Edward Thomas’ “The Owl” as heard in a yurt

Every so rarely I treat this Project as a “regular blog” and talk about what I’ve done recently. Not my usual mode, but this is one of those.

In case you’ve noticed a gap in posting, this week I’ve been in a yurt situated in a forest a few miles from Lake Superior. No cellphone service, no Internet, just books, bicycles, an acoustic guitar, and my woodland-nymph wife for whom this is just the right sort of place.

A yurt is a circular tent adapted from Central Asiatic designs.*  The tent fabric is stretched over a wooden lattice so that it becomes in effect a small rustic cabin with no corners and soft walls. In the example we rented for our stay it had an elevated wooden floor, a conventional bed, a couple of chairs, and a door and windows that looked out onto the woods it sat in. In the center of its fabric roof, where the smoke from a central fire would exit in the original yurts, the modern version substitutes a clear plexiglass dome, a device I always read as an emblematic Sistine Chapel of The Sixties: like those domes fitted to Ken Kesey’s Furthur bus or Ed Roth’s Beatnik Bandit.

Three Plexiglass Domes

Three Plexiglass domes. Salad bowls of my salad days.

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I brought books, poetry and poetry adjacent: Rush Hour  and Still Living in Town  by Kevin FitzPatrick, Rhythmic Stories & Prehistoric Mythteries  by Dave Moore, Swimming with Shadows and Light Rolling Slowly Backwards New & Selected Poems  by Ethna McKiernan, How to Read a Poem  by Edward Hirsch, and Dickinson’s Nerves, Frost’s Woods  by William Logan.

The three from the poets I know were particularly piquant reads, Kevin having just died, Ethna facing serious illness, and Dave and I both a little worse for wear. This post won’t allow me to speak at length about those five books, which I read completely from cover to cover in the yurt. The Hirsch book turned out a little too basic and introductory for my mood, though it might well serve for someone seeking to get more involved with poetry. The Logan book was outrageous in a way that made me shake my head and yet keep reading.

I never assumed the Parlando Project was going to involve as much short essay writing. The reason that the Parlando audio pieces (which are available as podcasts in the usual places like Apple Podcasts et al) are simply the performances, not discussions and descriptions, is that I wanted to present and to allow listeners to experience poetry in the ear without a lot of framing or explaining, the same way that they largely experience lyrics in a song. But over the years I’ve fallen into writing here more about experiences with the poems, even delving into explications and musings about how the poems are set into poet’s lives.

When I enter into that mode and come upon a question — where many bloggers would simply say “I don’t know” or “One could guess” — I often make an attempt to find out if there’s an answer. These searches can take up more time than composing and recording the music. One of the most consistently popular posts here was my presentation of Yeats’ “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing”  where I felt I had to find out who the friend was that the poem addresses, and what the work was. That wasn’t something easily discovered on the web — and apparently thanks to my post, it now is.

Logan takes this sort of thing to another level and then another, and another and…. I sensed him smiling and shaking his own head to the levels he was driven to go. In his discussion of Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”  Logan makes sure to determine what livery Frost’s farm owned in order to estimate what the speaker in Frost’s poem might be sitting in. In his discussion of Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”  he takes note of a story surrounding it: that a draft of the quickly-written sonnet was in the hands of the other young man that Keats’ had spent an all-nighter reading a rare copy of Chapman’s English translation with, by early the following afternoon. Logan tries to determine if this was possible via normal “penny post” service in London at the time, or would it have to have been a specially hired courier service. For poetry obsessives, Logan’s book will wear you out with “do we know, can we find out” side-trips like that.

Meanwhile, back at the yurt whose woods we are knowing, upon a peak above Lake Superior, we had planned to ride our bikes into town for breakfast, a distance figured at three miles via GPS maps. The same maps accessed at home warned me that it was a nearly 400 foot elevation climb on the way back to our yurt’s address, but I have done double that and more in my dotage. Both of us took our original generation “mountain bikes” which by modern standards are both heavy and altogether too mechanically unsophisticated, but this was good in that the first-part of our journey was a rutted gravel access road from our yurt to the local highway which descended steeply for about a half a mile.

From that point on into town I could have passed for a motorcyclist, coasting at 30 mph on the steep downward slope of the blacktop highway. At a stop sign I looked over to my wife and said, “You know, we’re going to have to climb this on the way back.”

After breakfast, she went off to take pictures, and I started the ride back by myself. **

Three years ago this autumn, I climbed 800 feet in 25 miles on Minnesota’s Iron Range. Not only am I older but doing 450 feet of climb in 3.3 miles is different. Different, as in harder. Different in as pedaling up a wall verses pedaling up a ramp. The temp that day was in the 50s and I wore a light vest and a non-zip long-sleave shirt, both of which were good during the speed of the descent into town. But when I finally arrived back at the yurt, I was quite tired and soaked in sweat — an autumn mixture of hot and chilled as soon as you stop.

Bayfield Climb

Graph of the climb back to the yurt from town. My research said 400 feet net climb, but it didn’t include the steep gravel access road at the end which added another 50 feet. Well-conditioned bikers will scoff at this climb, but where’s your understanding of Robert Frosts wagons?

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That night as we went to sleep in the yurt, the leaves falling on the taunt roof gave us a sound like we were inside a scattered drum-roll. Off in the distance then we heard piercing owl cries*** that this musical-obsessive would liken to Eric Clapton signaling the wind-up of Ginger Baker’s drum feature “Toad”  — but then this person, whose Project has made him equally poetry-obsessed, also thought of Edward Thomas, and his poem “The Owl.”

Thomas besides being an avid walker (he was the actual walking companion Frost was chiding in “The Road Not Taken”)  was also a bicyclist, and “The Owl”  appears to be telling of a bicycle tour ride as it begins “Downhill I came…” and the full text goes on to describe that cold “yet heat within me” feeling that vigorous exercise produces in changing temperatures like my October ride. Thomas’ poem and his welcome rest at nightly lodgings on his tour turns in the middle on the sound of an owl’s cry.

Thomas’ thoughts are turned in that cry not to the band Cream and rock power trios of The Sixties, but those who didn’t have shelter in the night. And I had been reading the new poems section of Ethna McKiernan’s New & Selected  which is dedicated by her to “the hundreds of homeless clients I’ve worked with through the years.”

I performed Thomas’ “The Owl”  a few years back, but it’s one of my performances that I don’t think got all it could out of the piece, so here’s a fresh performance of my setting of that poem, recorded back home, but in yurt-style with acoustic guitar. For some, you can use a player gadget below to hear it. Others won’t see that, so this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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*This Wikipedia listing about yurts says that a Mongolian Buddhist variation is called “uyangiin ger” which means “home of the lyrics.” I didn’t know that.

**She too had to struggle with the climb. While she stopped often to take pictures, breaking up the exertion somewhat, she found it difficult to overcome gravity to get her old bike going from when she stopped on steeper sections. Pictures of what? This and that in the local scene, though the highlights were a catalog of closeup pictures of various fungi in their autumn-leaf colors and fairy architecture.

***I’m not sure what species of owl. It might have been a barred owl or a horned owl. The calls were not the characteristic “who cooks for you” barred owl melody, but it had a similar pitch and timbre.

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