The Stare’s Nest at My Window revisited

For Heidi

It’s been a rough series of days in the Twin Cities. Other than no great new loss of life (only fear of it) there’s not been much accomplished in my home or in my city.

I have a few new pieces in various stages of completion, and ordinarily I’d be working on additional ones for this project. This spring the pandemic quarantine measures have been bothersome, but so far Dave and my family have been coping and doing the best they can. Given the number of people sickened and killed by Covid-19, bothered and coping might as well count as “the best we can do.”

Then comes a public act of callous manslaughter. Worse for not being unprecedented. Worse for being tied to the sickness of racial oppression. We have a vaccine and a natural immunity for that: It’s empathy and love. Yet, many refuse to be vaccinated, or don’t have the vaccine available to them.

The phrase “the best we can do” has fallen into disrepute. Perhaps you’ve come upon this piece after reading or hearing someone else remarking on why this phrase is dispensed with, or should be dispensable.

For the last two nights the quarantine from the virus has been trumped by the fires and murmuring crowds. Crowds with the wisdom of crowds, which is to say, not much. Crowds work like a jangling overstimulated nervous system, tingling with pleasure and pain receptors, with a prejudice for why not.

My family, my friends, my artistic compatriots, my neighborhood are at the epicenter of this. Long time readers may know that alternate voice here Dave Moore was associated with a 20th century literary magazine that called itself “The Lake Street Review.”  Minneapolis’ Lake Street is (insert here the English verb that needs to be invented that stands for the balance of hope/fear/despair in our present moment poised in is/was/will be) a multi-ethnic, multiclass (if mostly working class) strip of enterprises where you can get diapers, groceries, your prescription filled, that part to keep your old car running, foods from fast to global, places where bands used to play before Covid-19, bookstores, libraries, arts labs, paper and toner for your printer, intoxicating beverages, hardware stores, your laundromat-load destination, where you go when your car needs gas and air for the leaky tire. It’s were the Latin Americans and African and Asian immigrants have their shops. Lake Street is an early 20th century construction. Apartments still over the retail ground-floors in older buildings, houses and apartments right next door behind the stores, closer than modern codes allow. Great portions of this are now gutted, looted; still smoldering from last night or cold ashes from the night before that.

I’m sure what we live  is a hugely interesting phenomenon for commentators, political philosophers, or folks just looking for a “news hook” to write or say something. Some will be civic sports-bar-tone arguments for who needs to be shot on sight for the sight of their targets, others will be earnest explainers about how rioting is the only effective language of the dispossessed, and that the wreckage of the places that a large percentage of those from the middle on down to the homeless frequent and depend on isn’t the disaster for them that it looks like to those less-evolved in their political consciousness.

As I’ve said already, I myself fear I’d dishonor this with my broken prose and dim eyes. And what old men think about this is less important than what those younger who may read this think, resolve, and do.

The Stare Nest at my Window text

Yeats poem written while sequestered in Ireland with his wife during a civil war. “Stare” is a old name for the starling, considered a nuisance bird.

 

Beneath the beach, more paving stones.

Friends of my family since both our children were born spent the hours around midnight wondering if the unchecked flames from a torched gas station would spread to the homes next door. My neighborhood post office (the same one where Lake Street Review  submissions used to come in) went up in big black smoke as it was deliberately broken into and set aflame. I’m not sure if anyone looted stamps.

My wife asked around midnight if we should flee.

“Where would we go?” I asked.

“Away from the flames.” She said.

All this is happening in a mix of memorializing assemblies at the site of the callous killing, protest marches with pointed aims, and then the looting and vandalism. I’ll offer one piece of observation that you may have not seen in the reports and thumb-sucking think-pieces: the memorializing, the protestors, and the vandals are an integrated lot. Skin tone and hair, those markers for ethnicities we use in our great cultural mythology of race, is My Rainbow Race in these events from the pious, to the protest, to the break and burn brigades. Watching cell-cam videos and media long-shots has impressed on me that the palette of the sufferers and perpetuators of these actions are not one shade. Racists are going to need to ignore these visuals as they form their illness’ distortions. The guy smashing the library window, setting fire to the auto parts store, or acting like a drunk frat boy he would never righteously be as he shoves the burning dumpster nearer to the building might well be white in these nights.*  And the “Nothing-ever-changes” cadre of gloomy-Gus activists** are likely too tired and weary to notice that the white, Asian, and Latin American participation has increased markedly in this time’s repetition of events sad, demanding, and chaotic.

I used gendered pronouns in moving to the vandal side of things, as that part does tend to become a sausage-fest. My wife is going off to join others this afternoon to sweep up broken glass. Not to get into gender stereotypes here, but how much do you want to bet that the gender mixture there will be distinctive too?

Tonight, I do not know what will happen. The memorializers will continue to do so, for George Floyd is still dead. The protestors will continue to protest, for it’s still wrong. And the vandals, not even interested in the materialist desire of the looter *** for a case of beer, a flat-screen TV, a book of Yeats collected poems or LeRoi Jones’ liner notes will continue to maintain that the best refutation of a failed “the best we can do” is: “the worst we can do.” The tao is too strange for me to know. Blessed be if they are right.

This is all the squishy thinking and writing I’ll be capable for a while. Tonight, I will probably not sleep, or fall asleep in imponderables. Will my wife be able to sleep the night before our anniversary? Will someone’s laddish fire, set with self-congratulating righteousness, find its equivalent of four Birmingham Sunday-school girls? When will America’s Valkyrie gunfire (I say with dread: remarkably rare so far) begin to sing? Will progressive change crest and recede? How happy is Donald Trump, our king of misrule, as his empire expands while progressives proclaim nothing ever changes as proof of their progressive acuity. Tell me, I want to believe, I need comfort: are you sure too it can’t get worse?

I now return you to our usual cultural activities. The most popular piece I’ve posted this year is by a cultural nationalist poet from another nation: Ireland’s William Butler Yeats. When I posted it at the end of January I wondered if I’d done well by it, but I now think I did, and listeners seem to agree. I’m also now sure my reading of this text is shared-heart-true. If you have time, and are interested in the exact background as Yeats wrote this, read the original post linked here.

This is a week where I have been in my own little run-down tower, seeing out my  window as Yeats showed me. Brothers and sisters, read the last stanza of Yeats poem in tears—even though they don’t put out fires directly.

Rather than a link to the text you’ll see it above in its entirety because I urge you to do that. If you’d like to hear my performance and music for this, the player gadget is below.

 

 

 

*Having tasted but not absorbed the fibrous materials of current cultural appropriation tropes, do any white anarchist allies as they smash the state at the library window, or get all dewy being a revolutionary fire-starter in a multi-ethnic neighborhood wonder if they are being authentically respectful of non-white culture from their skin privilege?

**I have long wondered at the futility of the salesman (as an agitator is, to a large degree) who paints their product as ineffective in use and their allies and audience as always deficient. I’m an old man. I understand being sick and tired. I’ll buy the “I can’t believe we’re still fighting these same old battles” T-shirt. But don’t tell me it itches, it’s guaranteed to fall apart, and isn’t available in my size.

***A few years back someone, who I cannot remember in order to credit, said that rioting with looting combines the two least attractive tendencies in American culture: shopping and violence.

from “John Coltrane Live at Birdland”

Continuing on from my post late last night, and the feelings of insufficiency we as artists may feel in the face of horrible things: cruelty, injustice, the taking of lives, the crippling of souls. As one of America’s sublimated poets put it, I think it all together fitting and proper that when we do this, that we feel this insufficiency. If something has risen to the level of being unspeakable, how can we speak it?

I’m still silent with answers tonight—and as with many things, my answers as an old man are less important than those you may find. So, let me instead give you a story and a testimonial.

The story may seem long ago to you, but it doesn’t to me. It happened in 1963, in my lifetime—not 1863 and the time of Lincoln, slavery, and Civil War.

It begins not with art but a group of domestic terrorists who were bombing and burning things in Birmingham Alabama. Terrorist is an ugly word, as it should be, but it’s likely that most terrorists think of themselves as partisans, as fighters against oppression, the necessary ones who will take the steps others shrink from.

Of course, I see these men as simple killers. I can suspect them of getting off on the clandestine evil of setting bombs and fires, of shooting into the night. And the “oppression” they are righteously bombing to oppose? They are more at the license to continue an oppression of others. On a Sunday morning, September 15th in 1963 they set off a bunch of dynamite at a church in their town. Just another bombing in a series.

This time they kill four little girls getting ready for sunday school.

Earlier that year, another of America’s displaced poets, Martin Luther King, had written his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”  in that town, that great document of the necessity of ending racial oppression, and now that year he would eulogize the four little girls. Eloquence was in town, continuing political pressure was in place, and the evil light of the terrorist bombing illuminated the words of those the bombers opposed. How sad and horrible it is to recount that.

That same year a jazz musician, John Coltrane was very busy earning a living with his art. When I say busy, I mean busy in a sense that boggles the mind. In that year alone he released four studio LPs while gigging constantly with his Quartet. Two weeks after he would have heard the news of the four little girls, he was due to play a New York City engagement at the Birdland club, which produced the live recording that gives its name to today’s post. Right after Coltrane finished the Birdland engagement, the group was off to Europe for a tour there. Four little girls dead, dynamited by their fellow human beings in furtherance of an evil idea. John Coltrane kept working.

Weeks then in Europe, and upon returning to the States the gigs and recordings continue. Somewhere between the day after the bombing in September and a one-day recording session on November 18th Coltrane came up with a musical piece that he called “Alabama.”

Then at the beginning of December when Coltrane’s tour was stopping in San Francisco he recorded a TV show. The format of the show was for the artist to play 3 or 4 songs and engage in a few minutes of interview with the host, but Coltrane begged off the interview. The host, Ralph J. Gleason, Mr. Rogers’ cardigan and all, subbed in a little explainer about the how jazz was like writing poetry in the middle of a supermarket. Cringe if you like at the metaphor and the white guy non-musician explaining it all to us,* but that’s what Coltrane and the Quartet then do. “Alabama”  is strictly-speaking wordless. The John Coltrane Quartet spoke with their instruments.

The TV show where “Alabama” premiered. At 7:40 Gleason gives his “poet in a supermarket” metaphor, and at 9:35 the Quartet starts “Alabama.”

 

 

The four little girls, so cruelly and unjustly dead that same fall. In the interim, a U. S. President has been killed too. Hot studio lights for the cameras, a cost-saving bare sound stage to film in. Those five minutes of “Alabama”  have been introduced to an audience for the first time.**

To my taste, Coltrane’s playing on the TV show performance of “Alabama”  is even richer than the recording made a couple of weeks earlier though the rest of this Quartet of great musicians were a bit sharper in the recording studio take—but in either case there are notes he plays in “Alabama”  that are quite possibly the saddest and most resolute notes ever to come out of a horn.

That winter “Coltrane Live at Birdland”  is issued as an LP record which includes the recording studio version of “Alabama.”  Another release in Coltrane’s furious pace of working and creating. The liner notes on the record were penned by the man who’d sign them then as LeRoi Jones.***

The art of the liner note is a dead art now, but today’s piece quotes a few lines from Jones’ piece of work (the entirety of which you can read here). Those that remember Jones’ notes often recall its opening line, which is also the first line I speak here today. If the job of a liner note writer was akin to writing advertising copy, to attract the consumer, that opening line is highly subversive of that intent:

One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here.

Way to ship units LeRoi!

When it comes to writing about “Alabama,”  the song on the record where the Coltrane Quartet most directly speaks to that vileness, Jones writes:

I didn’t realize until now what a beautiful word Alabama is. That is one function of art, to reveal beauty, common or uncommon, uncommonly.

Jones knows what the tune’s about surely. I don’t know if I’ve fully absorbed that sentence yet, but if you are a person for whom 1963 might as well be 1915 or 1863, and you want to know what it felt like to know of such evil and endure it with an open heart, and to counter it with something that is beautiful (Oh! How can that be?), then you can find it in John Coltrane

Jones says John Coltrane’s art can change us, though neither he nor I will guarantee it. Can it? These are days that cause me to doubt. But if Coltrane doubted, he didn’t’ stop. I honor that belief. Perhaps art works in ways small but deep, and then only for some portion of us humans some of the time. If art like Coltrane’s carries me through sometimes, is that a reason I create art myself?

The player to hear me read a small section of LeRoi Jones’ liner notes to Coltrane live at Birdland is below. When I created this performance early this month I did not include any of the sections where Jones talks about the tune “Alabama,”  but I was trying to give some flavor of Jones parable about Coltrane’s power and conviction. Musically, my composition and performance is just a trio, there’s no saxophone.

 

 

 

*Yes, I cringe because I recognize myself there in a black&white mirror. Because I operate a musical instrument at times, I claim to be less guilty of the cringe factor. This likely convinces no one.

**Some have sought to document Coltrane’s gigs and recording sessions. There’s no account of “Alabama”  being played at any of the live gigs before this TV show. The version on “Coltrane live at Birdland”  is not live, but from that short studio session in mid-November.

***Later Amiri Baraka. A man who went through so many stances and positions in his life that it’s unlikely that any sane man can find agreement with all of them.

A great broken world with eyes gone dim

I took yesterday off from the work of this ongoing project. I spent a good portion of it listening to music.

I said to my wife that afternoon: “It’s odd, but spending to much time composing music, performing, recording, and mixing it largely keeps me from listening to music I’m not working on. If I was a sculptor or painter I could listen to music while working, some even listen to music while writing,*  but you can’t listen to music while working on music.”

I awoke this morning early, bid my wife off to work and went for my morning bike ride. I returned, ate breakfast, and set to work on completing a long piece that I’ve been working on for some time this month. Such work devours hours.

It was only while taking a little break late this afternoon that I learned that what seems clearly to be a horrible injustice occurred last night in my town—so horrible and so near that I could not carry on with my day’s work. Yes, there’s another cell phone video capturing someone, yes, another Afro-American someone, losing their life during a law enforcement encounter. Same and different, each one of these. I will say that this is the third time in my city when I’ve thought that, as terrible and painful as this video is, that it will change the public’s outlook. Is it good or bad to say these are not numbing yet?

Or am I wrong to say this? Perhaps it is numbing. Like when your extremities grow cold in a northern winter. You don’t feel them going numb after all. The villain in the piece, the policeman with decades in a public service job, surely seems numb to the suffering he’s causing. Does evil flow both hot and cold in us?

How many will view this and swear, and then swear that they could never do what he seems to be doing, or at least never do it without copious anger. How many of us will not think about the other policeman, standing nearby, still in the portrait-mode frame. Will we ask ourselves, could we be him? Or will that question slide by us?

“What’s the broken world”  –  photo by Evan Frost for MPR News.

 

I’m a poet and musician. I run nothing, not even my own muses some days. Shelley aside, I’m not a legislator in session. I could do political analysis here, but choose instead to beg your indulgence to talk about how someone else’s words strike me a couple of times a week. However, I spent two decades trying to alleviate pain, fix people up, and keep people alive. My wife still does this work. It offends me when we fail. In the medical field we often know when we fail, and the philosophers kind or callous—who know that in a medical, mortal sense, we always fail—offer only partial relief.

Poetry and the power of music isn’t quite like philosophy. Music doesn’t want to be ideas, but their sound. It can express anger and sorrow and give it a towering spillway for those things to pour out. It’s not healing or justice exactly, but the sound of those things. And poetry is the literary art that uses words in the nearest same way.

If it’s not the actual, palatable, thing we need—if it’s not sorrow, anger, healing, justice—it may teach us to recognize those things, to see and join them in the souls of others.

Why say this? In the above I’ve tried to rationalize what I attempt to do, but tonight I doubt this too much to complete a new piece of music and write about it.

Last time I mentioned Charlotte Mew chose not the mention the specifics of a horrible war in her short poem. She could have written a poem longer than the Iliad  and not covered all the callousness and killing, the heroes and the folly. Only in passing, I mentioned that meant her poem of grief isn’t necessarily tied to World War I, or to Britain—but I wanted very much then to stress another thing about short, lyric poetry: that you can carry it with you, that it can change and grow as you take it back out of your mind during the dealing out of a day or more. So I carry this bit from her poem over, yet another day.

What’s little June to a great broken world with eyes gone dim
From too much looking on the face of grief, the face of dread?

We are the pieces of that broken world. Can you feel the broken edges?

 

 

 

 

*I used to listen to music when writing sometimes, but I can’t recall the last time I did that. It’s probably been decades. In my youth sometimes entire first drafts of some poem would flow out while listening to a piece of music.

A poem about grief for American Memorial Day: June, 1915

This Monday is American Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering those that died in my country’s warfare. At its onset it was a solemn day for decorating graves, but over time it has lost some of that focus, with celebrations touching on generalized patriotism or military service. It’s also the calendar marker for the beginning of summer. In my youth it was celebrated on May 30th every year, but it’s now a Monday holiday that floats around a bit—but the reason it’s placed at the end of spring still goes back to the original purpose: it was set for a time of year when fresh flowers were in season across the United States, flowers for decorating those graves.

And so it is that this ambiguity makes it odd to wish someone rotely “Happy Memorial Day.”

The Parlando Project has marked Memorial Day with performances of poems over the years, but just as the reason for the holiday is somewhat problematic for mere celebration, it’s not easy to figure what poetry to mark it. Long time readers here will know that there is plenty of poetry that speaks honestly about the experience of warfare, and that WWI produced a great deal of it. But in its specific way, Memorial Day isn’t really about that. It’s about the mourners and their duty.

So, I cast about this week for a poem that spoke to that, and I found this poem by someone that this project has presented before: British poet Charlotte Mew. She was an unusual person when living, and the case of her poetic legacy is unusual too. Her poetry received some small amount of interest in the London scene around the time of WWI. Thomas Hardy, Walter de LaMare, Virginia Woolf, and even the American Ezra Pound recognized her work’s value, but this those-that-know praise never developed into any appreciable readership in her lifetime. Culture was still a bit of a boy’s club, and with the explosion of Modernism going on, you either planted the make-it-new bombs or faced being obliterated by them. Mew didn’t fit in any movement, and after her death, forgotten happened with efficiency.

Today a handful of scholars seek to make the case that she’s greatly underestimated and that her work needs to be reevaluated. They have a case which can be made with considered reading of her poetry. It doesn’t sound or work like anyone else’s.

young Charlotte Mew

Mew wasn’t just strikingly original in her poetry. Most pictures show her presenting androgynously.

 

So, here is one of her poems about the experience of mourning during wartime, written, just as it says on the tin, in June 1915 as the massive extent of the casualties and stalemate in World War I was becoming inescapably apparent in Britain. Here’s a link to the text of this short poem.

Recent readers have seen that I’ve been writing recently on how poets who write short lyrics sometimes get underestimated. We readers might flow through the poems like we would paragraphs of prose, appreciating perhaps a bit of the poetic rudiments of rhyme or meter. This can go by so fast that there’s no time for more than surfaces, but great lyric poems can have depths that ask us not only to read them, or even to say them or sing them once, but to consider them for longer than the minute it may take to get through them a single time. A lyric is portable. Carry one around for a day or so, and it may enlarge.

A lyric is portable. Carry one around for a day or so, and it may enlarge.

Many Modernists sought to slow us down deliberately to oppose this one-and-done tendency. Obscure imagery, typographical variations, or syntactical sabotage are deployed for this. Mew goes in only for a light touch of the last here, with complex sentences that seem to end up somewhere else from where they begin. Her language here is quite plainspoken. There’s some interesting choices being made in the music of thought, with simple words being repeated to depict the stuck-ness of grief. I like the powerful simplicity of the repeated word “broken” here. Also notice the concise depiction of grief is externalized, depicted to a large degree by the seeming opposite in the child and the spring scene. Though not a recognized, full-fledged member of the 20th century Modernist flock, Mew’s poem of mourning and grief is not done in the Victorian manner. Even when she uses explicit emotional words, something done but twice, they are “the face of grief” and “the face  of dread.” She may have rightfully believed that a contemporary British reader would understand the wartime context of this poem, but in the Imagist manner, “June, 1915”  doesn’t say “war,” instead choosing to drill down into the charged immediate moments.

There’s no showy “stop and see how clever” imagery here either, though do not rush through consideration of the line contrasting the springtime child whose sunny lane is “as far away as are the fearless stars from these veiled lamps of town.” This line worked powerfully for me early in my appreciation of this poem, yanking the alienation between the child’s state and the mourners state a distance of light-years apart. I’ll note that a specific of Mew’s London times in the spring of 1915 has become obscure to us, but the “veiled lamps” aren’t just misty eyes, for on May 31st of that year nighttime Zeppelin bombing raids on London had commenced and blackout precautions were being practiced.

Mew could have chosen to make this poem itself as specific as its title. She didn’t. While I find it very appropriate for Memorial Day, the complex moment of this poem, so starkly told, is not even limited to the wartime dread and sorrow that engendered it.

How about the ending? I sensed an undercurrent, even an intent, the first time I read this that the child’s small eager hand isn’t just thinking of the first June rose, but is about to pick it, to turn if from a living, pollinating plant to decoration—that he innocently is aping the harvesting of souls in The Great War. If I may own the poem, I still want that there; but upon further review I don’t currently believe that was Mew’s intent.

Mourning. Grief. Dread. Part of the borderless human condition. Timeless because of its forever, returning briefness. To know this is a bare consolation, as memory is.

You can hear my performance of Charlotte Mew’s “June, 1915”  with the player gadget below.

 

 

Emerson’s Fable

Musically we ricochet again (as this project often does) from last-time’s acoustic South Asian ensemble to today’s rough’n’ready one-take rock band. For the words though, maybe not so great a jump, even though Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Frost are approximately a century apart.

Emerson is the prime American cultural instigator. Like many pioneers it’s easy to see where his maps may have been a bit off, his cultural borrowings misunderstood or missing sufficient attribution, but the route he set the American culture on, however paved, fueled, and electrified, is still one many travel on today. His conceptual school, Transcendentalism, whether acknowledged or not, can be found easily in 21st century America. It is impossible to think and write about ecology, perhaps even to use the word at all, without echoing Emerson. It’s difficult to examine mysticism or Asian religious traditions in America without going places that Emerson went before the Civil War, and if we do either of those things along with some practical sense that we’re using them to rebuild and reform our individualist understanding of the world, we’re doing as Emerson urged. It is both diminishing and praising of Emerson to say that he’s the first self-proclaimed “self-help” American authority.

If Emerson isn’t a great poet, America’s greatest poets often owe much to him. Whitman sought to use his concepts. Emily Dickinson clearly absorbed some of his then new thought. And so too Robert Frost, who is always examining nature and mankind and drawing hard lessons from the pairing of them. When Beat poet Michael McClure’s speaks as a bird or otter, and declaims public maxims,such eccentricities are Emersonian as much as they are from Emerson’s own small-town neighbor Thoreau.

So, today’s piece, which Emerson called simply “Fable,”  may not be a great poem if we have criteria to judge such things, but it has begotten great poems. The sage as small animal theme would please Dickinson. The flattening of greatness across multitudes of small things would be Whitmanesque. The cracker-barrel retort of the squirrel who knows, for all external mightiness and achievement, that his daily talent to be able to crack a nut is exquisitely necessary would fit Frost. The charge of change in attention, that the mountain is also just a squirrel-track, would serve Wallace Stevens well.

Returning to end, why the rock band today? The current Covid-19 situation has removed coincident live music—that joy of sounds and breaths in the same room—not only in public performance but in the kind of informal get-togethers that musicians of all skill levels and genres have enjoyed forever. I now miss even the difficulties and limitations of such things, finding it sad that I have no way of knowing when I’ll experience them again. “Fable”  today is an approximation of a  live band. I started with the drum pattern, added bass, the rhythm guitar, the piano track, a second “lead” guitar part, and declaimed Emerson’s words, doing each in one pass. There’s no composition process as a separate step, no great consideration on instrumentation. Even if it must be done sequentially: end, back to start, and track again, I wanted to approximate what playing live with others feels like.

In Emerson’s “Fable”  the mountain calls the squirrel a prig: a self-righteous, self-superior, self-satisfied prude or killjoy. That’s an odd accusation: a majestic mountain charging a little bottom-of-the-food-chain critter with unjustified audacity. Gee, Mountain, project  much? The squirrel is “self” indisputably—it cannot be otherwise—but that doesn’t mean it must also be any of the other things on the right-hand side of “prig’s” synonyms. Covid-19 is a mountain, large and natural, undeniable. My little squirrel track, my little path to crack the nut today, is not majestic nor considered in geologic time. What care I for the age and resolve of the mountain. The eagle, the owl, the car-tire have already said there’s no time to waste.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Emerson’s “Fable”  is below. If you’d like the text of the poem, here’s a link—and at that page there’s a link to someone else performing “Fable”  with music, music with it’s drone and percussion that sounds a little like last time’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

 

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Here’s one of Robert Frost’s well-loved poems that has managed to penetrate into popular consciousness in a way that few modern poems have. “Nothing Gold Can Stay”  is therefore found anew inside of S. E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders  and the resulting movie and Stevie Wonder song, or via the 21st century song by First Aid Kit.

Often when I present Robert Frost poems here, I ask your indulgence to point out that what is often drawn from them doesn’t represent what Frost seems to be trying to impart. The Road Not Taken”  isn’t about the critical importance of taking the “road less traveled,” but about the irrelevance of choice and dangers of “analysis paralysis.” Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening  isn’t about tarrying by a beautiful winter scene instead of getting on with life’s duty, but about someone lost in rural darkness. Even this month’s Acquainted with the Night” —while, yes, frankly dealing with despair—is about living with depression rather than dying from it.

But “Nothing Gold Can Stay”  does seem to be saying what most everyone draws from it—and so, unlike these other Frost poems, it’s loved for exactly what it is saying: that certain kinds of beauty and states of grace are transitory; and then by implicated extension, that to hold them inside a memory or a memorable poem is our consolation. So, what’s left for me to say then?

Well, maybe there’s this element: that a catch phrase drawn from it, “Stay Gold,” is not in Frost’s poem, and his poem indicates that will not happen even if wished; but I’m willing—as was Carl Sandburg in our last post “Monotone” —to cut humanity a little slack here. Sandburg in his middle stanza of “Monotone”  tells the same story as Frost’s more famous poem, though more of us remember Frost’s expression of the idea, which may be testament of the power of Frost’s rhyme in memorability. Sandburg’s point however, the one I subscribe to, is that there’s something to be admired that is left after the loss of moments of perfection or passion in both memory and the continuing changed moments.

One other thing I’ll admit I hadn’t noticed until preparing this piece this month: “Nothing Gold Can Stay”  is a spring poem about tree blossoms as much as it’s an autumn poem about falling leaves: “Early leaf’s a flower.” The tree blossoms on my bike rides this spring are, it seems to me, more numerous, fragrant, and beautiful. Is this a side-effect of the closed in spring of our current epidemic? I think too, not only of Sandburg’s “Monotone,”  but of Meng Haoran’sSpring Morning,”  and my own Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street.”

Early one morning this month, I rode my bike down 40th street to the now closed schoolhouse, the route I rode a few years back with my child in “Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street.” I remembered one fine tree full of blossoms there a block before a bicycle bridge that crosses the then busy freeway, and the flowers’ smell that day that told me the tree was louder to my nose than the traffic under the bridge. This morning, this month, I was surprised to see not one, but a whole row of trees, all in bloom.

Plum tree blossoms on 40th Street

Blossoms revisited. The other side of the street from the rusty camper was a tattered car with blankets blocking all it’s window glass, evidence that some of the cardboard sign beggars at the nearby freeway entrance may have slept there the previous night.

 

A few words on the music before I ask you to listen to my performance of Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”  The music I created for this is based on my appreciation of South Asian music, a style that I refer to sometimes here. This is a complex musical tradition of which I have little knowledge of other than as a listener, yet like some others I’ve been drawn to its tactics from the first time I heard it.* Oddly, the top line musical instrument I used for this is a uniquely American one: the mountain dulcimer, a small, fretted, plucked string instrument.** And the percussion instruments here do not include the tabla drum sets used in South Asian music because I don’t have access to them, but are instead approximated with a mix of “Latin Percussion” drums and rhythm instruments, like congas, bongos, and small rattles, bells, and such. I do have good tampura and harmonium virtual instruments that I can play with my MIDI guitar and little plastic keyboard, so I did use those traditional South Asian sounds.

I like how this turned out. Why this music for Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay?”  There’s no harmonic progression to it. I don’t notate this sort of composition with chord symbols the way I might a rock music piece. If I did it would be sort of Dsus4, D, D5, Dsus2—so really it’s just about the drone center of D and how one steps out and back to the D note in a rhythmic/melodic dance. Nothing gold can stay, but the D drone reminds us musically that change is return, that return is change.

Here’s the player gadget to hear the performance.

 

 

 

*Like many Americans it was Ravi Shankar LPs on the World Pacific label, reinforced by his appearance in rock concert films like Monterey Pop and Woodstock, and other audacious appreciators who (like me) started to drop in things they drew from these performances into their own work.

In the early 70s in New York I worked in an E. R. with an Indian surgeon who would sing melodies acapella while suturing away. Those melodies would keep us going during long nights.

In the Twin Cities area we are lucky to have some South Asian tradition performers, and westerners like Dean Magraw, Marcus Wise, Steve Tibbetts, and Greg Herriges who incorporate this tradition into their playing.

**The mountain dulcimer has a mysterious past. It’s like and then not like a lot of other instruments from around the world. It seems to have been played by rural Appalachian mountain country settlers, often from Celtic backgrounds where harp instruments and drone wind instruments were common, but it’s not a harp. What it is though is an instrument that was relatively easy to make at home without complex tools or fixtures. In quiet times in those night-time hospital E.R.s I would sometimes quickly construct a rough fretless one out of a cast-plaster box and rubber bands.

Monotone

I love me some early short-form Carl Sandburg. Oh, I can enjoy him in his lengthy Whitmanesque catalog mode and I surely appreciate his too little recognized work in forging what we more recently call Americana, but in much of his early work he’s writing in a mode that people often forget. It’s similar to some of the other early Modernists before the High Modernist style absorbed that revolution and used it to make a complex and literary bureaucracy of allusions and images that were more showy and complex on the surface.

If you have a moment, look at “Monotone,”  a nine-line poem, linked here. How easy it would be to overlook this poem. There’s no exotic words or settings, and the images seem to risk falling into the banal. What’s there? A rainfall, a sunrise and a sunset. If most of us were to put those as the major images in a poem, our poems would likely fail to seem unique in any worthwhile way, or we’d stress and strain to make them unique. I myself might reach for the surreal or the odd detail because I would think I was otherwise making a poem with no worthwhile freshness. And perhaps Sandburg fails in that way for some readers here. What is he risking that failure to convey?

In these nine lines he wants to write a love poem of the least common kind. Poems of desire, poems of the kind of overthrow of the senses and proportion that new love brings, poems of enchantment with possibility—those are legion. And they’re worthwhile. Love and desire, like other visionary states, illuminate things we are otherwise unable to believe. Some of those things are true and some are false, some are the painful disguised as beautiful. They proclaim for us to give ourselves and give up ourselves.

Sandburg’s “Monotone”  isn’t that. It’s a lyric poem of a long-time relationship. Even its title dares to be unexciting. Monotone word-wise is near enough to monotony, and musically who would be attracted to a piece that claims that as its title?

The poem’s opening image makes an argument for musical monotone. A rainstorm has no melodic invention, but if listened to without seeking that quality and being disappointed that it lacks this, it has dynamics of volume and rhythm. Listen to what’s there, not to what’s missing  the first stanza asks of us, and we’ll find the “multitudinous rain.” This is not a showy stanza, but since multitudinous is by far the least common word in the poem, that one ornament stands out all the more. Even if one remembers only those two words “multitudinous rain,” one can carry it with ourselves and experience rain in new ways while thinking on that phrase on some grey and otherwise unappealing day.

Is the second stanza banal? If you think so I can’t give you an argument that’ll refute you. Yes, the sun on the hills is beautiful, and sunset over seas too. Thank you very much Carl Obvious Sandburg, but why have you wasted our time with those three lines about what everyone has already noticed. What value might they have? Well, for one they are  common. Carl Sandburg is fully baptized in the belief of a common humanity, so the fact that he states what we all know isn’t quite the sin that another artist might abhor. What Sandburg does with these commonplaces is to let us know there’s something we still don’t know about them, even when we think they’re too prosaic to have anything yet to perceive. In those few words in the second three-line stanza there is the notion that the sunset (precious, golden fire) is captured by the cold sea. So easy to overlook if we read it like a prose paragraph, assuming only quick utility. If one had to translate this from a foreign language, if this was written in Chinese ideograms, perhaps we’d slow down and see this. The beautiful in the guise of the desired, is captured, is quenched, rises and sets.

Now the third, three-line stanza concludes this book of changes, bringing synthesis to the previous two. Beholding one’s long-time partner, one sees the multitudinous monotone rain and  the moments of passion or anger, unease or loss, joined. With the “Monotone”  title at the head and the ending line I read that sunny mountain scene and picture postcard sea-sunset of the second stanza as being measured against a rarer and more precious multitudinous rain of long-love.

With this simple concise expression of a complex feeling, the poem requests you to see that. In 1916 when this was published in Sandburg’s Chicago Poems  its very simplicity was still audacious, and that itself made the case for this poem. In a generation or so it would seem to not be trying hard enough to capture our attention. While poetry was free to leave strict meter and reliable rhyme schemes behind, it had returned to an aesthetic of surface complexity equaling merit.

Carl and Lillian Sandburg by Edward Steichen

Espoused. Carl and Lillian Sandburg around the time “Monotone” was published. Photograph by Lillian’s brother, the photographer Edward Steichen. Earlier, inn 1908 Sandburg wrote “I would rather be a poem like you than write poems,” but we got the multitudinous rain of his poetry anyway.

 

A few words on the musical setting before I remind you that you can click on the player gadget to hear my performance of Sandburg’s “Monotone.”  As I composed this I was concentrating more on timbre and less on melody. The dominant keyboard sound in the piece is a complex combination of a grand piano with every bit of string resonance brought forward, an electric piano, and a keyboard piano bass (that last a sound mostly known from Ray Manzarek’s playing with the Doors). It’s kind of the idea of the “Hard Day’s Night”  chord being used throughout the piece. this is another composition where it would probably be better if I wasn’t the vocalist who sings it, but that’s who I have available. Listen to it with the gadget below.