This has not been a month conducive to producing new content for this project, and I’m not sure about July and August either. At some point I’ll probably talk about some of the reasons for that, but I thought it’d be good to leave you with one more June piece, and it’s a fine summer song by a voice this project hasn’t heard from enough lately: Dave Moore.
Dave and I first performed as The LYL Band about 40 years ago, and we’ve kept at it over the years. Our typical encounters this century have been a sort of two-person song circle with each of us alternating in presenting a song, a piece most often completely new and unknown to the other. These first takes* get recorded, and one of them is today’s audio piece.
First takes with unknown material is not the way most bands work, and certainly not how they record. Bob Dylan worked with unknown, fresh material and new-to-it musicians in his classic years (and may still now, there’s just less documentation), often providing at best chord charts for assembled musicians or brief run-throughs. But Dylan would do multiple takes even trying different studios or musicians over time, trying get the right take.
It’s not uncommon for jazz musicians to do the same thing we do in their recording studio dates, though some feel that even with Jazz’s reverence for spontaneity that this is a practice brought forward for logistical and lowered recording-budget overhead reasons, not as a considered artistic choice. Miles Davis seemed to find this practice a considered choice though, and when one listens to a record such as Kind of Blue we are likely to give some credit to that choice, which Bill Evans likened to spontaneous Japanese painting in the original LP liner notes. Later on, Davis took to the pentimento-practice of having everyone improvising on themes and then letting later audio editing assemble from the mass of recorded playing a post-recording compositional structure. A record like Davis’ A Tribute to Jack Johnson assembled that way has a different vibe and timbre from Kind of Blue, but it works for me in its different way.
Are Dave and I musicians like Davis and his band members? No. Nor are we musicians likely to be called to a Bob Dylan session (note to Bob: call us anyway). Most of what we record on any one day isn’t worth more than a self-critical listen on our own parts. And of the rest? There are usually rough spots that even a bit of focused audio editing can’t excise. And then, sometimes something like “Hortensia” arrives.
If you accept (as I say often here) that all artists fail, then it can sometimes behoove one to make peace with failure. Do that, and then allow, then make possible, for the limited successes to arrive.
I often tend to overstate my guitar parts. I didn’t here. Dave’s keyboard skills at the time of the recording get some space, and while he’s not going to kick Bill Evans or Herbie Hancock to the curb, what he plays works. Dave’s vocals are usually more consistent than mine by a long shot, and his performance serves the song. I think Dave may have even improvised some of these lyrics during the performance — and this is the only performance of this song ever. And that serves the song too.
You see, I hear this as a summer song, a song of long days, rich days, that are still days, and must end in earth’s and fortune’s rota. “Now, sweet now” Dave sings. Yes.
I think I asked Dave what the song was about shortly after we recorded it. “The summer flower or the Roman woman?” I think he replied that it was more at something intuitive.
You can hear it with the player gadget below. Don’t see a player? This highlighted hyperlink will also play it.“Hortensia” is longer than most of our pieces here, but sit back with a cool drink and listen. Thank you hearty listeners and readers for sticking with this project!
*First, and in most cases, the only take. Since we haven’t focused on live performance much in our old age, we aren’t working up material for performance or developing a repertoire for that. Dave has been as prolific with words and with songs with his own music as I have been with musical pieces over the past few years. This means that there was always new material to be tried out, to be brought into existence, even if briefly and for one take.
A longish one this time. I’ll try to make it worth your while.
In the places I go it has been hard to escape Joni Mitchell and the 50-year anniversary of her breakthrough record album Blue this month. Mitchell is one of those artists like Emily Dickinson* or Thelonious Monk who people contemporaneously recognized as someone on the scene, someone whose work might appear at hand or gain mention — but then decades afterward the level of originality and importance of what they had done becomes more and more clear.
Mitchell’s Blue wasn’t immediately recognized as a classic, successful statement. Musically it’s a bit odd, even by the eclectic field of 1971 recordings. Though “singer-songwriter”** was a growing genre at the time, most of them would present their songs in a full band context on record. Instead, Mitchell’s record is spare, often just her voice and one instrument — and sometimes the instrument is a mountain dulcimer at that! She often used her voice unusually, with quick almost yodeling leaps in service of the originality in her melodic contours, and this was off-putting to some. One thing I remember about listening to Joni Mitchell LPs back in my youth was that the amount of volume in her upper register would rattle the plastic frame and enclosures of my tiny portable stereo’s speakers, producing a very unpleasant buzzing distortion.
To the degree that she was noticed in 1971, that she could be a figure who’s fame might outreach her record sales or rock critic esteem — it wasn’t just that she was a successful songwriter for others who could round-off her corners just a bit to present “Clouds (Both Sides Now),” “Woodstock,” or “The Circle Game” to a wider audience than their author could — it was because she was known as (this gets complicated, stay with me here) as the “girlfriend” of a lot of male rock stars. This got joked about. The now infamous Rolling Stone “Old Lady*** of the Year Award” in 1971, or a joke picture of a purported Joni Mitchell LP with a song listing of: 1. Crosby, 2. Stills, 3. Nash, 4. And Young.
Do those of my generation remember that? Did you laugh? I did. That’s part of the complication, but then I believe sex is only funny when you’re risking doing it “wrong” — and it is best if it’s funny some of the time. Dead serious and entirely secret? We might as well sign up for Brave New World industrial reproduction or efficient devices shipped in plain brown wrappers.
That said, now-a-days that 1971 behavior toward Mitchell is now viewed as belittling and a case-study in patriarchal attitudes in the “counter-culture.” Which it was. In the era’s defense I’ll say that the times were groping (should I revise that word?) toward an imperfect but different attitude toward sexual relationships. Just exactly what women would have to say about this wasn’t the first or second thing on the official list of speakers, alas.
It just so happens that Mitchell spoke up anyway, and mixed that with a kind of music which might have seemed just a bit odd or imperfect then, but now is seen as effective, important, and original.
And now it’s time to play Frank’s favorite history game. Folks are thinking about Joni Mitchell and 1971’s Blue here in 2021, but what could we see if we rebound off that 1971 time and look back 50 years from then?
Well, they do tilt their berets the opposite way. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Joni Mitchell
The poetry fans who are still with this post were wondering when I’d get to Edna St. Vincent Millay. In 1921 Millay had broken out as a young poet to watch, partly by that “being on the scene” presence in New York City in the era around and just after WWI, and by famously losing a poetry contest with a poem that many (including the contest’s winner) thought was the best of the lot. That poem was then featured in her debut book-length collection, and now it was time for the “difficult second album.” She planned that second collection to be what was to eventually become her book: Second April, a title that suggested that plan. But she was having trouble with her publisher, and eventually another collection came out ahead of it, just as the 1920’s began to roar: A Few Figs from Thistles.**** It’s a fair analogy: that book was Millay’s Blue. And like Mitchell’s Blue people noticed the author’s public persona not just the poetry. Millay became the exemplar of “The New Woman” of the 1920s, who were sometimes finding patriarchal marriage a doubtful institution, and flaunting disregard for traditional arguments financial and domestic for that. Speaking openly about erotic feelings. Creating their own art rather than settling for standby muse duties.
I’m not sure if even an incomplete list of Millay’s lovers was known to a general poetry reading public 100 years ago, and one can’t quite imagine Poetry magazine naming Millay “The Old Lady of 1921,” but the persona in A Few Figs from Thistles gave us that adventurer in love character that makes Millay and Mitchell echoing artists. But the original edition was a thin volume, chapbook length, and from things I’ve read this week it seems that Millay worried that it wasn’t substantial enough while Second April’s publication faced continued delays. A second version of A Few Figs from Thistles was hurriedly planned and issued, and some of the additions were standout poems in the collection as we now know it, such as the one I use for today’s audio piece: “Recuerdo.” Here’s a link to the full text of that poem if you’d like to follow along.
In her heyday of the 1920s Millay’s Modernist milieu and outlook wasn’t always reflected in her poetic diction. This may have helped her readership who were not yet used to, or appreciative of, free verse or other experiments in expression. Robert Frost or William Butler Yeats would also retain a poetry audience in this time with lovely metrical verse that expressed the modern condition, but Millay was (to my mind) not consistently as facile with metrical verse and more often fell back to fusty 19th century syntax and language,***** but she could also rise above those limitations. “Recuerdo” is an example of that. It has an effective refrain expressing two contradictory and relatable emotions: “tired” and “merry.” Those emotional words are contained solely within the refrain. The rest of the poem progresses in the Modernist/Imagist style: things and events are described out of order, and in a common Modernist trope in a mixture of tones and importance. How many love poems include a phrase like “smelled like a stable?” Yes, this is largely a love poem — why it even touches on the aubade formula of the pair’s night being interrupted by the dawn — but look again: love (or sexual desire) as a word or even as a direct description is not mentioned once! Yet many readers can sense and feel the limerence of erotic love all through the poem intensely. That is there in this objective and fragmented depiction. Remarkable!
But that absence does allow for some ambiguity. Is there some level of inconsequential going-through-the-motions experience available in a reading of this poem? Or at least some sense of transience in the experience, which after all is framed by the title which means memory in Spanish? I think that’s accessible there too. Suppose I was to present this poem by inventing a frame that imagines it was written by two drug-addled addicts hooking up for one night and to say that that emotion word “merry” in the refrain has some archaic meanings that are congruent with “high.” Same words, different effect in that frame. Or if the same poem was written with a title like “How I Met your Father.”
Perhaps I overthink things, but the last stanza with the donation of fruit to the older woman who responds with words of gratitude was rich in ambiguity to me as well. An act of Christian charity, mixed in Modernistically with other random events and sights? Seems likely, but if I’m traipsing around tired and tipsy with my night’s hot flame and somehow, someway we’re carrying two dozen minus two each of apples and pears, their value isn’t exactly gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Is the older woman’s “God bless you” a simple expression of thanks or an implied suggestion that maybe the two younger lovers might want to kick in some spare change, which they consequently provide? Given the push-pull of political radicalism and romance in Millay’s work, can we be sure she doesn’t intend to portray something of the limits of the gesture to the old woman?
How many are thinking then that I’m an unromantic old cynic who has misunderstood and harmed this poem? Is there another group that says I’m not straightforward in my social and political analysis of the situation? Well, my fate is to be doomed to be in both states alternately and sometimes at once. That’s why I like this poem.
One knock against Millay and other New Woman poets of her time once the peak of her fresh fame wore off was that she wrote love poems, not statements about the important, complex issues facing us. Fifty years later, one knock about Joni Mitchell was that she was writing songs about two little people who don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Both of those summary beliefs are incorrect — but then, what is it you are saying: love songs are simple?
Maybe for you. Not for all of us.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Edna St Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo” will appear below for some of you. No player to be seen? Then this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab window and play it. My music today isn’t very Joni Mitchell-ish (though later Mitchell, much past Blue, was a bit into synths). The vocal turned out to be a “scratch track” I kept because it seemed usefully spontaneous, even though I omit a few words in the poem’s text inadvertently.
*Dickinson wrote much of her work in the 1860s, and a small group of people knew of some of it though almost nothing was published in her lifetime. I speak here of the Dickinson that existed at the turn of the century after several volumes of her poetry with regularizing edits had been issued. Today she’s taught as one of the great American poets. Back when I was in school she was a charming slight oddity that seemed to fit in with some of the small, short poems the Imagists/Modernists produced in Millay’s time.
**Years ago I wrote a humor piece where I called this 1970’s trend “Singer Sewing-Machine” artists because so much of their ethos had airs of “back to the land/rent a house in Laurel Canyon/sew hippy blouses and embroidered patches on your jeans.”
*** “Old lady” and “Old man” as in “My old lady” were usages borrowed from what were the old-fashioned/outdated terms for wedded partners. Used in the more fluid arrangements by young people in the mid-20th century counter-culture they were supposed to be ironic statements of: partnership at least for now. Mitchell’s song on Blue“My Old Man” is an encapsulation of that moment.
****Back when I first presented a poem from that collection that so many of you liked this spring,“First Fig,” I was unaware of the origin of that book’s title. I wonder if my father who memorized Millay’s short poem but also studied to become a Christian minister in the Millay era would have known that Millay’s book title is from Jesus’ words in Matthew.
*****Her admirers can parse this as a Modernist use of older “ready-mades” which are being modified in the context of her 20th century verse.
1 A High-Toned Old Christian Woman and First Fig by Wallace Stevens and Edna St. Vincent Millay It seemed like an odd pairing. So much so that I wondered why I thought it might work. Wallace Stevens, who looked like what he was, an insurance executive; and Edna St. Vincent Millay, the beautiful bohemian New Woman of the 1920s. Stevens’ poem “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” was awash in his characteristic play with esoteric words, luxuriating in its educated Modernism. Millay’s “First Fig” is epigramically brief and simply said. They were only about a dozen years apart in age a hundred years ago when these poems were written, but Stevens seemed older than his years, and Millay was famous as a distinctly young poet and as a poet who spoke for the new youth.
The subconscious forces that had me perform them together is still somewhat inexplicable. The rational connection I can see is that both of them are giving their Modernist defense against an older propriety, each in their own voices. Both are defiant in their ways, but they also somewhat reassure the older generation with an undercurrent in their poems. “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” is telling the titular old Christian (which may be based on Stevens’ mother) that he too is a devout believer, but his belief is in pagan art. Millay’s “Fig” self-admits the likely unsustainability of her devotion to an artistic life, yet her short poem has enough room to say that she’s aware of that. Both poets accept that their stubborn individual Modernism may make widows wince.
Adding Modernist poets to your electric guitar pedalboard.
The unusual music in this spring’s most popular audio piece may have attracted some. Earlier this year I was able to find a used example of a guitar effects pedal that I’ve looked at for some time: the Electro-Harmonix Attack Decay pedal. Its prime trick is to make an electric guitar’s notes burn at both ends. Most other similar effects work only with single notes, but with proper settings and playing, the Attack Decay can latch on to and do the reverse delay thing on overlapping notes, letting the featured guitar in this piece sound like a hurdy-gurdy.
This is the piece that you, our flexible Parlando audience, listened to and liked the most last season, and you can hear or re-hear it with the player gadget below, or through this highlighted hyperlink which will play it in a new tab window.
There’s another repeat author in this segment of our spring 2021 countdown of the most listened to and liked pieces here over the past three months. More than that, the number 4 and 3 positions are held by two installments drawn from the same poem, parts of my long serial performance of “The Waste Land” that wound up this year. It makes sense then to deal with them together.
4 What the Thunder Said Part 1 and What the Thunder Said Part 2 by T. S. Eliot As much as I enjoyed the challenge of taking on the range of Eliot’s poem and making explicit its implicit musicality, “The Waste Land” is not what many of us go to for poetry comfort food. The last section of the great poem was by all accounts written while Eliot was hospitalized with what is now considered depression. Most of his poem is a horror story, still and all twice-baked crafted, written by a man whose meticulousness had him working in a bank — and then revised by Ezra Pound, as merciless an editor as ever existed. That part of the poem can seem a cold-case puzzle to be solved, the likely source material for a volume by Dan Brown. It’s not.
It’s a series of songs made up of the overheard and the remembered bits caught inside Eliot’s educated mind, half in Parnassus and half in a Hogarthian vision of early 20th century London — and then we get to the last part of the poem, “What the Thunder Said,” which is more Eliot’s own song, a long somewhat improvised song that was written, he later confessed to Virginia Woolf, in something of a trance, without even bothering to understand what he was writing. Up until then the poem, however despairing or dark, has been crowded: voices, characters, changes of scene. This last part is Eliot alone with himself. The waste land, the desert title-place that we only meet in this last section, isn’t the condition of post-WWI England or Europe, the waste land is Eliot alone with himself in only lightly-disguised self-pity, which eventually leads to a final expiation in its concluding portion.* The accelerating four sections of “What the Thunder Said” that I presented this past April are the journey of that mind.
So, what’s the next poem in our countdown after all that sturm und drang?
Seriously, singing poetry can be an even deeper inhalation of a poem. Here’ are my chords if you’d like to sing this poem of Dickinson’s.
2 How Many Flowers by Emily Dickinson Just Emily: gardener, avid botanist, Transcendentalist meditator, a legal mind filing a concise argument in the case of the universe, folding her words up. It takes me a minute and a half to sing it.
I had some fun in my original post on this imagining how close she came in her poetic diction to writing an early 20th century Imagist poem, but we may have little trouble translating on the fly from her 19th century-isms to the vivid moment she observes: the observed or unobserved flower, the present and presence — and the future, their scarlet freight. Like much great poetry, maybe like all great poetry it doesn’t need me to prattle on about it, it just needs you to sing it, to carry that scarlet freight.
*Unlike the other 3 parts, the 4th part of “What the Thunder Said” didn’t get the listens and likes to make this top 10, possibly because of its length or general disinterest or dismay from the audience in its rough, less-exactly recorded nature. Still the electric guitar playing that builds from about 3 minutes in and finally becomes the brief solo that starts at 4:45 is as pure a piece of musical-emotional expression as I’ve ever played.
Let’s continue our countdown of the pieces you most listened to and liked this past spring. As we move up toward the most popular one, we start today with number 7. If you want to read my first thoughts when the piece was first published, the bold-faced headings are hyperlinks to that. How well will these poems mesh with today’s Father’s Day? Let’s find out.
7 April Rain Song by Langston Hughes. Hughes gets two appearances in this spring’s top ten, and his second one here is yet another song of rainfall that fell in this season’s list. Hughes had a strong element of practicality in his poetry, clear-eyed looks at his times and place, necessary observations — even in this poem written for a short-lived children’s magazine that works as a calming lullaby, something a parent might sing to a child. I said last time in his early poetry I can hear Hughes adopting some of older poet Carl Sandburg’s approaches, and this poem pairs nicely with Sandburg’s “Branches” that came in at number 9 this quarter doesn’t it. But then Hughes in turn helped inspire Gil Scott-Heron, and I can hear how Scott-Heron used and extended what he gathered from Hughes.
6 The World Is a Beautiful Place by Lawrence Ferlinghetti This is a rare piece here that is not AFAIK in the public domain and completely free for reuse, but the death of it’s author this year felt like something that I must respond to, and the way I usually do that here is to perform their words. Listeners last winter and persisting through the spring continued to listen to this performance of one of Ferlinghetti’s poems leading to its second consecutive appearance in a Parlando Top Ten. Copyright aside, if you don’t have one of Ferlinghetti’s books, go ahead and get one. The generosity of his poetry will more than repay your contribution in buying it.
But for many in my generation, Ferlinghetti, and in particular his collection A Coney Island of the Mind, was always there. You’d visit someone’s apartment to talk, to organize, to party, to make out — and there in some improvised bookcase made of boards and bricks or milkcrates there’d be this book-cover wrapping a thin volume: black night and grey illumination that seemed to turn silver from its contrast.
Most of us were in a demographic that said we would likely have had parents then, but in a poem like this one Ferlinghetti was taking, to some suitable degree, the role to be our father. So, for this Father’s Day it is altogether right to listen again to him welcoming us to, and showing us, life. Player gadget below for some to hear the LYL Band’s performance, or this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window to also play it.
Influences. Langston Hughes influenced Gil Scott-Heron, Ferlinghetti opened up poetry to many of my generation — and while immortal Dawn’s chasing the young Tithonus still seems a little pervy once we leave the mythological world, Rimbaud might well have been borrowing from that myth.
5 Dawn by Arthur Rimbaud Rimbaud on the other hand was never the suitable father figure for anyone. He might have been a teenager when he wrote this poem, but he wasn’t quite acting the child’s role here either, for as I translated this my understanding became that he and that personified borderland time of dawn have run off to the wilderness to swive.
But it just so happened, with a backwards echo, that after I translated this poem and moved on to translate a poem by Sappho, that the two poems were connected. Sappho’s ancient poem ended with the recounting of a Greek myth of Tithonus who, like the singer of Rimbaud’s 19th century poem, was taken off by a love-besotted Dawn. I didn’t know Sappho’s poem or this mythological story when I was translating the Rimbaud, but it now seems possible to probable that Rimbaud knew this myth and was referring to it in his poem. I dealt with this anachronistic learning timeline by replacing Tithonus with Rimbaud and the twist of Rimbaud’s own later life in the ending of my version of Sapho’s poem that you can read about here.
Many a father knows there’s an unintended corollary in Wordsworth’s line “The child is the father of the man.” The teenaged Rimbaud taught the aged me.
It’s time for our every-quarter look back at what pieces you, my valued and appreciated listeners and readers listened to and liked most during the past Spring. This one turned out to be a tight bunch over the past three months, with only a little over a dozen listens and likes between the 1st and 10th position. Given the range of musics I’ll use and the variety of poetry presented, that means that there are a lot of different “yous” out there in this project’s audience, or that some of you don’t mind my jumping around a bit.
We’ll progress in the countdown format, starting with number 10 and over the next few days getting to the most listened to and liked one from this past springtime. If you missed what I wrote about each piece when it was first presented, the bold-faced titles are also hyperlinks to the original post where you can read more about my encounter with it.
10 The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes One of my favorite pieces I’ve done this year. It’s been rare lately that I get to create, record and present an out-and-out electric guitar centered piece like this. This one would place higher except that it was released last winter and its February listens aren’t counted in the Spring Top Ten. As it happens, a great audio piece for Juneteeth though!
9 Branches by Carl Sandburg Sandburg set his poem specifically in April, but as much of the United States has current drought issues it might also serve as an invocation for some summer rain too. Nice to have this one next to the one above — Sandburg was one of Langston Hughes’ models when the younger poet created his own poetic voice.
Limits on recording time this year have led me to present more pieces as simpler and more immediate acoustic guitar and voice arrangements, some of which, like this one, seem to work pretty well.
On electric guitar: Langston Hughes, acoustic guitar: Carl Sandburg, and on whistling bats with baby faces: T. S. Eliot.
8 What the Thunder Said Part 3 by T. S. Eliot Each April this project has presented a part of the landmark Modernist poem “The Waste Land.” This April I completed that long task with the final section of the poem “What the Thunder Said.” One of the few pieces this Spring where I got to deploy my orchestral instruments forcefully. Player below, alternatively this highlighted hyperlink.
Today’s audio piece is another simple arrangement, just acoustic guitar and voice, but the simplicity allowed me to move quickly from composition, to arrangement, and finally to recording an acceptable performance.
I only decided to record this text, by the English mystic, poet, and artist William Blake early this morning. This week was already scheduled for two important life transitions in my family by those older and younger, and this poem seemed to say something from that universal point in all lives when everything, when all, is change before us.
So, Blake cast this story as a lullaby, which is by design a calming song meant to accompany change from wakefulness and worry to sleep and the hallucinations, visions, or amorphous brain activity of dreams. The infant in his poem may not understand, may even dread this nightly change. It’s only a daily moment, but mysterious for one so new to experience, and so the poet-singer as parent is there to soothe the infant — and themselves. Here’s a link to the text of Blake’s poem that I used.
Is this only a story of an infant, or does the mystic Blake mean to say more about us? I believe he intends more. Infancy is only a starting point, an illustrative state before change. If we’ve been parents, we could recall our experiences in helping the infant journey from this beginning point. Blake wants to take us there to show us something.
And so it is this week. A grandmother is moving farther from memory and autonomy, graceful and befuddled, to a new care setting; and a teenager is moving too, earlier in life with more paths before them, yet more sure, and we don’t know how much to guide or understand. Yes, in-between are us middle-people who need to help both, and yet we’ve never been on exactly either’s path ourselves.
The lullaby is for the child and the parent. The parent and the child.
Typical “sandwich generation” work for women as illustrated by William Blake.
When I composed the music and performed “A Cradle Song” I thought it was from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. And it has been included in the Songs of Experience portion in some editions, but not by Blake himself. Blake even seems to have toyed with an additional stanza I didn’t sing or know, and the supposition is that today’s text may have been meant to be the Songs of Experience compliment to the other Blake Cradle Song that was engraved in Blake’s Songs of Innocence* — but that Blake changed his mind or was unable to complete the engraving for Songs of Experience. Both Blake cradle songs have been set to music: the Songs of Innocence one by Allen Ginsberg, the one I sing today by Benjamin Britten, but I have taken my own path and done my own music for today’s version of Blake’s “A Cradle Song.” You can hear it with a player gadget that some will see below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window to play it.
*There are other contrasting, paired poems in the two books.
For not the first time here, I need to travel in a roundabout way in time and place to get to today’s piece. Last post, I discussed how little survives of the work of the ancient Greek poet Sappho: only a small handful of more-or-less complete poems, the rest fragments (some as small as a single word).
What caused us to then remember her at all, to collect and care about these fragments? I think it’s largely because the legends that grew up about her combined with the short verses that survive are intriguing. Yes, the ancient Greeks praised her formal poetic achievements highly, but what survives of her writing and biographic legends testify to a poet who lived and writes about love and desire. The compression of the lyric form mixes with the intensity of the erotic themes and the peak-a-boo of their historic fragmentation — the poems flirt with us.
And now for the time-jump. We move to the beginning of the 20th century, from an exotic 7th century BCE Aegean island dweller to a Canadian, a poet with the name of Bliss Carman.* In 1894, Carman and a college friend published a collection of poems extolling the romantic carefree life: Songs of Vagabondia. Not quite as ecstatic as Whitman or Jack Kerouac, it none-the-less found a public and launched two sequels. Carmen followed this series up in 1907 with what became his most highly praised poetry collection, the audacious Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics. How’s that? We’ve established there’s only a handful of somewhat complete poems.
Bliss Carman audaciously invented his own extension of Sappho. Sappho is here depicted as being the first poet to chew on the cap of her pen while thinking.
Carman’s cousin, and fellow worker to establish a Canadian poetry, Charles G. D. Roberts, explained what Carmen did altogether briefly in an introduction to the book:
Mr. Carman’s method, apparently, has been to imagine each lost lyric as discovered, and then to translate it; for the indefinable flavour of the translation is maintained throughout, though accompanied by the fluidity and freedom of purely original work.”
One wishes for more explanation. Roberts’ account reads to me like one of those occultists who receive texts through spirit guides or translate ancient inscriptions by telepathic laying on of hands. However, in reading the entire book I get a sense of a different tactic with the same strategic goal that I’ve admitted in some of my translations and presentations with music: an attempt to make the old text in an old language uniquely accessible to some contemporary readers.
Yes, yes there are dangers in inauthenticity and willful anachronism. Um Actually historical scholarship illuminates things too, but last time I said I understand and find value in those current readers of Sappho who wish to encounter her as if she was a modern gay woman. Carmen wanted his readers back then to get some sense of Sappho’s expression of unboundaried love that the fragments hint at if assembled just so.
His re-animated Sappho is more of a circa 1900 Pre-Raphaelite to Pre-Modernist** one. He eschews rhyme and doesn’t go all out for florid poetic diction. Most of the lines are his, not Sappho’s by any actual sense of translation, and perhaps they are best appreciated in the same way that dialog is in a historical novel. In research this week I understand there were some notes where Carman at least connected a portion of the poems with the corresponding cataloged Sappho fragments, but nothing like this was contained in the published book.
At it’s best, like today’s piece, you get a poem that wears its intent of patinaed timelessness lightly. Here’s a link to the poem’s text if you want to read along. I particularly like the image of the coupled lovers watching from the bedroom window unknowable ships whose ventures are now safe in port.***
For music today, I’ve turned not to the ancient lyre and flutes of Sappho’s time, but perversely to try for that timeless illusion using synthesizers along with my fretless electric bass. The player gadget may appear below to hear my performance of Bliss Carman’s “LXXXII Over the roofs the honey-coloured moon” poem. Some blog viewers will not show the player gadget, but then this highlighted hyperlink will play the audio piece if you click on it.
*I’ll admit it: the moment I read this name, I smiled. I couldn’t tell what gender. To modern ears “Bliss Carman” sounds like a florid pen name on a romance novel, or even a drag queen’s persona, but some reading and research staunched my snickering. In Real Life, he helped establish Canadian literary poetry and his career stretched from the establishment of the Canadian Confederation to the Modernism of the 1920s.
***Reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights” poem with lovers “Futile — the winds — To a Heart in port — Done with the Compass — Done with the Chart!” Dickinson’s poem would have been somewhat freshly published when Carmen was working, and I wonder if he knew it?
The ancient Greek poet Sappho is one of the oldest poetic voices we have record of. Like the Greek epic poet Homer, her work likely predates written literature and was originally intended to be sung. How much more do we know about her?
Almost nothing for sure — or even by likelihood. As with Homer there are traditions and later stories about her, none of which are plainly based on first-hand accounts, all written centuries later. If one prefers to base their literary analysis on the text alone, that would be just about the only choice in Sappho’s case. Yet for many people not generally interested in ancient Greek poetry, Sappho is best known for being a lesbian writer — indeed the very term for that erotic affinity is derived from the Aegean Island where Sappho lived, Lesbos.
I’d need to be more knowledgeable than I am to discuss how Sappho’s lesbian identification came to be accepted as general knowledge, but some arguments are made using evidence from the text of her poetry. Which brings me to the next thing I was reminded of as I looked at using some of Sappho’s poetry over the past couple of weeks: there’s really very little of it. Very little of it.
Imagine you are a couple of centuries after some event which has erased a great deal of our formerly recorded literature. Suppose you were, in such a time, to try to assess the works of T. S. Eliot, Bob Dylan, or Emily Dickinson based only on other writers’ surviving references to them, references you can only hope will be buttressed with a short quote or two. Everything else would be lost. Sure, those commentaries in surviving texts would be tantalizing, testimony to the author’s greatness — but because they were written before some general loss of literature, they are painful too in their assumption that they needed then to be only pointers to something every cultured person would know.
In such a world of imaginary loss T. S. Eliot would be the “April is the cruelest month” and “bang not a whimper” guy without necessarily the rest of the poems that contained those lines in context surviving. And what could we make about a lost work about, what — cats? Dylan’s music* might well be lost, but a few pithy phrases would survive because so many others liked to quote him to make a point about their times. Some accounts would say he was a great performer, yet others would make fun of his voice. Dickinson? Perhaps a legend would survive of a lifelong, lovelorn hermit, since that makes for a good story,** but beside that we could have only a stanza or so of her short poems, her actual art retaining only the “greatest hits” lines that got quoted, “Hope is a thing with feathers,” “Because I could not stop for death,” and so on.
Sadly, this is what’s left of Sappho’s art.*** So perhaps it’s consolation during Pride month that we have presently imagined her as someone like those we know today: a breathing, living individual of desires and feelings.
Until this century there are only a couple of Sappho poems that were complete enough to consider as an entire work. Then in 2004 another mostly complete poem was added to the canon. The text was found incorporated into the structure of a paper-mache like mummy case that had languished in a European museum. The ancient makers of the mummy case had just recycled what was then garbage dump material, but this dump just happened to contain a manuscript from the 3rd century BCE of a poem by Sappho.
If you’d like to see the text in archaic Greek, a gloss in English, and several English translations other than mine, you can find it at this page. Alas, I can’t link to this section on the long web page that this poem’s entry is part of, but if you search for (Control F on your keyboard) Lobel-Page 58 you’ll jump to it.
*Sappho was a composer and lyre player. Some accounts have her as the leader of a school that taught music, which led me to translate the opening of today’s poem as a musical admonition.
**That summary of Dickinson’s life isn’t all that different rounded-off from the one I received in my youth anyway, even though our modern scholarship has established a roughly normal life for Dickinson, whose noticeable agoraphobia came after her literary work decreased.
***There doesn’t seem to be a single cause for so little of Sappho’s work surviving intact. The random acts of time alone would account for much of that loss. The famed lost libraries of Alexandria no doubt carried some of her work.
****Rimbaud, who wrote his entire influential corpus of revolutionary poetry before he turned 20, spent the last years of his short life as a merchant-trader in an Ethiopian branch office dealing in coffee.
I think I’ve established that I like examining lesser-known Modernists, or even writers who weren’t always considered part of the Modernist movement. Now today I may cause a few literarily knowledgeable readers to throw up their hands and do a spit take. Why? Yes, today’s piece is a sonnet, but we should note that not all Modernists rejected rhyme, and after all this is also a piece of down-beat gritty urban experience. Just look at the opening two lines:
Tired clerks, pale girls, street cleaners, business men
Boys, priests and harlots, drunkards, students, thieves…
A litany that wouldn’t be out of place in the Unreal City a few years later. It could sound like the opening of a piece by Whitman or even Lou Reed as it starts out. As it continues, it doesn’t stint on the darkness literal and figurative. Those subway riders are riders, without agency. With fixed tracks underground they go their “sunless way” with “reluctant feet” as our Modernist Dante tells us. When I first read this* having seen the author’s name before reading, my thought was “Could the writer of this piece be misattributed?”
Go ahead, go to the bottom of the post and listen to the performance I put together using this early 20th century New York City poem about ordinary and agentless people lost in underground darkness. It’s less than 3 minutes long. Hear it first without knowing who wrote it.
Is this something of a belated Memorial Day post? Today’s author would die serving overseas in the U.S. Army during WWI. But stop reading and skip down to the bold-faced section at the end for a chance to hear the audio piece first.
OK, now let’s take off the Masked Singer costume: the author of the sonnet that I used as the text for today’s audio piece is Joyce Kilmer. I expect two responses to that information: “Huh?” and“What!” The former “Huh?” might be from my younger readers, as this is less likely a poet they’ve run into in our present century. That was not always so. Those my age or older will likely associate Kilmer with a single poem which was once so well-known and liked that it became a point of contention with many educated folks. That poem was “Trees,” the one that begins “I think that I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree.” My first High School English teacher Terry Brennan explained that he had had a High School teacher who had recited it while bodily enacting the “lifts her leafy arms to pray” part of Kilmer’s “Trees” poem. I believe he told us this to establish that he was not going to inflict a similar pedology on us (thanks Terry for that, and much more!) A columnist I liked to read in the Des Moines Register as a teenager, Donald Kaul, loved to pillory Kilmer’s “Trees” as a crime against better culture.** They had a point. “Trees” was ripe enough with pleasant sentiments that it likely did its part to help kill off the pathetic fallacy in modern poetry, but let’s start with its first publication: in Poetry magazine in 1913, in an issue of that important publication for new verse that also included certified Modernists Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, and Skipwith Cannell, the later a favorite of the Others circle.
And speaking of Others magazine, Kilmer was in New York as a young poet in the years before WWI, rubbing elbows with those who would be associated with that city’s fearless avant-garde. Orrick Johns mentions him as someone he knew in those days. When Poetry’s editor Harriet Monroe published her anthology The New Poetry in 1917, Kilmer and his poem “Trees” is included alphabetically between poems by Orrick Johns and Others’ founder/editor Alfred Kreymborg. Kreymborg in his interesting memoir Troubadour recounts that Kilmer was one of the few “actual writers” he was acquainted with in his earliest days as a poet. Kilmer read some of Kreymborg’s short free-verse poems and suggested “You ought to divide those lines and make them rhyme—there’s poetry in them” which Kreymborg considered encouragement. Kilmer was working then for Funk and Wagnall’s, the dictionary people, and even gave Kreymborg some assignments for the dictionary which paid the young man $10, his first check for writing anything.
But all that is circumstantial Modernism. Besides “Trees” the Kilmer verse I’ve found online is almost entirely religious in nature, and it doesn’t come close to threatening Gerard Manley Hopkins’ gravity and vitality in that regard. If there are other poems that Kilmer wrote that are like “The Subway” I haven’t seen them.
Why did that “Trees” poem stick? Trees may not be the Internet Cat Pictures of nature poetry, but readers do seem attracted to those stately greenhouse-gas-absorbing plants. And there’s more: unlike Great Britain, Kilmer was just about the only U. S. poet killed in WWI.*** In England a young poet like Rupert Brooke could gain public attention that persisted after the war even if he was only one poet-casualty out of several of his countrymen. In America, the “Trees” man received the whole pension, and a large East Coast military base was named Camp Kilmer and served as the place where many of the Greatest Generation embarked and returned to America for WWII.
Did you jump down to here in order to listen to the song I made out of this early 20th century American poem about the New York City subway? If so, there’s a player gadget for some of you, and for the rest, this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab/window to play the piece. After you listen to the song you can return to the rest of the post to find out what “Modernist” wrote the lyrics.
***The other name that comes to mind was Alan Seeger, the “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” poet who died ahead of the U.S. participation in the war fighting with French forces. His nephew was Pete Seeger, as Pete liked to point out at times.