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.
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.
I’ve largely put off considering the American Modernist poet Marianne Moore. Why? Largely a combination of difficulties in understanding her verse with an inability to appreciate her word-music. When I look at a Marianne Moore poem I’m usually struck by a combination of plain-spokenness with a knotted syntax that obscures the direction of her meaning.
Ordinarily I’m perfectly willing to put up with hard-to-understand-on-the-first-reading poetry—indeed I can like poetry that I can never quite grasp as long as its language makes me gasp. But a Moore poem on the page, and in its first or even second reading often seems more like a set of notes for a poem or one of my own jumbled first drafts rather than an elusive song I’m driven to follow by the impetus of its structure.
But of course all of that is an impression based on limited exposure to her work. Late last year I put down a short list of works that would come into public domain in 2020, and one of those works from the last decade to be called “The Twenties” was Marianne Moore’s first book-length collection Observations.
This month I read Observations. I was puzzled by many of the poems—that I expected—but what surprised me was how consistently the poems take a stance of protest, opposition and stubborn grievance. Don’t ask me to explicate each poem in Observations, I’ll fail that test, and even if my understanding of the alliances of various Modernist has been refreshed and expanded by doing this Project, I can’t say completely who or whose poetic theories are being skewered, but Moore’s first collection can be read as a collection of dis tracks.
Marianne Moore has a few things to say about obstacles and those that put them up
Observations contains Moore’s most famous poem “Poetry,” the one that begins “I too dislike it.” But as it sets out it’s ideas of proper poetry, it’s relatively gentle in chiding those that fail. Other poems in the collection are not so gentle.
Take the one I’m performing today: “The Labors of Hercules.” The title helps us with a reference before we get to Moore’s discursive style. In Greek mythology these were a series of 12 tasks, each one next-to-impossible on its own, all of which the hero Hercules must complete as penance. Moore doesn’t seem to follow the scheme of these classical tasks.* Instead she sets out the tasks that have been made next to impossible for her (or her like) to create their own variation of American Modernist art—and there’s a bunch of them.
Is the mule at the start of the poem then her own poetic muse, not conventionally beautiful and lyrical? The rest of the obstacles/tasks seem more outer than inward. There’s a narrow-minded pianist too tied to the score** to improvise or compose in a new manner. A string of invective brings us some “Self-wrought Midasses of brains” with “Fourteen-carat ignorance” that she’ll disappoint. She sarcastically threatens to rebel and dress up as the specifically male and bearded representation of time and posterity.*** She disputes the theory (propounded by T. S. Eliot and some lions of New Criticism) that detachment from one’s particular personality is required for creative power. She runs into the “High priests of caste” and lashes them with some further, unmistakable invective. Next she says she’ll have to teach saints to atheists to succeed in her penance.
There’s a line I’m not sure of that follows: “Sick of the pig-sty, wild geese and wild men.” Moore might be saying she’s sick of reflexive poetic worship of a timeless nature, as she shared a Modernist interest in observing the man-made and mechanical as worthy of poetry. Myself, I like a poem that freshly opens the book of nature as much as the next person, but there are days when one more poem about majestic wild-geese or another Robert-Bly-has-helped-me-come-to-terms-with-my-masculinity**** wild man poem makes me gag.
The poem closes on a short litany negating a series of common prejudices and ethnic stereotypes. I will not tarry long here to note that several other Modernists of 100 years ago were not shy about displaying each of these bigotries. In the context of this poem, Moore is saying “and besides all of the other things I’ll need to overcome, I’m not going to score easy points with bigots.”
Andy Gill in action with the Gang of Four.
It’s my hope that my performance of “The Labors of Hercules” helps as much as what I’ve written above to illuminate Moore’s poem. Musically I was thinking of Andy Gill, a guitarist who I admired greatly and who died this month. I didn’t mimic his distinctive sound or the can’t-not-dance groove of the group he founded, The Gang of Four—but a little of his attitude was informing me. The full text of Marianne Moore’s “The Labors of Hercules” is linked here. The player to hear my performance should appear below, and all the Parlando Project audio pieces are also available on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Just look there for (or on other podcast sources) for The Parlando Project.
**”Tadpole notes” made me think of immature notes that haven’t grown into those real toads for one’s imaginary garden, but it appears that Moore’s quoted image is more likely a reference to the shapes of notes in conventional notation with their bodies and tails.
***Moore’s politics are not something I know a lot about. Socialism of the William Morris sort is said to be an early influence, but she was an ardent woman’s suffragist 100 years ago when she still couldn’t vote as a matter of law. At the time that the female “song-bird” poets (Teasdale, Millay, Wylie, and others) were starting to be denigrated by high-church Modernists, Moore was one woman who was going to fight back with her own distinctive Modernism.
Here’s another in our series presenting poems that address what a struggle for social change feels like. A couple of differences this time, but then this project likes differences.
First difference: the words I adapted for today’s piece weren’t intended as a poem. How’d I come upon them? I saw this post over on the Afro Punk blog which had a linked short video with long-time radical activist and thinker Angela Davis. Davis’ younger interviewer starts off with a philosophic observation about the nature of time and changes, and ends by asking Davis to “get us to a different place.”*
Davis’ reply did that: it included an insightful statement that may be useful across generations. Listening to it in her exact and measured speaking cadence I began to see a structure already implied in it that could be expressed poetically. My contribution to the text was simply to cut out and arrange some of her words in order to further compress and focus on an element that I heard and resonated with and that I’d like to emphasize. Though that’s audacious on my part, my intent was to respect and re-amplify this part of her message. Did I succeed or fail by changing the context of some of her words in this way? Listeners will judge.
You may not agree with every one of Davis’ ideas, but my point is that through poetry we can better understand the experience and soul that fires those ideas
Here a second difference. When I presented Yeats’ poem about his country’s civil war, I said most living Americans will likely have no knowledge of which sides and positions were involved in that struggle that Yeats wrote about in 1923, much less a position on them or their consequences. I certainly didn’t. Time and distance can do that. What might a civil war feel like so soon after Ireland had gotten its independence? We can still feel that element in Yeats’ poem regardless.
Similarly, the complex theological structure of William Blake’s 18th century “prophetic books” require footnotes for many of us, but his stance for human freedom and possibility despite our fallen nature may still come through.
Davis though is still a person of controversy. That’s a radical’s job after all, and she’s been at that for more than 50 years. Furthermore, actual questions of life and death of people—people that other still-living people know or knew—are connected to those positions and tactics over the decades. Arguments of necessity and priority are complex. As it is, no passage of time has made racism, sexism and homophobia mooted points, and no country I know is a safe refuge from these things. These are too important questions for me to be glib about them.
But what about what Davis said during this Black History Month about us who want social change? There is some wisdom to take in. You can listen to my performance of a few statements from this February 2020 talk by Angela Davis with the player gadget below, and you can see Davis herself make her points herself. Musically I believe I was thinking of Gil Scott-Heron when I tried to do my best playing a couple of electric pianos. Gil Scott-Heron is another one of those influences that helped form this project.
*For Black History Month, Afro Punk has taken a theme “How long ‘til Black future month?”
Let’s return today to the English mystic and poet William Blake, but continue on a thought that is inherent with the last two pieces, one by Yeats and the other by a long-winded guy who writes this. Poetry, just like other writing can, within its levels, do any number of things. One can seek to teach, to reassure, to tell stories, to amuse, to make philosophical points, or to abstractly portray beauty in poetry. Some poets, some critics, some projects, believe some of these are more worthy aims than others. From one day to another I may favor one of these over another in my reading, my performances here, in my own writing.
There’s a certain “high church” of poetry that feels that which aim and which methods are used in reaching it is crucial—and that other choices harm the art. I’m not smart enough, or well enough read, to know if they’re right.
But there’s one thing impactful poetry shares with the other arts: that’s the texture of the immediacy of experience, of how its creation, its creator, its reader, its listener feels and shares of any of this.
So, it largely makes no difference to readers today what political side William Butler Yeats was on in the Irish Civil War. And if post-WWII “Westerns” dealt with certain horrors: racist terrorism, genocide, colonialism, and the responsibilities of citizenship in an uncertain and sometimes buffered way, well so be it. What remains is the emotional and perceptual core transferred now.
Today’s piece is a section from one of William Blake’s “prophetic books,” a series of very small editions he wrote, illustrated, colored and printed himself. As a young man I admired that. Blake bows to no other as far as “Indie Cred,” “get in the van,” and DIY spirit. Furthermore, he developed (or envisioned) his own mythology to explain his metaphysical outlook.
I can still remember first reading about Blake in a list of minor poets* in some leftover textbook of one of my parents sometime in the mid-60s. The note said that while he wrote some charming short lyrics he later descended into longer works that were judged as borderline insane. To many a young person that’s not a tragic story so much as it’s intriguing.
A year or two later the rock’n’roll band The Doors dropped a Blake line into an album cut and I eventually was able to get a few paperbacks collecting Blake poetry. “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” youthful Byronic mythos was part of this no doubt.
I couldn’t make head nor tails out of Blake’s “prophetic books.” I could see the Milton and Books of Moses references, but that didn’t illuminate things much. In the decades since, there have arisen many Blake scholars who worked out his structure and epistemological themes to a great degree. That’s helped. But even then as a teenager, and now as an old man, I could and can still catch glimpses of how it felt to apprehend and sing these things Blake wrote. The poems are like their illustrations in Blake’s great plan for “illuminated books:” they are meaningful in their impact without necessarily telling you what they are meant to mean within some overall structure. And that’s probably how visionary works should be.
A recent special exhibition of Blake works in London was celebrated by projecting one of Blake’s most famous images on the dome of St. Paul’s cathedral. Not shown: the irony of nonconformist Blake’s image on a national religious landmark.
So today I’m going to perform part of the final chapter of Blake’s Book of Urizen which comes after Blake has told something like a condensed tale of “Paradise Lost” or the book of Genesis; but with his own vision of the creation of the world and religion and the fall and fate of humankind. It doesn’t require that you understand or agree with Blake’s ideas if I can help illuminate Blake’s words so that you can understand the feeling of creating in a failed and fallen world.
In Blake’s mythos mankind is descended from fallen Eternals, blind to the infinity of the universe and their own souls. When we see his famous picture of a bearded Urizen with a compass at right angles measuring the world it’s not only a picture of visionary might—it’s the picture of a fallen, blind Eternal assiduously measuring a world with a puny device.
I didn’t go directly Doors rock’n’roll for today’s audio piece, instead the words led me somewhere else, to one of the things that influenced that band: the mythos of another visionary: Sun Ra, the Birmingham Alabama born Afro-American who recast himself as a prophet from the planet Saturn, and thereby encoded African and Afro-American culture as an infinite thing.
When I started thinking and planning this project, I thought I’d be producing audio pieces around five to eight minutes in length. That was the most common length of the preliminary combinations of various words with music I had experimented with before the Parlando Project was launched.
I made a course correction once the project took off. If you’ve been here recently you’ve seen that the typical audio piece is now between two and four minutes, roughly the length of the classic 45 RPM single record of my youth. How’d this happen?
I found that I am really drawn to the condensation and immediacy of lyric poetry, the kind of thing that lands its impact in 30 lines or less. Like those three-minute singles of my youth, those texts can often cram quite a bit of expressiveness into a similar length of time.
Then part of this is also counterprograming. About half of the listeners here consume these audio pieces as podcasts on Stitcher, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Player.FM etc. A great deal of podcasting on offer clusters around longer-form, loosely organized talkfests. I have no long commute, take few long trips, and much of my life is reading, writing, composing or recording and none of that opens opportunity for someone remotely talking at length (however engagingly) about something.* My thought is that even if someone enjoys that, then mixing in a short dose of poetry or other condensed writing with music from this Project will be a pleasant contrast.
And there’s a more intimate reason. I’m a weak singer who cannot execute complex sung melodies or make simpler ones thrilling over a longer duration. Listeners will note that I don’t sing most pieces here, using instead variations of chant, talk-singing, or declaimed spoken word instead. This leads me to want to make my statement in a shorter format.
What’s all this leading up to? I told my wife that I’m hoping I’ve earned the right to potentially bore my audience today, because I’m going to present an eleven-and-a-half minute, 20-verse ballad. What’s more, I’m the author, so I can’t even cut the thing for length as the writer will complain.
“The Wild Roses” has an odd inspiration: a TV episode that aired almost exactly sixty years ago on Feb. 6th 1960 as part of the western TV series Have Gun-Will Travel titled “The Night the Town Died.” Have Gun-Will Travel strived to differentiate itself from other TV westerns of its era. It liked the odd-ball script a lot more than most, and the series’ star Richard Boone (who also directed that episode) seemed to favor bold acting performances. And though he rode a horse in the 19th century American west, Boone’s gun-for-hire character Paladin acted more like a noir private detective.
I’ve often wondered if the teenaged Bob Dylan watched these shows. There are elements of his story-telling in song that sometimes remind me of them. Dylan’s narratives are much more abstract, and Modernist language and tactics are deployed more often than the TV writers were allowed to do, but the sense of quickly sketched and absurd situations could be linked.
Gunfighter’s squint or age-related myopia? Richard Boone as Paladin, Robert Zimmerman as Bob Dylan.
The HG-WT episode “The Night the Town Died” has some strong moments, but overall it leaves more an impression of its oddness and slightly over-done seriousness than coherence. I took very little from its script:** a single character name, a line of dialog—but largely I relied on a funhouse mirror reflection of its overall plot arc: a man comes to a town to revenge the lynching of his brother,*** but he wants to first determine, Hamlet-like, who his just target is.
I chose to tell my story using a young female Ophelia-like character as the narrator, and I gave the revengeful Hamlet-ish protagonist only a few lines. The former appears in “The Night the Town Died” to speak about wild roses, the later bears the name I instead gave to the murdered brother. There’s no Deus Ex Machina Paladin gunfighter to serve as judge or referee as in the TV show. In my ballad, the narrator and the revenging traveler characters meet four other characters. If you think some of these encountered characters carry modern or out-of-time undercurrents, yes, that was my intent. And coming in right after a Yeats’ poem last time, I chose the town’s name in my ballad with intent too.
These choices were performance challenges. The writer (me) didn’t give the performer (me) much choice but to try to “play” the characters in voice to line out who was speaking in the immediacy of performance. If someone else was to perform this, having a number of vocalists to play the characters would be better I think. I sing the woman/narrator role, but then speak the lines from the men she meets in hope it helps set them apart. Likewise, my song might gain value from having a woman singing it.
There are still a few lines that I don’t think are as good as they need to be in this version. Maybe today’s performance is a bootleg/demo?
Performing this kind of narrative song takes special talents, and I have no more than a small amount of what should be deployed in that task. And as a writer my narrative for this ballad is also unusual. It’s intentions are more like Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” or Bob Dylan’s “Isis****” than the straightforward narratives of “Matty Groves,”“The Dowie Dens of Yarrow,” or Marty Robbins “El Paso.”***** Does “The Wild Roses” succeed or fail? The player is below.
*My wife, whose routine and preferences are different than mine, enjoys conventional podcasts, and audio books as well. I grow more and more impatient with age it seems. I can read and absorb more denotative information in the available time with my eyes than with my ears.
**There are two screenwriters credited. One (also credited with the story) had what seems an unremarkable career: Calvin Clements Sr. The other, Frank Pierson, had a longer. more successful career.
***Yes, another post-WWII western based on a white-on-white lynching, which consciously or unconsciously may have been a way to deal with the horrors of terrorism directed at Afro-Americans and the responsibilities of citizenship and moral choices.
****More obscurely and perversely, some of the most laconic and least well-remembered Dylan songs like “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” and “Clothes Line Saga” were also an influence here.
*****This Western gunfighter ballad was topping the charts at the same time “The Night the Town Died” episode aired 60 years ago. Around the same time, Bobby Zimmerman started using the name Bob Dillon (Marshall Matt Dillon was another leading TV western character of the era, though there is a Dillon road in Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, and there was a successful ‘50s football player that had the name of Bob Dillon)