian abductions, non-Christians portrayed as evil so that Europeans can look at pictures of ladies breasts.
That still makes the final three lines hard to follow. Is Hulme’s personae in the poem female, or is this a male-male cross-cultural bondage fantasy? Does it end with the death of the personae or just being carried away in quasi-erotic bondage? Come on Hulme, you may be using some unenlightened xenophobic twaddle for your image here but give us a clue!
“Final river” (Tearle reads the mythological river Styx here, and domo arigato Dr. Tearle) “without sound” seems to lean to drowning death. The one thing I came up with trying to figure this out is the apocryphal tale of the 17th century Turkish Sultan Ibrahim (“The Mad”) who was said to have had his harem of 280 concubines thrown into the Bosphorus to drown, a punishment that otherwise would be fit for a peeping Tom-Turk spying on the ruler’s harem.*** But by now I’m feeling like Wylie Coyote standing on thin air trying to explain those sparse final lines.
Drop all the guesses and dodgy cultural stereotypes, even if we blame the author for them, and “Conversion” may still work to some degree, after all what I think the images set out to do is to convey that the apprehension of beauty can involuntarily change one by confusing our priors. The philosophic idea is not instantly clear, its images are problematic and opaque, but the words and the sounds of them intrigue. This “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all” as André Breton later wrote.
Of our three London-based “School of Images” pioneers, only Pound would later write “High Modernist” poems with such knotty allusive problems. F. S. Flint drifted out of poetry after WWI, and Hulme was killed in that war. Pound admired Hulme considerably, and T. S. Eliot spoke highly of him too. Those two may have chosen to follow the Hulme of “Conversion” more than the Hulme of “Autumn.”
Well, this is a long post, and once more I’ve run out of room to talk much about the music and performance of the piece. I decided to make the musical setting discontinuous to reflect the confusion of the narrative and I hope I’ve brought out the mystery and lyricism of Hulme’s poem in my performance. The woodwind instrument featured at the start and finish of the piece is a virtual instrument version of the duduk, a gorgeous-sounding free-reed instrument that might be found around the shores of the Black Sea. I also couldn’t resist blowing a chorus on the Telecaster, an exotic instrument as old as I am, designed by a radio repairman on our western shores. The player gadget is below. Text of Hulme’s “Conversion” can be found in Terle’s post on the always Interesting Literature blog.
*Like the “first rock’n’roll song” or “the first rap record,” there are probably lots of candidates, but it’s still helpful to have a marker to say about it: “This is different, and points to how things can be changed.”
**One cultural-particular is present: in the sunburnt face and white colored children of its two images, it’s not melaninanicly universal, but the particular in the case of poetry can still speak to us. Around the time Hulme wrote this, Charlie Patton was probably singing the floating blues verse that Son House later recorded “My black mama’s face shines like the sun…”
***”Michael Cohen, I like grand viziers who don’t get caught. I’ve got to get me some of the best people.
Here’s the next in our occasional series “Before They Were Modernists,” a performance of “Grace Before Song” by Ezra Pound. Like F. S. Flint’s poem from last time, Pound’s poem comes from the poet’s first book, in this case: A Lume Spento created before Pound and a small group of London-based writers settled on the set of ideas they were to call Imagism, sparking off modern English poetry.
In the A Lume Spento poems Pound appears to vacillate, at least in character, on the value of his poetry, and like Flint he’s showing the influence of William Butler Yeats and the Pre-Raphaelites who had influenced Yeats. The Pre-Raphaelite ideal was to look further back culturally than the 19th century for inspiration, so in A Lume Spento the soon to be “Make It New” Pound is often referencing Dante and medieval Provencal troubadour poetry.
Even if A Lume Spento as a collection was a retrospective statement of where Pound thought he was as the 20th century got underway, “Grace Before Song” seems to have stuck with Pound. It led off A Lume Spento and it retained its position in his later 1920 selection of early works Personae.
Choose your own adventure: Hipster wants you to see his book of poetry referencing Dante…
How does Pound present his task and the poet’s task in “Grace Before Song?”
First off, it’s a prayer, starting by addressing itself to a godhead. And there’s an element of modesty or at least fatalism/submission in it, beautifully so I think (even with the inverted/archaic syntax): “our days as rain drops in the sea surge fell.” That image is further developed by requesting that his song at least be fresh rain (“white drops upon a leaden sea”) and reflective, however briefly, of some higher reality (“Evan’scent mirrors every opal one”). The poem ends stressing that briefly part. In “Grace Before Song” Pound is expressly no Shakespeare making claims for the immortality conveyed by art.
If we think of the later Modernist Pound as an iconoclast, this early Pound presents himself as either the pious poet, explaining the world of God to man, or as the aesthete who believes beautiful artistic creation justifies itself as an expression of higher orders. From what I understand Pound at this point was more the later using the mask, the personae, of the former—but either stance opens the poet up to disappointment when their work is ignored by the “grey folk” of those leaden seas.
And in 1908, Pound is largely ignored. American publishers aren’t interested, and A Lume Spento was self-published in Venice in a tiny edition of 150 copies. The Wikipedia article on the book says Pound arrived in Italy with $80 to his name and spent $8 getting the book printed on some odd-lot paper in Venice. An inflation calculator says $80 is a bit over $2200 in current dollars, but the tithe to his art indicates the level of faith (self or otherwise) Pound had at this time. And then there is the account that Pound thought about chucking the page proofs in a Venice canal—now there’s a story that makes white drops into a leaden sea a concrete image!
My “studio B” (a 12’ x 12’ room where I write these posts and do much of the non-LYL Band recording) is now fully operational again, so I put it to work on this one. The cello part that sits in the arrangement over the low strings is from a new virtual instrument re-creation of the Mellotron that I obtained this month when it went on sale. Long time listeners here will know how much I love the Mellotron, which doesn’t sound like “real” strings, but does sound like a real Mellotron.
You can listen to my performance of “Grace Before Song” using a player gadget* you should see below.
*I’ve just been made aware that the WordPress app for IOS doesn’t display the player, leaving those of you who read these posts on the iPhone WordPress app puzzled as to what I’ve referred to above. If you’d like to hear the audio pieces you can see them in the mobile version of Safari, but this is a good time to remind those who like to listen to the audio that the Parlando Project audio pieces by themselves are available as a podcast on most podcast apps including Apple podcasts or on Spotify in Spotify’s podcasts section. Just search for “Parlando Where Music and Words Meet” to find them.
I’m going to return to an old favorite of this project, a poet who helped change modern English poetry and yet is largely forgotten: F. S. Flint.
Long-time readers (or those of you that have taken a stroll through the archives here) might remember the highlights. Born in 1885 a London slum kid for whom Dickensian would not be a literary adjective but a biographical point. Had to leave school to go to work at age 13. Found a trade as a typist—a male colleague to the bed-sit typist in Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Went to night school. Found out he had a knack for languages. By the time he reached his 20s in the first decade of the 20th Century he had read and translated many of the then modern French poets and helped propagate their techniques in English.
By the same time he’d also teamed up with Ezra Pound and T. E. Hulme, the two men who are now largely credited with inventing Imagism, the initial Modernist poetry movement of the 20th century. It’s hard for me to tell, but at the time Flint seemed to be more of an equal partner to those two, though Pound and Hulme had famously extravagant and promotional personalities which Flint may have lacked. I’m not enough of a scholar to be sure of this, but to the creation of “The School of Images” Pound seems to have brought his take on classical Chinese poetry, which he thought was particularly imagistic by typographic definition because it was written in ideograms. Hulme brought a philosophic conviction that existing poetic language and imagery was corrupted by worn out 19th century images and an over-wrought romantic outlook to reality. Flint brought forward the idea of “free verse” or vers libre as the French were calling it. He called his English take on this “unrhymed cadences.”
None of those ideas had to happen. Images in the poetry of the time usually didn’t tell the story, they at best illustrated it and worst decorated it all too conventionally. Reflecting concrete and immediate reality as opposed to a rarified and “elevated” expression of the sublime was not a recognized poetic value. And good poetry was supposed to march to strict meters, uniform stanzas, and generally rhyme.* I’m not sure what alternate universe could be imagined if these poets hadn’t made their claims for these new ideas as being the way for their new century to go. Quite possibly it’d be a different poetic universe.
Pound gets his due on this, and has the poetic works to be included in anthologies to show his work. Hulme is largely forgotten save for footnotes, but then his entire poetic works could be printed on a postcard. Flint is even more left out than Hulme, but he wrote enough poems to be worth revisiting—so why aren’t they?
I don’t think most academic literary critics think Flint’s poems are very good. Even I, who feels a fondness for the man, is not immediately struck by some of them as I look through his published work. He’s not generally a lush and showy poet. Like Hulme many of his images can be so plainspoken that you don’t notice at first that they are images. And as befitting the man who seems to have brought the sense of a freer music to Imagism, many of his poems work better orally than on the page. That makes him a great candidate for the Parlando Project, even in this early pre-Imagist work of his.
And so Flint also fits in an occasional series I’d like to expand on this summer: “Before They Were Modernists.” My E. E. Cummings piece from last time was the first in that, a Spenserian stanza from the man who eventually spilled the entire font case over his free-verse pages, yet even in that wholly conventional looking stanza form of “Summer Silence” one can see E. E. Cummings later exuberances in places.
Today’s piece, Flint’s “A Song of Change” is from his first collection, 1908’s “In the Net of Stars” published while he was helping formulate the “Make it new!” Imagism—yet it’s a rhymed metrical piece. In another way it’s uncharacteristic of any later Modernist Flint I can recall reading: “A Song of Change” had a very Yeats-like political-mysticism about it. Directness is the point of many Modernist Flint poems, and this one isn’t. One of the virtues of allusive and elusive poetry in the William Butler Yeats style is that we can relate it to various political and social situations, even current ones (and given Yeats’ sometimes troublesome political views that’s a double virtue).
Here’s “A Song of Change” as it appeared in a Sept. 1908 issue of “The New Age.” “German War Scare?” I’m sure that’ll blow over…
What was Flint addressing when he wrote this poem? Edwardian erasure of some of the old English countryside and shore? The passing of childhood? Some of the images seem more dire than that. A carpe diem poem about the briefness of life? Some lines can be read as if Flint had a vision of the rest of the 20th century, the two World Wars to come, or even our own 21st century concerns with planetary survival. So, does “A Song of Change” deserve to be trotted out as often as Yeats’ “The Second Coming?”
That’s probably asking too much, to challenge Yeats outright on the field of lyrical political-mysticism. On the other hand, “A Song of Change” does have its own beauty and a rich catalog of natural images to decorate it. I performed it with a folk-rock guitar-centered arrangement after spending some of this summer with synths and keyboards. The opening riff is fuzzed out guitar, not a buzzy synth, and two 12-string electric guitars weave through it. Though it reflects my own limitations (particularly as a vocalist) it has a sort of “Notorious Byrd Brothers” vibe.
To hear my performance of F. S. Flint’s change song use the player gadget below.
*A scattered set of 19th century Americans had already explored deviation from this. Whitman of course, who while still living was translated into French by an influential French vers libre poet Jules Laforgue. Stephen Crane with his own free verse collection of short poems “Black Riders.” Just-published posthumously Emily Dickinson had her extreme compression and homey images, but still could be read as only sloppy with her meter and rhyme, though the first publications of Dickinson tried to regularize those “faults.”
**The unpictured David Crosby was all over the songs on this LP, but he’d just been fired from The Byrds. It’s been claimed that the horse in the 4th window was representing Crosby. One retort to that: if they’d wanted to represent the infamously cantankerous Crosby, they would have used a picture of the other end of the horse.
I’m trying to get back into the swing of production of audio pieces here, so maybe the best way to get around that is to not “produce” an audio piece. Here’s a field recording I made just south of the Canadian border this month while working out music for E. E. Cummings’ early poem “Summer Silence.”
In normal times I’d probably have added a bass guitar part and perhaps some more instruments. Even the acoustic guitar and vocal that’s present would sound better for not being recorded on a cell phone—but it’s a fair representation of what I was aiming for in the piece and it doesn’t sound terrible or anything. If you listen carefully as the last note fades out you can hear some bird song in the background.
I can’t find out if they’re related: E. E. Cummings and Johnny Ramone (born John W. Cummings). Down sagging air with shimmering bars of sullen silver vs. relentless down-strokes of sullen barre chords.
On the printed page “Summer Silence” looks awfully conventional for an E. E. Cummings poem. It was published when Cummings was a Harvard sophomore in 1913 in a college publication. And as printed there, it contains the sub-title “(Spenserian Stanza)” as if this was possibly an academic exercise in trying Edmund Spenser’s old form. The poem reflects 19th century poetic language somewhat. Though the rhymed and metered lines follow the form, there’s a lot of enjambment and phrases beginning in the middle of the printed line, a hint of Cummings later more scattered pages. The imagery shows tendencies toward the Modernist/Imagist ideal. This might be the experience of a real night. The images in the poem aren’t presented as stock-photo stand-ins for what the poet wants to say even though there’s a bit of emotional adjective-overload here and there which the pure Imagist would excise: “Eruptive” and “sullen” for example.
Today’s poem when first published in the Harvard Advocate in spring 1913 by the 19-year-old E. E. Cummings.
I don’t know that Cummings ever really abandoned those overt romantic and emotional expressions, a tendency to unabashed overstatement rather than pure Modernist show not tell. That’s part of why many like him while others down-rate him. In the end a set of words either work for you or they don’t. Aesthetic theories may give you a different way to look at them, but why should they take away any pleasure they give you?*
I had collected this poem in search of some summer poems to compose music with last month, but then particularly I was able to work on the music after a night with distant heat lightning over Lake Superior in July. This led me to interrogate the night with Cummings’ poem. Out on the edge of the lake the thunder in my night was distant, muffled by windows and walls, a broadcast on the edge of reception. Its intermittent bark highlighted the “panting silence” in-between lit by the avant garde of the heat lightning. My night had no stars, translated or not. Perhaps Cummings’ night had a storm front approaching a less cloudy night on his lake shore?
So, as tardy as I am with more complex productions recorded more formally, the drill for you my valued listener is the same: use the player gadget below to hear my performance of E. E. Cummings’ “Summer Silence.”
*There are answers to that question. I used to know some of them, but I’m old now and have forgotten them. Theories and suggested other ways and contexts to look at poems are still fine with me though, adding another soul’s experience to the artistic transfer may enrich it.
It’s second-hand and my fingers misunderstand it, but I’m somewhat musically indebted to a few guys who grew up in Maryland back in the mid-20th century. Depending on where you sit in the culture most of them, probably all of them, won’t be familiar to you. That’s OK.
Who are these guys that I’m saying you probably don’t know? One was named John Fahey, and two others slightly younger were named Max Ochs and Robbie Robinson (who eventually changed his name to Robbie Basho). There was also a fourth, named Ed Denson (who eventually changed his name to ED Denson).
Readers here of my age may remember there was this music called “The Blues” back in the Sixties, a charmingly obsolete Afro-American folk-art form* that had been revived so that British rock stars could be paid enough they could afford their hotel damage deposits. The Maryland guys were part of the early crew that went around finding the old 78 RPM records** that represented the earliest extant examples of that. Mind you that music was only about 30 years old back in the 50s and early 60s, but it could seem pretty cool and mysterious.
The Maryland guys were learning off these records and even from the surviving original artists who made them. But they decided to do something you might not expect with that music. They started to mix in other stuff. Stuff like South Asian music. Stuff like modern orchestral music. They used flat-topped, steel string acoustic guitars, like the pre-war Blues artists usually did, and they used techniques learned from these 78 RPM era Blues artists.*** They saw hidden or potential connections in what these mostly rural Afro-Americans were doing with Ravi Shankar and centuries-old Indian music, with what Erik Satie and Claude Debussy had done with the traditions of classical European music.
Max Ochs somewhere in “The Sixties”
Can you see now why I might have been influenced by that? I love the unusual combination and what it can illuminate. Also like myself and this project, there was next to no recognized commercial potential in this startling combination. So, this Maryland group started a musician led/curated Indie record label. Sixty years ago, some of these guys were doing what people who produce non-commercial music today do. They didn’t ask permission or wait to accumulate the right resumé, they just did it.
Their adventurous acoustic guitar instrumental music never became a big thing, but eventually it became a thing. Art doesn’t always ask to be big. It doesn’t ask for everyone or large numbers of people to remember it. It asks for some to remember it, and then for some of those to remember the experience of it deeply.
Which brings me back to one of those guys I said you probably haven’t heard of: Max Ochs—but this is a place Where Music and Words Meet, so I can focus on some of Ochs’ words today. I ran into “Don’t Die” on the Tompkins Square label’s web site 10 years ago. Perhaps Ochs’ words will strike you as they did me when I first read them.
Sometimes when you come upon words (like these of Ochs) by accident the connection is immediate, more so than ones you have searched for intentionally. These were words I needed, as deep and unpretending as those worn grooves on a 78 RPM record cut into solidified South Asian bug juice. A few days later I pulled them out and sprung them on Dave Moore and the LYL Band in an impromptu performance you can hear today.
Lately I’ve been presenting words from a fair number of poets who self-harmed themselves. Does self-harm make despair more authentic? Nope. Not only is that way too simple, it’s obviously a self-limiting tactic. When the world tells an artist they aren’t important and your art’s not worth it, the world’s in some way right—and it’s your art that tells the world it’s wrong. It’s a strange conversation that. I think some of the best art makes the argument that the world’s first assertion doesn’t prove its second one. The world’s objective argument that it’s not worth it is one of art’s arguments for why it must exist.
That objective argument, the number of listeners and readers, the level of fame, the amount of money exchanged for it all has integers to count for it. Against it I ask you to array that singular connection, often counted as one, between the artist and reader/listener/observer.
Max Ochs somewhere in the 21st century.
This past week, pedaling my bike on Highway 61 just south of the US/Canada border, I thought again of those words of Ochs I had performed nearly 10 years ago. I found a possible email for Max Ochs online, sent an email asking permission to present the words here and got a reply from Ochs. The Department of Synchronicity (where there are no schedules, but folks show up on time anyway) reported also via that email that someone else, Douglas Seidel, had just done a version this July of a spoken word piece of Ochs on Soundcloud. Seidel’s piece is pretty good too. Max said in his email that he had written music for“Don’t Die,” but that he’s never recorded it. You’ll have to settle today for what the LYL Band and I came up with.
Thanks to Max Ochs for his words and his permission to present them here. To hear “Don’t Die (Max Ochs Prayer)” performed by the LYL Band, use the player gadget below.
*I kid, I kid. Afro-American music and the Blues which was a 20th century expression of it, is the largest single component of American music, and some of those British guys understood that. A lot of Americans got introduced to other American blues artists by those UK musicians.
**These precious records were made of shellac, a resin secreted by bugs in South Asia. Therefore, if one listened to old Skip James or Charlie Patton records and then started trying to mix that with Indian ragas, you’d literally be digging deep into the histories of the records as objects.
***What techniques? Open or altered tunings, where the conventional EADGBE tuning of the guitar is changed to allow different resonant and harmonic effects. Finger-style plucking which allows for independent melodic lines to be played simultaneously. Slide guitar, where the strings are not fretted with the fingers, but stopped with an object like a metal tube or glass bottleneck. String-bending vibrato. The last two allow not only for vocal like effects but for microtones that exist outside of the standard chromatic and tempered scales used in most Western music since Bach’s day.
Between revising my recording setup and spaces and some travel, I’ve been away from being able to create new audio pieces for much of the past month. I’ve missed that, and I hope you have too, though I have been able to put together a few new things in the midst of this.
I was hoping to bridge this gap by presenting some things I have from older recording sessions featuring writing still in copyright, but so far I have received no response from those that seem to be the contact points for that—the usual when I seek to gain permissions. I assume this is just the inevitable result of a publishing industry focused on those business and revenue things they may need for survival. In an ideal world there’d be another me busy banging on the door of rights-holding publishers until they at least told me no or “Go away, we don’t want any.”
For you constant readers, in place of new audio pieces, I’ll leave you with just two brief follow-ups.
I’m reading a couple more Emily Dickinson books so that I won’t be so embarrassingly blank on certain questions. One is Aife Murray’s Maid as Muse, it’s fascinating premise to look at the lives and possible influence of the Dickinson family’s Afro-American and Irish servants. The book also doesn’t overlook the basic fact that it was the presence of servants exchanging their focus and time that allowed Dickinson to produce poetry that valorized independent thought.
If by chance you read that last sentence and think, well there’s your white privilege and base economic exploitation that I’m too aware of or otherwise inoculated to by family heritage or economic class to engage in, think (as I do) that it’s some Asian factory that allows me a cheap computer* to write this and to create and/or record the Parlando Project audio pieces and someone in another place built the inexpensive electric guitar you hear.
The other Dickinson book is Lives Like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon. Gordon seems to have a more polemical mood so far than Murray, though her wars are mostly laid in books. The book promises to help me understand the complicated way that Emily Dickinson’s almost entirely unpublished work managed to get published and find a considerable audience shortly after her death. Even early on in the book Gordon is presenting an understandable portrait of Mabel Loomis Todd, one of the producers of the first posthumous edition of Dickinson poems. Todd is often painted on cardboard: Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin’s mistress and nemesis of her brother’s wife, Emily’s intimate friend and often interpreted as lover Susan Gilbert Dickinson. A social climbing no-talent who glommed onto a real talent? Todd might be all that, but I’m already finding Gordon’s portrait of her illuminating.
As it seems it always is with Dickinson books I’m frustrated by a lack of chronological clarity. Murray’s book has a great deal on the life and influence of Maggie Maher, an Irish born servant who worked with Emily in the Dickinson house kitchen in the post American Civil War years just after Dickinson had already written the majority of her poems; and the admittedly juicy details of the Emily/Susan/Austin/Mable love rhombus are no doubt material to the way Dickinson’s poems emerged after her death, but the events of her brother’s “betrayal” of her friend/possible lover’s wife happened in the last years of Emily Dickinson’s life when she doesn’t appear to be writing or even collating her poetry.
This is the place were you see pictures of these two together.
One last note: one of my personal favorite pieces over the past three years was “Blues Summit in Chicago 1974” a short narrative of my reaction to watching a video a couple of years ago of a concert combining some pioneering “Great Migration” Afro-American blues musicians with some more likely white “Blues Revival” guys in front of an audience redolent of that titular year. In it I note that both the young guys and the old masters are all dead, and that some of the “young guys” died before their elders—well, except for one guy, Dr. John (stage name of Mac Rebennack) who was still living. “Can’t be the clean living” I remind listeners to that piece, as Mac had a long dance with heroin and other drugs. This year Dr. John in effect asked for a revision of that piece when life finally claimed him for death.
If you haven’t heard that piece, here it is as performed with the LYL Band a few years back, it’s available with the player below. And I’ve just got some good news on another piece that you’ll see here soon!
*I am moving to a new Macintosh computer for those “in-the-box” musical elements this summer as I want to use more of those tempting virtual instruments that allow me to work up to orchestral levels of scoring. My old computer was still working with occasional needs to account for its capacities, but it’s now nearly nine years old and eventually it won’t work. My hope is the new one will work as long as I do, but alas the “Apple Tax” is real and a few things about the new computer are frustrating despite its considerable cost. Still, I’m privileged to be able to afford it, and it’s so hard to find good help these days….
The state I live in, Minnesota, has a reasonable list under “claims to fame.” Lots of lakes, a funny accent, Prince, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis* and Bob Dylan. And bugs.
It may be all that water, Some of the Twin Cities sits on what was once marshland, and even when it forgets that, the bugs have longer memories such that the oldest joke in the state is that the Minnesota State Bird is the mosquito. Farther upstate to our northern forests the most feared animal isn’t the bear or wolf, but the tiny biting gnats and other larger and blood-hungry black fly species. All and all, it’s likely there are no vampires in Minnesota. Too much competition.
I’ll go to English romantic poet, political radical and mystic William Blake for today’s piece “The Fly” from his collection Songs of Experience. Blake’s short poems can be shockingly brief in a way that Emily Dickinson’s sometimes are too. For a simple looking poem with only small and common words, there are numerous commentaries explicating the mystic or philosophic meanings of “The Fly.” It opens with an uncomplicated setup: a fly bugs Blake one summer day, he brushes it away, something a hundredfold mundane. In an impossible way, he says he did this thoughtlessly, as he’s got four more short stanzas packed with thought and meditation.
Here’s the text of the poem as Blake the artist presented it. Toddler Robert Frost in front right is telling the woman that Allen Ginsberg (pretty in pink) is playing badminton without a net again.
For a mere 30 words in two stanzas Blake speaks on the similarities between the insect and himself. In a typical explication of this poem, the first stanza’s shoe-fly act, self-labeled by the poet as thoughtless, is read by those as a swat, killing the fly. But Blake doesn’t describe that as I read it. Instead I read it as a mutual act of interruption. Blake has interrupted the fly who has interrupted him.
The fourth stanza in my reading sums up a value Blake sees in this interaction, a stanza which would be quite obscure if this was indeed a meditation on a sudden death of the fly. The fly’s interruption wasn’t thoughtless after all, it caused thought in Blake.
The “Dance and drink and sing” line is not, or at least not only, a paean to the joys of living. It’s a remark on the superficialities of life for a fly and human, in the Buddhist sense, maya. “Thought is life…and the want of thought is death” is Blake’s precept here. It was good that he and the fly engaged in a momentary summer dialectic. The final stanza is mysteriously balanced. If to think is to live, the unconsidered life is death. The human choice should be then to think, to interrupt thoughtlessness. In the final stanza, is Blake saying that the fly’s insect’s brain cannot choose, and that humans who don’t make their possible choice for thought may be happy flies, but they are not exercising their human potential?
I wonder if Blake was knowledgeable of Socrates and his claim that he must be a gadfly to society, the presenter of bothersome ideas, the interrupter of the thoughtless, or if this was an independent realization. Others certainly borrowed it. Gandhi liked Socrates’ fly thought. Martin Luther King used that gadfly line of Socrates in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” too, and it even inspired the periodical that alternate Parlando reader Dave Moore started up that he called The Gadfly a half-century ago.
Minnesota also had a reputation for political progressivism. Maybe it was the bugs?
I won’t interrupt you long for today’s audio piece, my performance of Blake’s “The Fly.” There’s a player gadget below.
*Literarily, a step down in fame, we also have Robert Pirsig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance living over a shoe-store a couple of blocks away from where I’m typing this, and Robert Bly, he of the deep image and a revised-standard-version of masculinity. Some would even claim John Berryman, an interstate grump who was teaching here when he took a faith or faithless leap off the Mississippi bridge that I once traveled over between my job at a hospital and my last few dollars of college education. I kept walking, and encourage you to do so too.
You know, I really mean it when I say I aim to combine various words (mostly poetry) with various original music. I find I’m a self-iconoclast. If I sense a few too many audio pieces leaning one way, I want to lean another.
Brave listener/reader, bear with me. If you like or even love something I present here, you might well find the next one meh to boring to obnoxious.
Today’s piece uses a poem by Robert Frost. Long-time readers will know that I didn’t much care for Frost in my youth. He seemed so conventional, the man to reassure us of timeless verities in verse and sentiment, a left-over Victorian. Even Emily Dickinson who I first absorbed, as she was taught then as a writer of gentle ironies, at least had a bit of the scamp about her. And in my young days Frost had the job of bringing up the rear of the poetry textbooks, the last in the line.* Everything newer was unexplored, unteachable as to danger or value.
Beyond this point are monsters. This map makes it look like one could cross the North Sea by hopping from back to back. My mid-century text-books stayed onshore.
How soon did I hear Frost’s “playing tennis without a net” line, often deployed then against the Beats, those descendants of Whitman and Li Bai who were roaming the streets unschooled and braying? In high school I’d guess. I didn’t know then that Frost hated nearly every living poet, that Frost’s distain was like the rain, it fell on all.
I suppose I could have at least related to Frost’s rural themes in my little farm town, but that passed me by then. I do recall that a high school English teacher who I admired, Terry Brennan,** told us that Frost had not been successful in his short try as a farmer, and I still remember that assessment of Frost’s poetic persona as something of a phony mask. Carl Sandburg, still thought of as the proletarian urbanite, was more a man of the soil, his household goat farm likely more successful and certainly longer-lived.
Of course, few young persons—and not I, then—realize that all masks are phony, but they give you something to show for what you’re saying. To criticize a poet for putting on masks and speaking lines is like criticizing LeBron James for spending too much time dribbling when he could just drop the ball through the hoop from the top of a stepladder. Did I just restate Frost with larger balls and a different net? And you in the back row: that’s basketballs, stop snickering.
Frost’s true nature is as a stoic, a man sure of human failure and the unacknowledged dark humor in denying that. Sure, that outlook can be too reductive. Kindness, love, the act of caring, may be only momentary balms in the great scheme of things, but momentarily we live.
So why do I now present Robert Frost fairly often here? Well, in his early years he was a superb lyric poet. And as I’ve gotten older, I’m more and more drawn to the lyric poem, the short expression that says those who tell you everything in their poem, who are sure their next line will tell you more yet, are testing both my patience and my sense of how much anyone knows. If we live momentarily, then the lyric poet is our documentarian.
Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something” is a defense of that understanding, a lyric poem about the Book of Nature that is itself about the momentariness of the lyric. I choose this unconventional musical setting to emphasize that other part of Frost, that he’s the hard man, and that if he’s a poet who can be taunted for spending too much time staring down wells, he isn’t going to lie about what little he can see. ***
Today’s piece marks the 350th audio piece that the Parlando Project has presented here, so that makes it particularly apt, not only because we most often focus on the lyric aspect of words, but because this project is about encountering those words and asking what is new or particular in our apprehension.
Disliking or liking a piece’s words, music, or performance are just two sides of the same coin in the wishing well. My dislike of the poet I thought Frost was at first led me to love other poets more, and then, eventually, in another once, I was able to come back to Frost and see him again, differently.
You’ve given us your attention, so not wishing for you to toss coins…
If you like some of what we do, here’s what I ask of you: spread the news about it. Particularly if you use social media (I have too little time after doing this, nor do I have enough of the nature for it). The audience has grown in the nearly three years this has been going on, but the amount of effort to do this asks that this growth continue.
Here’s today’s audio piece, my performance of Robert Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something” taken as a driving EDM piece. You can dance if you want to, and the player is below. If you’d like to read the text of the poem, now or later, it’s here.
*Carl Sandburg, who I’ve always liked, was actually a few years younger than Frost, but the books still seemed to choose Frost to end with. There was a generation of poets after them, born in the early 20th century before the Beats and their contemporaries, who were also still not in the textbooks then.
**I wonder if he’s alive, an old man if so. I owe him a debt. Like an early musical influence, my short-time college friend Don Williams, his name is too common to be easily searched.
***I suspect an intended undercurrent here of the Celtic tradition of wells being the domain of spirits, something that survives in enervated form with traditions like the “wishing well.”
Here’s a piece that I wrote* which is appropriate for July 4th, American Independence Day, since it talks about freedom and independence—but also because of its compositional back-story.
A few years back I got to travel to New York City with my wife and young son. An advantage of this trip is that I could see New York as a tourist. We stayed in Brooklyn, on the same block as a now unused building that was a waystation on the Underground Railroad, and we’d walk by it every day going to and from the subway station, that different underground railway. We visited the Tenement Museum (highly recommended) and my accompanying book for this trip was Rebels: Into Anarchy and Out Again,“Sweet Marie” Ganz’s** memoir of her life as a tenement-dwelling radical a hundred years before. We visited Ellis Island and my wife and son got to sit on one of the benches that immigrants sat on in the great hall awaiting decisions. We did what resident New Yorkers rarely do, we visited the Statue of Liberty, the giant statue that on Independence Day becomes the representational symbol for the American spirit.
Every American knows that statue as an image. For our large and diverse country, it’s the equivalent of ancient Athens’ civic sculpture of Athena. Still, here are two things that are lesser-known.
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame..” The reconstruction of the Parthenon’s Athena sculpture is in Nashville Tennessee. Athena has a carving of Steve Earle in her right hand as stone-Earle proclaims Townes Van Zandt the greatest songwriter ever.
The pedestal of the monument rests on the repurposed ruins of an early 19th century fort which once guarded New York harbor. Visitors to Liberty Island can see a section of the fort’s lower structures left uncovered and accessible down a stairway: bricked-in doorways of a room that was once used as a military prison cell according to the placard. The author of the placard was likely not a poet, but the Statue of Liberty rests on top of the doors of a prison.
One part of the statue, otherwise so well known, is nearly impossible to see for visitors, but was intended as part of the work’s imagery by its creator: beneath the torch of “imprisoned lightning,” the halo of spiked rays, the serene face, the tablet bearing the date July 4th 1776, and the copper-clad folds of its robe, the sandaled feet of this Lady Liberty stand on top of a broken shackle and chains.*** That would become the title image of “Chains At Her Feet.”
“Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight” some of the broken chains at her feet
It was sometime after that visit that I watched a young woman move out of a rooming house on my block. I could not discern all her story, but the small number of belongings, and the unable-to-tell relationship with a man who was assisting her with the move, but who left after helping with a couple of larger pieces of furniture, supplied the second set of images.
Why did I combine those two sets of images? Because it seemed emotionally right, though it may not be. A Dada principle, one beloved by composer/musician Frank Zappa, was “Anything, anytime, anyplace for no reason at all.” My understanding of Zappa’s artistic tactic is that combining things that don’t seem to go together, even things that seem outrageously incongruous, can create new and strong impressions. Chance, randomness, coincidence can be entryways to this.
I agree with that, though I’d caution you that my experience has been that most results of chance, incongruity and randomness will suffer from incomprehensibility and boredom, near and far misses. In practice, selection must occur, whether it happens before or after. Who selects? The artist and their audience. Zappa certainly chose, he was just happier choosing widely, and in some cases choosing things many people (and even I) will not like.
So, this combination in today’s piece “Chains At Her Feet,” the Statue of Liberty and a young woman, leaving or going somewhere, sketched in clear lines, yet missing parts of the story, may not impress on readers/listeners what I intuited and felt in combining them. Would it be better if I filled in the missing parts, even with invented details? Some readers of it have thought so. The title/refrain “Chains at her feet,” a detail taken from our giant July 4th icon, puzzled people. Was that my intent? Yes and no. I wanted people to ask what that odd line meant. In singing it, I repeat it enough to make sure people know it’s not a mistake. Do I want listeners to think “Aha, that must be the Statue of Liberty?” No, but I wanted the effect Liberty’s sculptor wanted when he put those chains under his statue’s feet, the same sort of conjunction as the remains of the military fort and the jail doors under the pedestal on Liberty island.
When singing this, I add more refrains. When reading it you see words I want as punned/double-meaning: “steals” and “sole.” Even “chains at her feet” sounds a bit like “change…” when drawn out.
So, who’s right? The answer is I don’t know. Long-time readers here know one of my dictums: “All artists fail.” Even the canonical greats bore and puzzle and meet with disinterest of most people most of the time—so unestablished artists like me certainly don’t know if what we do is any good.
No artist does. We do it anyway.
I like it when something connects with readers/listeners, I’m often sad when it doesn’t. My stance on what disconnect I find with what audience I find is to interrogate it and myself. I haven’t let it stop me making. Indeed, it sometimes leads me to additional making, seeking ways to make something work some of the time.
As important as it is that we artists respect, are even grateful, for genuine audiences, it is also important that we choose widely, even fail widely.
*Regulars here know that presenting pieces with my own words is an intentional rarity here. I often fall into doing it when I’m running behind in developing pieces with other writer’s words or researching around that goal.
**Ganz’s story was fascinating to me, an immigrant sweat-shop garment worker from age 13, who through chutzpah and conviction toward justice became a street agitator for reforms in early 20th century NYC. Speaking of a conjunction that may be accidental or designed, I’ve wondered if the Sweet Marie in Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” could have intentionally referenced her. Some of Dylan’s Greenwich Village cohort might have known of “Sweet Marie,” and her actions were less than 50 years old when Dylan hit town.
***Though Liberty’s tablet references the 4th of July, the proximal motivation for its creation was the ending of the American Civil War and American slavery. In statuary, having something beneath the feet of the figure or trodden on is not uncommon imagery, but chains and shackles aren’t just mythological images. In another juxtaposition, Juneteenth and July 4th sit close together on the calendar, if four score and seven years apart.