Stones

I’m going to write here a bit, but if you’re in a hurry, I urge you to do two things. The first is to simply listen to today’s audio piece. I think that will reward you. You’ll find a way to play that near the bottom of this post along with my second suggestion.

To a large extent this project adapts other people’s poetry in the process of combining it with music I write and record. Occasionally when I mention this, or when the more general topic of a difference between poetry and song lyrics comes up, there will be objections or distinctions brought forward: those two things (poetry found on the page and words designed to be combined with music) aren’t the same, they’re different.

I’ve written about this here in the past. My conclusions in summary: the thing we call poetry includes a great deal of unlike expressions,*  and many are comfortable with that. Why chop off “song lyrics” as an appendix of non-poetry or not-quite-good-enough poetry? Well, if we do that are we forgetting that poetry across multiple cultures began as an oral presentation almost certainly combined with music? Why would that precedent not mean that literary poetry, however prized and skilled, has failed to sing or express its music explicitly?

So, if I move past those differences between poetry meant for the page and poetry meant for performance with music, and seek to test literary poetry in that context, what do I find? Well, a number of things that seem like problems with musical performance of Modernist page poetry are often less difficult than they seem. Poem doesn’t rhyme? That doesn’t help one memorize for unaided performance, but it’s not really a big deal. Uneven meter or line lengths? Modern musical expression has long slipped the bonds of straight beats or fixed length of melodic lines. One can even up shorter lines with musical elements too.

What is challenging? There are auditory challenges. Texts designed for performance often take into account pronunciation obstacles and allow space for breath. At least for myself there is a general difference in attention between words heard and words read in terms of attention. If a word or image requires one to pause for consideration on the silent page, there is an automatic “pause button” in our consciousness, and this is not so in the ear. The richest literary poetry may overwhelm us when listened to, though performance itself may also illuminate things we would never hear on the page, even after multiple readings.

In the context of today’s piece, let me speak of another issue. Work for performance, such a song lyrics, thrives on repetition, or refrains. Rhyme itself is one of those matters of repetition, even if it’s not required. Refrain draws our attention as it combines with the rest of the performed text, allows us to more fully absorb one part of what is expressed, and combines naturally with musical motifs that also repeat.

When I look through a poetry collection looking for Parlando candidates, the poems that use repetition will often be the ones that seem most suitable for performance — but that said, many pieces I’ve performed here have no refrain, no repeating chorus. Particularly with shorter texts this can still work, but piece after piece of poetry performed without repeating elements seems too much of avoiding that useful thing.

More than 50 years ago, a pioneering rock critic Richard Goldstein, published a book, The Poetry of Rock,  examining the possibility that rock lyrics of that era could be considered as poetry. Despite the title, the book did not wholesale advocate for the conclusion that they were simply poetry. Instead Goldstein noted, as I’ll admit, that these two ways of encountering words lend themselves to different experiences.** One tactic Goldstein decided on when dealing with song refrains in his printed examples to be experienced as literary poetry was to not completely transcribe the refrains in his versions of the lyrics. Instead he might just put them once at the end of the set of words. Making them the final statement on the page gave them emphasis, as repetition in a chorus would, without overwhelming the expression of the verses.

Working the other way, as I will do today, one can reverse this tactic. One can simply repeat a stanza, perhaps the first one, as a chorus, or at the end. Or one can take a line and make it a refrain, as I did with Sheng-Yu’s “Lament”  this fall.

Celtic Ouroboros

The Poetry of Rock? A Celtic representation of the ouroboros. This is a mystical symbol beloved by Jung and alchemists that is often used in graveyards. What does it mean? Thoughts differ, so may I offer one: Death can go kiss its own ass.

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Did you skip to here? That’s fine.

OK, let’s get to the good stuff: this poem “Stones”  appears in the new poems section of Ethna McKiernan’s Light Rolling Slowly Backwards.  It’s a fine poem on the page, and I highly encourage you to experience more of McKiernan’s work there by buying her book or seeking it out via a library. Here’s the publisher’s link.  That’s the other “ask” I have for you today. But “Stones”  is also a poem of lyric experiences, it calls out to be performed with the context of its implied emotions shared in your ear.

And this I did. Besides presuming unilaterally to do that, I made one other adaptation in the piece for performance’s sake: I took a line in the final stanza and made it a refrain. Because that line is repeated now six extra times, I’m bringing it forward for you to make sure you notice it and its possible meanings.***  I could throw in some more paragraphs about what I considered those possible meanings to be as I performed this beautiful poem, but I’ll not do that today. May your ear link to your heart, and listen with the player gadget below —if your way of viewing this blog shows that — or this highlighted hyperlink otherwise.

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*”Paradise Lost,” “Tyger,” “We grow accustomed to the dark,”  and “The Red Wheelbarrow”  are all worthy poems we might agree. Are they less different from each other than some random literary poem is from some song lyric?

**I may be repeating myself to say this here in a footnote — but that’s part of why I do the Parlando Project: because I expect you’ll experience the texts differently when you hear them performed with music.

***Did Ethna intend that line, now a refrain, to reflect itself in those meanings? I can’t say, but perhaps not. I, who performed it, intend for those extra meanings to come forward. I completely subverted William Butler Yeats intended meaning in one of his poems this fall. Judge me as you will.

The Men in the Basement

Late last year I promised you’d get to hear some pieces based on the poetry of Ethna McKiernan. I thought about which one to start off with, and decided I’d perform this one for you first. Why? Because it may make you smile.

Regular readers here recently will have caught up with my connection with Ethna: how I heard her read work in progress in a small group of other writers who cycled through each other’s homes each month to do that. You’ll also know that the rest of the group was usually men in its later years.

When we met in Ethna’s our meeting would always start in her little kitchen. We’d stand near her sink and stove and brew up some tea and talk a bit about what happened since we last met, until our remaining writer’s group members accumulated. On one side of that room was the clipping and photo-decorated refrigerator door, a generalized cultural artifact, and on the other side a small table and chair. Her house was a modest South Minneapolis bungalow probably built in the last Twenties, a couple of blocks off of East Lake Street. Comfortable and reasonably roomy with the usual shelves of books in its main-floor rooms and a couple of wandering cats as one might find in a poet’s house. I never saw more than the main floor, but there was a second story up a wooden staircase, and as we shall shortly hear, a basement below. That all said, it seems Ethna wrote and revised mostly in that small kitchen.

Kitchens are a physical metaphor, the site of drudgery and giving, sustenance and routine. If I may gender a floorplan: the most female part of most houses.

South Minneapolis is Tough on Barbies by Heidi Randen

Approximately how some of us feel on winter days. If only there was some help…

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I remember hearing “The Men in the Basement”  at one of those meetings. Everyone enjoyed it, got it, right off the bat, which was far from a universal reaction to the work we shared. I heard her read it at least once at a public reading, and since it was included in her New and Selected  collection* published just before her death late last year, we can be sure that Ethna herself liked this poem and expected audiences to do so too.

Do women understand this poem more than men do? How the hell should I know, though I suppose some raise themselves to opinions on such matters. I myself found it easy enough for my anima to perform it, though maybe some listeners will find that strange. Again, how the hell should I know? Anyway, given that we all bruise, want, wonder, live together and alone — and sorry, buzzkill for this entertainingly arch poem, we all sicken and die — I don’t find it worthwhile to predict or expect right now.

Musically I made this one an assortment of sounds, and I even worried that I may have over-egged it with the variety, but I’ll limit my predictions to that you’ll enjoy meeting Ethna’s text today. There’s a player gadget below for many of you, but you can also use this highlighted hyperlink where the player isn’t shown to hear it.

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*That book, Light Rolling Slowly Backwards: New and Selected Poems  is a great summary of McKiernan’s poetry. Here’s a link to the publisher’s listing.

Velvet Shoes

I’ve got a gorgeous song for you today, despite a difficult week for new work. I’ll try to get to it shortly, with only a little throat-clearing first.

It was 18 degrees F below zero* this morning. Oh, there was probably some wind chill too, but let’s not put too fine a point on temps like that — Minnesota January winter certainly doesn’t.

Our winter, to speak broadly, isn’t just cold. There’s also ice, snow, and winter cancellations and rescheduling. If that sounds grim, well, somedays it is — but then there’s a little something else about this sort of winter when you run across others out in it. Early this morning I saw another bicyclist with full face mask and goggles sawing their bike over the packed snow pavement. Before that, a woman walking her dog, each of them concentrating on getting such business done. In other duties, some school kids were walking to school. Every one of those fellow citizens are dealing with this shared winter too, and despite not being able to see much of their faces, you can likely feel something of a common cause.

But winter can also be experienced without even such scattered crowds. I used to commute around midnight on a bicycle, and the urban streets on rough winter nights would be the same as some new nowhere, like unto a SciFi paperback cover of the astronaut gazing through alien ruins. My wife sometimes runs just before dawn to a park that has no others but her and the existential animals.

Today’s piece is a winter poem by American poet Elinor Wylie, who wrote absolutely lovely short lyrical poems around 100 years ago. Hers is a slightly different winter. First, she’s walking with someone else. She doesn’t mention the temperature, but I doubt it quite as bitter-brittle as my morning. Hers is explicitly windless, but there is snow, the kind of loose powder that tends to fall when it’s colder than the soggy wet flakes.

Here’s a link to the text of Wylie’s Velvet Shoes,  in case you’d like to follow along.

Wylie’s reputation dropped fairly rapidly after her premature death in 1928. One knock against her pretty poems was that they were that and nothing else but attractive pictures drawn in word music. Well of course music itself doesn’t task itself with more than to be attractive, and visual art doesn’t need to support a philosophical argument or insight explicitly.

Elinor Wylie at the door

Sure it’s a pretty line: “I shall go shod in silk,” but damn it, open the door, it’s seriously winter out here!

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I rather like this poem’s picture, because it’s something of a white-space void with just scant details coming out of the snow, like a Whistler painting. But it’s not even visual clues for the most part — the details are textures, feel images: veils, silk, wool and fleece, feathers and down, and then the velvet of the title. There is testimony that there is no noise, much less talk. Indeed, her partner in the walk is near-totally obscured, and this choice —conscious or unconscious — seems striking to me. Is she alienated from them, or so close that there’s no novelty in mentioning? The sensuality of the imagery may give undercurrents of erotic love, but the obscuring of the partner makes that reading stranger.

I seem to be specializing recently in taking leaps at alternate readings that even I don’t think likely, though not impossible either, like my wild-ass guess that Truth’s body moldering in the grave next to Emily Dickinson’s Died for Beauty could plausibly be John Brown. Don’t bet your grade on that one, students! But I thought of the woman walking her dog this cold and snow-covered morning. No reason to talk there, nor was the dog taking time out for a barking address. Wasn’t that dog wearing a wool sweater? Less romantic a poem, but not impossible.

Though it’s freshly done, I’m fond of the music I came up with for Wylie’s poem. Maybe you’ll like the little song they make together when I performed it this morning. The player gadget is below for some of you, and if you don’t have that, you have this highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.

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*That’s minus 28 C. Minus.

2021 Parlando Project Hits (and Misses)

Once again a variety of things we call life is keeping new material from being posted as part of this project. So, why not do what a lot of bloggers do this time of year and give a short rundown of 2021 traffic for this blog and the associated audio pieces? That might be interesting. What do people come here for?

In general, this blog traffic continues to grow, as it has every year so far. Over the five plus years we’ve been active, there’s been an expected yearly pattern sweep: rising in the fall and carrying over until spring, then dropping off in the summer. This might indicate that some of the traffic here is related to schoolwork assignments or interests lit around that, or that even in our always connected age, that more are outside reading the “book of nature” in the summer than inside curling up with a poetry-related blog by the glow of a crackling screen light. We had 43,621 views last year, modest by political or lifestyle blogging standards, but rewarding in the context of poetry event attendance.

To my personal disappointment, listens to the audio pieces are close to flat in contrast to increased blog readership. The continuing Covid-19 epidemic has put a damper on my ability to collaborate or even to work as extensively on the audio pieces in other ways, and over the past two years I sometimes fear that the quality and variety of the audio pieces could suffer from that. That fear aside, as “The place where music and words meet,” says, these pieces were the real spark that led to all this.

Here are the ten most viewed posts here during 2021. This is the 754th post here, and all of these posts are older posts made over the years since we launched in 2016. I made them hyperlinks in case you’re curious, as a few of them are quite old, and could be from before you started following Parlando.

1. Poem 1 from Twenty Love Poems

2. The Lake Isle of Innisfree

3. The Stare’s Nest at My Window

4. Edward Thomas’ October

5. Rimbaud’s Eternity

6. Hitch Your Wagon to a Star

7. The Red Wheelbarrow

8. The Aim Was Song

9 .“Hope” is the thing with feathers

10. The Pool

The popularity of the Pablo Neruda translation from Spanish I did in 2020 shouldn’t surprise me. Love and its ornery cousin lust are attractive subjects after all, and this early collection of Neruda’s is a poetry best-seller in its original language. I myself prefer the final poem in the series to the opener, but they are both part of the story told in the series. Posts on Yeats make two high-placed appearances. I suspect the posts on “The Red Wheelbarrow”  and “The Pool”  get hits from those looking for homework help on what to say about these enigmatic short poems that appear in many anthologies. The puzzler for me is Edward Thomas’ “October,”  which is a lovely poem by a poet better known in the British Isles than in America, but I can’t guess how that post got so popular. My post on Emily Dickinson’s well-loved “Hope’  is the thing with feathers “ may be attractively controversial. Many read that poem as motivational poster simple: praise for plucky hope. I took the idea that the “Hope” quoted in the title may refer to a lesser known poem by Emily Dickinson influence Emily Bronte that makes hope something of a taunting flirt.

None of these top ten for page hits this year was written and posted in 2021. Even though total blog traffic increases smartly year to year, most days I find older posts are among the most read — or at least loaded into readers browsers in hope of finding out something — proving the notion that poetry is news that stays news. The most hits for a 2021-written post was Rimbaud’s Dawn (#21), followed by William Carlos Williams’ Thursday (#26), and my memorial post for Lawrence Ferlinghetti (#36).

What was the least viewed 2021 post, other than very recent ones from the year? My post on the unusually gritty Joyce Kilmer poem “The Subway.”   What’s that mean? Joyce Kilmer may be past his sell-by date in the 21st century? Or maybe it was reflected pandemic fear of crowded mass transit?

Audio pieces? These new audio pieces posted in 2021 had the most listens:

1. The Negro Speaks of Rivers

2. The Snow is Deep On the Ground

3. The World is a Beautiful Place

4. Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Escape

5. Reynardine

Sure, I’m the composer and sole performer on 4 out of those 5 pieces, but not a bad grouping of Parlando music performances, even if none of them have more complex arrangements (harder to get done this year). Listening to them again reduced my fears about the 2021 audio pieces not being as good as in the years past. I was surprised that “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”  had made it to the top by the end of the year, but it’s one of those “long tail” audio pieces that continues to attract listeners long after it was first posted. “Escape”  was another surprise, because both my vocal and fiddle performance was aiming at “not pretty.” I didn’t expect that one to be so popular.

Early T-Rex and Swinburne - Bongo Fury!

What more can I say in my defense? T-Rex before they had a hyphen and then Swinburne. Bongo Fury!

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Least listened-to new piece last year (excluding those from end of the year that probably haven’t risen to their eventual level)? “Love and Sleep.”  Maybe I just couldn’t pull off a fusion of Algernon Charles Swinburne and early Tyrannosaurus Rex — even with a line like “Glittering eyelids of my soul’s desire…” dictating that attempt.

I really hope to have more new pieces here soon, but since it’s not one cause that is preventing things from progressing, I can’t be sure how quickly we’ll get to our 600th audio piece combining various words (mostly poetry) with original music (as varied as I can make it). Thanks to everyone who read and listened here last year. I appreciate your time and attention — and then even more so the likes, reblogs, mentions, Tweets and Facebook posts. I want to reward all of you with more encounters with new stuff. I really do. Wishing all of us a productive New Year….