The Fly

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.

Songs_of_Innocence_and_of_Experience_THE_FLY

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.

For Once, Then, Something, or Robert Frost kicks it EDM

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.

Carta Marina Beyond this point are Monsters

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.

Rural Well!

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.”

Chains At Her Feet

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.

Two Civic Statues

“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.”

Statue of Liberty 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.

Chains At Her Feet lyrics

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.

To hear “Chains At Her Feet”  performed, use the player below.

 

 

 

 

*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.