February Twilight

The cosmos says we need to get a leap year, and extra day, and yet we put it in February. It was a dozen degrees Fahrenheit this morning, and my bike ride back from breakfast was into an insistent north wind that explains to me that we’re in Minnesota and we’ll probably have a snowstorm or two yet before we can see spring—a spring that sometimes seems too short to form memories.

So, before we leave this month and season, I thought it a good time for a short poem referencing a short month from American poet Sara Teasdale. Teasdale is like Edna St. Vincent Millay, a poet that 100 years ago was thought a leading voice in this country’s verse, after which we spent the rest of the century more or less forgetting or down-grading their place.

When such re-evaluations happen, it’s common to assign them to the refined judgement of posterity, the further assay that separates momentarily sparkly stuff from the for-all-time classics. How does that happen?

One could assign this downward path to Teasdale (like Millay) writing metrical and rhyming verse in their prize-winning years early in the 20th century. The evil Modernist free-verse hordes in this view laid waste to all who dare to rhyme or march to a one-shoe-off beat.

There’s a factor there, sure, but this story doesn’t account for two giants whose statues were not toppled: Frost and Yeats. Nor the monuments on many campuses to canon sitters like Auden and Wilbur et al who were not primarily free-verse poets.

No, I think there are more important factors in this determination, one that is currently under revision in our new century. First, both were essentially lyric poets. “Lyric” in this sense doesn’t mean that they wrote song lyrics. Though of course this project finds them sing-able and otherwise suited to presentation with music, “Lyric” in the literary sense means that their poems tend to be set in the impressions and immediacy of a moment, and their final and considered judgement of that moment is not necessarily explicit. Lyric poems don’t usually have great themes developed with long arguments in verse. Nor do they have narratives the way a novel or story does, were we turn the page to find out what happens next. What happens in a lyric poem—happens! Right then. Right now.

The pioneering Modernists in the years before the end of WWI, those that were or wrote like Imagists, were fine with that. Indeed, this was the point of Imagism. Teasdale wasn’t called an Imagist, but she could write like one, albeit with rhyme and meter. The Imagists didn’t call for the end of rhyme and meter, they called for an end of poems that existed to fill out those forms without the vividness of the lyric.

But post Eliot and the Pound of the Cantos, post the sheltering of poetry inside the academic monasteries which could too easily fall into a rout of poems to be taught rather than poems to be experienced, these poems could seem slight. The Imagists were a fine exercise to break from the past, but they were not, in this outlook, the way to write great poetry.

And here’s the other reason. Gender. The academics were overwhelmingly men and were steeped in the things men were thinking about. And the world of the middle of the 20th century had a lot of concerns that made the concerns of Teasdale and other women poets of the early part of the 20th century seem like the line in Casablanca  uttered by Humphrey Bogart “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

For the first part of our double feature: 90 seconds of cinema that was an emotional touchstone to many. Also, mansplaining.

 

It took the culture until nearly the end of the 20th century to see that part of the world’s craziness was because men were still explaining how it worked to women.*

All that may be too much of a burden to bear for this short poem by Teasdale. But if “February Twilight”  was signed Frost or Yeats, I suspect more attention might be paid to her poem. It doesn’t read much like Yeats, but it could pass for the shorter, lyric Frost.

The lyric impulse in poetry survived the mid-20th century when colored with Dada and Surrealism. “See, it’s not me! I’m a serious poet, but I just chanced into this charged moment.”

 

What does Teasdale experience in the charged moment of her lyric? That it seems like she’s the only one that views this star, a manifest untruth we could explain to her, but which I think she knows as the final line presents. She doesn’t explain this to us, but we can stand in the cold, snowy February and experience it with her.

I’m choosing tambura and acoustic guitar again for my performance today, this time with an organ keyboard part. Click on that player gadget below to hear it.  “If you don’t, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”

 

 

 

 

*Which I’m doing here. Ha Ha! Here’s where one of the principles of the Parlando Project comes in: “Other People’s Stories.” I’m not claiming the exclusive right to mansplain mansplaining, but men speaking up about it has its place and value.

Oh, and explaining has value too. And I happen to like Casablanca  as a movie. And defeating fascism might have a value greater than the optimum choice for a snuggle-bunny. And I had huevos rancheros for breakfast. A hill of beans would be meaningful and sustaining to me!

Sadie and Stephen Hawkings

It’s leap year, and the last time there was one of those, Dave Moore wrote this song about the mysterious cosmologies and quantum physics of love.

We’ve already met Stephen Hawking here, though in a roundabout way, as the universe may be. When Hawking died a couple of years ago, at his public memorial an astronaut read a passage about the cosmos from a Percy Bysshe Shelly poem to eulogize the great cosmologist. Coincidence? Well I looked, and I was surprised to learn that Shelly, that early 19th century romantic poet, could write on the physics of light and calculate the speed of a light-year. Not quite quantum theory, but a better performance than many poets today might do. Romantic wonder and physics may be objects that are closer than they appear.

I suspect Sadie Hawkins is a more obscure star in our firmament these days than Stephen Hawking. Dave would know Sadie first-hand because he’s much more knowledgeable than I am about what once were comics and are now whatever they are fancied as an art form. Back when they were funny papers Sadie was created by cartoonist and satirist Al Capp.

The Montgomery Story comic book

Al Capp ran a comic book company too. In 1957 he published a comic book about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which helped bring to the fore Martin Luther King. The story in Dave Moore’s family is that his mother typed MLK’s thesis in Boston. Like I said, objects are closer than they appear.

 

I can’t quite fathom how to condense Capp into a short blog post. I proudly thought I could come up with two or three sentences to sum up Capp’s career—but that’s impossible. His Wikipedia article covers the high points I guess. I will say that by the time I was reading comic strips the Al Capp mythos was probably past its prime and unappealing to me. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t know Sadie Hawkins. Schools still had annual “Sadie Hawkins dances” where young women were licensed to ask men to a date or dance, and all this (along with some legends about Irish Saint Brigid) got melded into a tradition that women could propose to men on Leap Year day.

That’s enough to get you into Dave’s song. As long as you’re willing to entertain a song about a once highly popular cartoon strip and theoretical physics, you’re the audience for this one. I don’t know if that’s enough to fill a Sadie Hawkins Dance floor, but the wallflowers are more interesting there I’d think.

How do quantum forces work? I doubt I know more than Percy Bysshe Shelly. I planned to present this piece for leap year day sometime back, but what did I think two years ago when I heard Shelly’s poem? That he had written of a mazzy  heaven, and that flavorable word brought me to think then of Mazzy Star, an indie rock group that can trace its way back to Minnesota about the time Dave and I started to make music together. Now as I write this post this week, I read that the person whose particle path made that traverse, Mazzy Star principal David Roback, has just died.

The player gadget to hear the LYL Band perform Dave Moore’s “Sadie and Stephen Hawkings”  is below.

 

We Wear the Mask

Today I present the other widely anthologized Paul Laurence Dunbar poem: “We Wear the Mask.”  I was going to put a “now” qualifier in front of “widely” above, but that made for an awkward sentence. I think it’s worth burning at least another sentence to note that.

In looking for some more Dunbar information, I found this story told by Professor Joanne Braxton. Braxton recounts that as recently as the 1980s when she was looking to teach Dunbar poems at her university, that Dunbar’s work was out of print and difficult to find. That’s not unusual. As Donald Hall fatalistically stated in one of his late essays: the majority of poets who receive prizes and ample publication in their time will be unread 20 years after their death. Braxton, who knew Dunbar’s poems from family and Afro-American tradition, eventually saw to publishing of the first collection of all of Dunbar’s verse.

I’m sure I have readers here for whom the 1980s is “a long time ago.” It’s all relative I suppose, but this change in availability speaks to the dynamism of “The Canon,” and which poets we’re exposed to in school or the culture at large. Braxton teaches by her example that we, each of us, shape The Canon,* particularly with poetry, which is in suspended animation on the page and lives only when we read aloud, chant, and sing it. It’s up to all of us to find those poets who split our skulls, open our caged chest bones, and let us animate the slumbering dreams.

Young Negro Poet Dunbar poster

No date is known for this poster, but Dunbar looks quite young here

 

Braxton** and others have written eloquently on the meaning of this Dunbar poem and about Dunbar’s pioneering code-switching project to write in dialect as well as mainstream 19th century poetic forms, so once more I’ll defer to others today in those matters.

On the poem itself, let me praise its word-music. There were occasional words that were hard for me to sing or set to music, but that’s likely my fault as a composer and certainly my fault as a singer. “We Wear the Mask” is almost too pretty for its subject, but then there’s a tradition (I associate it with Celtic folk musics) of setting the saddest stories to the most beautiful tunes. Last time, for Dunbar’s “Sympathy,”  I followed that idea for my music and the fiddle melody. Now, for my explicit music today, I decided to go in a more martial cadence and ambience. Art song (that traditional method of setting poetry to music) usually avoids that mood; but one of my influences, the English language 20th century Folk Music Revival is perfectly fine with that.

We Wear the Mask

Here’s the guitar chords. The piano and bass mostly just play the roots of the chords in today’s performance. That’s a nice thing about music: sometimes simple works just fine.

 

In the Broadside tradition, I’ve included my guitar chords with Dunbar’s lyrics for this one. I played it with a capo on the second fret, so the chords sound a full step higher than the chord forms indicated above. My performance can be heard with the player gadget that should appear below.

 

 

*This leads to complaints that change in The Canon is “watering down,” or subject to special pleading which somehow is self-evidently inferior to one or another objective aesthetic criterion. If there are indeed multiple criteria (objectively, that must be agreed to be so) how else must we decide among ourselves what has worth, but by a dynamic of discussion, debate, disagreement? And will such actions by human minds and hearts ever lead to a static situation? How can it, if for no other reason that we continue to create poetry, music and art. Hall says, correctly on the face of it, that most will be forgotten. But like those that charge, armed or not, against the redoubts, we must move forward even if only a few will reach and cross the wall.

**One fascinating bit in the link has Braxton sharing an account from Dunbar’s widow about a possible specific inspiration for Dunbar’s famous “Sympathy (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)”  poem.

Sympathy (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)

The last two times I presented poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar here I went out on a limb on subtexts that might be present in those poems. “October”  is on the surface a harvest “Happy Autumn” poem, but there’s an element in it of the personified rich harvest’s carefree possession of wealth. Just a handy poetic metaphor? Perhaps. And then there was his valentine of a poem “Kidnapped”  which could plausibly be connected to the Cupid and Psyche myth, but specifically deals with the narrator being captured and taken from its home. Just another recasting of a widely utilized myth? Could be.

But you see Paul Laurence Dunbar is the first successful Afro-American poet. A man whose parents had both been slaves, whose ancestors would have been very non-metaphorically kidnapped, and a man whose race in his 19th century were the harvesters who retained none of the wealth that accrued to the owners.

Today’s piece by Dunbar carries its subtext clearly—it’s hardly subtext at all! One cannot read or hear it and not see it as a statement about freedom denied. Partly because it can be applied so directly to Afro-American history, it’s become one of Dunbar’s best-known poems.

Dunbar Live!

Dunbar with violinist. Seems like an idea….

 

I don’t need to add to Dunbar’s words today. But since my ego claims I should say something, I’ll note this: Dunbar chose to write his poem as a universalized statement. There’s no lack of Afro-American experiences of freedom limited, other-defined, and outright denied—but the poem he wrote speaks universally of that issue.*  The specifics of racism and economic deprivation would be self-evident to his Afro-American readers anyway.

Was writing about denied freedom in metaphor a commercial choice, in accordance to the poetic style of his time, or an example of a largeness of his soul? Well, now his poem exists, and it speaks to freedom denied to anyone who encounters it.

Levys Ad and Malcom X

I started thinking of wry captions for this. Nope, the picture doesn’t need’em.

 

Another setting from me using violin, cello, and acoustic guitar today. I went out last night after working much of the day on this audio piece and saw songwriters playing acoustic guitar at a local venue. I enjoyed the concert, but also in the background I was thinking: alas, I can’t really play guitar or write songs like they do. I watched them changing chords rapidly compared to what I could do earlier in the day. That’s so useful I thought, recalling that I had had trouble rendering my leisurely cadence earlier.

I’m not sure why I thought that. I’ve been doing both of those “I can’t” things for over 40 years, despite limitations on my part that change over time. When I returned to the piece today my guitar part didn’t sound as wanting as I remembered, and the uncommon “i, III, VI, v, i” hopscotch chord progression of my composition seemed worthwhile to the morning’s ear. My violin line (played on guitar via MIDI) seemed better than I remembered too. I still wish I was a better singer, but I can express my own way with melody on an instrument even if my singing limits me. The piece seemed valid to me again.

What lesson to draw from that? Comparing your art to others can be fraught. Sometimes when you need to improve, observing others can show you the way. Sometimes when you’re different, it’s still good, and not a falling away.

To hear Dunbar’s “Sympathy”  as I performed it, use the player below. The full text of the poem is here if you’d like to follow along.

 

 

 

*A good argument could be made that there is a specific to the Afro-American experience in Dunbar’s metaphor though: the caged bird’s song. American music, that stuff that we (and a great deal of the rest of the world) have come to hear as the strongest part of our American culture is disproportionally Afro-American music.

Heartened

We are over half-way through Black History month and I’ve mostly spoken obliquely about it. I think that’s my nature. As poet I’m often doomed to reader response that they just don’t get it, and that bothers me, because in my mind I’m intending to link disparate things because I think that’s powerful. But in intending to do that, I make myself obscure—and painfully, some fine people who’ve heard or read my work think that’s my intent or my error.

So, when I speak about one of my discoveries, a law I think is strangely comforting: “All Artists Fail,” I’m speaking from personal experience. You may think, that’s not true about famous artist X or highly revered artist Y, but it is. Even those that are—for a time or for a long time—popular, many will not hear of them, many will not care for their work when exposed to it, and even those that are treasured and ranked highly, how many will understand what they are trying to do sufficiently? Some? Perhaps. Many? One hopes. All? Never. It’s good to aim for the some and honorable to hope for the many. Be prepared for the never-all however. Sequester or armor yourself against that or be prepared to take comfort in it.

That’s part of why this project has a principle of “Other People’s Stories.” More than 90% of the time the words I’m presenting and talking about here are not mine. Trying to encounter those words a couple times a week with an open heart and whatever limitations or strengths I have is the goal. I’ve done that here over the 420 audio pieces and the over 500 posts in the last few years.

The great majority of those that I present here are now dead, many long so. As my son points out to me, mostly white men too. One needs to interrogate the past to form the future. I have a culture I inherited. One that spoke English, was based in the middle of the U.S., and was as blinkered as any. Everyone inherits a culture. It’s inevitable, as inevitable as “All Artists Fail.” What do you draw from it for strength and inspiration, what do you oppose, what do you seek to add?

What can you find in what is not you? All those things. The future is not made of one heart alone, no matter how perfect, it’s made of many hearts. Good art can tear open our boney-caged chests and let us glimpse the beautiful glistening ooze within all of us: Chinese, African, Irish, English, indigenous, immigrant, and on and on. It’s right and wrong—yes, in some proportion, inside all of us—but it’s always beating as music and poetry does.

Long dead CIS white man Phillip Sidney wrote “Fool, said my Muse to me, ‘Look in thy heart, and write.” That can work. That can fail. My muse said, “Look in another’s heart, and no matter how dim your vision inside that swooshing pump, write there.”

More new audio pieces soon. But I was heartened today by a post over on the Yip Abides blog linking to a post from a couple of years ago here. Bob Roman has some very nice things to say about what’s attempted with the Parlando Project, things that reminded me why I do this. He also recomends that the archives here have a lot for those who’d like to find something different any day. The particular piece he linked to had Jimi Hendrix’s SciFi parable about an alien scout-ship dealing with observing life on the “Third Stone from the Sun.”  The alien gets it wrong, or sees that we get it wrong: the prime Earth species is a bird, not us warm blooded mammals.

from Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln: the Prairie Years

I neglected to plan ahead enough for today’s U. S. Presidents’ Day holiday. It’s an odd holiday anyway, of no great interest to the large number of readers/listeners this project has overseas. And for Americans, the title and avowed purpose of the holiday may be especially fraught in our present day.

Back when I was young, it was two holidays, celebrating two specific Presidents: George Washington’s Birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday. The first President, a leader of the American Revolution, had a cardinal virtue: he could have become the dictator of the newly independent country. That after all, is the result of many revolutions. He was one of the richest and most powerful men in the new country, full-fledged in the 1% for certain. Yes, part of his wealth consisted of enslaved men and women he owned, but these facts strangely testify to this one important fact in his character: he could have been that dictator. He could have run our country as a personal plantation. He would not.

Abraham Lincoln is another case entirely. I’m not au fait with the demographics of the early 19th century United States, but Lincoln’s family was undistinguished in wealth and fame then, and the circumstances of a rural frontier farming family in his time and place would rank his conditions with those of the world’s poorer regions today.

American poet Carl Sandburg was born less than 70 years after Lincoln, the son of a wealth-less immigrant in a rural America that was different from Lincoln’s, but much closer to Lincoln’s country life than we are today. When, in the last previous decade to be called “The Twenties,” Sandburg chose to write a biography of Abraham Lincoln, he could see those differences, smaller though they were to his eyes. And his eyes were an Imagist poet’s eyes.

This led to an unusual book,* one that was once central to Sandburg’s contemporary renown, but now is generally less well-regarded. Sandburg chose to tell the Lincoln story, as he might portray a scene in one of his poems, with a great deal of humble detail that at any moment could slip into a wider context unexpectedly. His palpable reverence for those humble details is unmistakable.

When Lincoln wrote and spoke the great American civic poem called “The Gettysburg Address”  he famously began by noting our “fathers brought forth upon this continent.” Sandburg though, in telling Lincoln’s story was not exclusively beholden to the patriarchy. And so, however late for Presidents’ Day, here’s a piece more directly about the holiday’s forerunner: Lincoln’s Birthday, as portrayed in Sandburg’s book.

I could see Sandburg, being a poet, choosing poetic methods of refrain as he tells the story of Abe’s birth, and then but a few pages later the death of Lincoln’s mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Each event is set in humble rural isolation, with a central image of a bed of poles and animal hides, cleated to the wall in the corner of a hand-built, dirt-floor hut. This is where Nancy Hanks first presented us Lincoln’s birth day, and also where she died nine years later.

Abe Lincoln's Birth Day

When Dell books got the paperback rights to Sandburg’s condensed version of his Lincoln book, they also made a 1956 comic book from it. The unknown artist didn’t follow Sandburg’s text accurately for the interior scenes however. The cabin drawing is based on a later reconstruction and the interior panel could be a 20th century home familiar to the 1950s reader.

 

Can we believe that’s an American story, much less the story of the birth of a President? It seems like a tale from somewhere else, particularly today. Oh, so much, particularly today. Like a grim fairy tale passed down from some old country. That the Lincolns’ nearest neighbors have the name “Sparrow” only adds to this effect. I decided that Sandburg’s Lincoln tale needed an invocation, a striking way to set us in readiness. My choice for that was to begin with a quote from Patti Smith’s “Birdland,”  another place where music met words to tell the tale of a child who had lost a parent. In the little section I chose here Smith—like Sandburg will at times in his tale—steps outward from the particular in her poem to the promise of an ecstatic future.

The player to hear this performance should appear below. Because I was so late in getting this piece together, the main section retains a “scratch” rhythm section track I used while constructing the piece that I’d normally replace, but I doubt it detracts much from Sandburg’s story.

 

 

 

*The first book, published in two volumes,  Abraham Lincoln: the Prairie Years  was followed up several years later with Abraham Lincoln: the War Years  published in four volumes. These books were in their time a success, and helped form the American cultural understanding of Lincoln in the 20th century. After another interval of years Sandburg created his own one volume condensation of these books, greatly shortening the original text. With my short deadline, it was from that later edition, the one I could get quick access to, that today’s text it extracted.

The Phones in our Hands (are so Magical)

This week I met with a small group of poets that have been sharing their work with each other for a few decades. At the end of the night one of us said that, despite the date, that love poems had been rare.

I said that I do try to look for love poems to present here as part of this project, but when I do I’m often waylaid by something gloomier—“But then, love poems can be as complicated as any other, and there’s always Lorca where the poem is ‘I love and desire you even while we’re between one foot and our whole body and soul in the grave.”

Did I mention the group is all old poets? Young poets can choose to be poète maudit types, and to mine the tropes of love, separation from all, and death—but past a certain age, us old poets have an organic attachment to that role that we’d have to actively deny to escape.

So, for Valentine’s Day, here’s a free-verse sonnet of mine that speaks about a kind of love that old partners may have. I think some readers could miss that aspect in “These Phones in our Hands (are so Magical),”  working as the poem does to contrast the little glowing palm-shrines that are now common to most of us with other kinds of connection.

These Phone in our Hands

Long time readers here know that we’ll be back soon with performances of poems I didn’t write.

The magical incident it describes, of a phone that can display a picture of a couple seven years in the future is not entirely fantasy. As the poem jokes, there are processes that can age a photo to show how a person might look at an older age. For someone older, the assurance that one might see proof that one will be around for seven more years is magical in a more above and below-ground earthy sense. Young lovers can wonder if their partner will stay partnered with them. Old lovers know  that they will part.

The final couplet may be tricky. The empty hands are not just empty of their magical smart phones.

I almost presented this with just the drums, but in the past week or two I’ve spent composing time blowing on the guitar because my fingers have been up to it, and maybe I can recover a little of the few chops I once had. Yet, in the back of my mind I’ve reminded myself that it’s been awhile since I composed an orchestra piece for this project, and that led to the strings today. The player to hear it should be below. If you’re reading this in the WordPress reader on an iPad or iPhone the player gadget may be missing. Why? I don’t know, as the player shows up fine in Safari—but you can subscribe to the audio pieces by themselves in the Apple Podcast app or find us as the Parlando Project on Spotify.