Are you new here? If so, this is what the Parlando Project does: we take words (other people’s, mostly poetry) and combine them with a variety of music we compose, create, and perform. I find this fun, and I also find that even more than reading another person’s poem — even reading it aloud — performing it illuminates corners inside the text that I might otherwise overlook, so I write here about that experience. Then when you listen to the pieces you get to hear the poem in this new context to freshen your appreciation of poems you know, or to allow you an entry into a poem previously unknown to you.
Most of the time I’m faithful to the texts I use to create these pieces. Oh, I might take a part of a poem and make it a refrain/chorus, or I may select some tasty phrases from a prose paragraph so that expresses something more sharply, as if it was a poem — but my usual idea here is to honor some poet or their poem no matter how famous or little-known it is.
John Gould Fletcher is shelved in that little-known section these days, even though he was associated with writers and movements that are still studied, still read (at least by those interested in early 20th century American Modernist poetry.) I wanted to look at some of his work because I read that one of those associations was with those pioneering Modernists who took to calling themselves Imagists. Imagism was often that 2:40 punk-rock single of a hundred years ago. Instead of spendthrift merely decorative language, rhyme, and imagery, the Imagist poem wanted to get right down to it: direct treatment of something observable, not some ideal distilled from abstract thoughts imagined or philosophically proposed. No extra points would be scored for extra words. Rhyme, while not forbidden, was also not the main point. If rhyme led to extra words, those unneeded ones, it was worth discarding.
The musicality of poetry wasn’t thrown out, but like Modernist music, Modernist verse wasn’t interested in the old formal beats so much.
Best as I can tell from my early readings, Fletcher’s personal interpretation of Modernism and Imagism was not the same as others. He didn’t write much in hyper-short forms, while many of his fellow Modernists published whole collections, or sections in collections, made of sub-20-line poems. At least at first glance, Fletcher cared more for sound and less for freshness and concreteness in his imagery than others.
This Project likes shorter pieces, even more so now because my time and opportunities to compose and record are less than in the Project’s early years. In reading through a couple of Fletcher’s collections from a hundred years ago, I did come upon this short poem that was part of one of those roman-numeral separated sequences like other Modernists used. “Heat” seemed an attempt at the short Imagist poem to me. Here’s how “Heat” goes:
As if the sun had trodden down the sky,
Until no more it holds living air, but only humid vapour.
Heat pressing upon earth with irresistible langour.
Turns all the solid forest into half-liquid smudge.
The heavy clouds like cargo-boats strain slowly against its current;
And the flickering of the haze is like the thunder of ten thousand paddles
Against the heavy wall of the horizon, pale-blue and utterly windless.
Whereon the sun hangs motionless, a brassy disc of flame.
Short as it is, it’s a little wordy and formal in its manner of speech compared to other Imagists, but a palpable feeling is evoked in the description. I could have performed “Heat” as it is above — but then a week ago tonight, I was sitting on my front porch after a summer thunderstorm when the entire outdoors started to take on an intense yellow cast.*
It was hard to get a modern digital picture of last Tuesday evening’s sky with a phone. The smartphone kept correcting the heavy yellow and darkening cast to that sky, and as I looked at the photo preview on the phone I wondered why my phone wouldn’t believe me as it showed things brighter and blue. I resorted to using a much less smart device with a lesser digital camera to get this.
I decided then and there to use Fletcher’s poem to remark on that experience. This recasting went through a few drafts and produced this reuse of some of Fletcher’s words in a different poem:
Here’s “Yellow Air” with chords in case you want to sing it yourself.
What did I change? I wanted my own yellow air in a hot, humid summer experience to be portrayed. Though I retained many of Fletcher’s original words and phrases, my variation is present tense and uses a much less literary/formal sentence structure. Mine’s 61 words — Fletchers, 80. The clouds as ships image is borderline cliché and Fletcher’s “cargo-boats” wasn’t specific enough to fight that, so I substituted my own upper-Midwest image: the 18th century indigenous cargo-boats of our region, the voyageur canoe — still reflected even today by those who use their modern canoes to carry themselves and gear into the Boundary Waters for camping. I wanted a more definitive ending too, and so ended my “After…” poem with the sun portrayed as a ruling strong-man who doesn’t care that the sky is yellow and the heat and humidity oppressive.
What I kept, or even tried to bring out was Fletcher’s word-music. Rhymes near and perfect were increased in number and paused on, and I tried to make this variation more easily singable than Fletcher’s more prolix lines.
You can hear the resulting song with the player gadget below, or if that won’t show up in your way of viewing this blog, with this backup highlighted link.
*The Twin Cities Weather Service explained last week’s yellow sky cast this way: “Behind thunderstorms in the evening, high clouds remain. The setting sun emits light that is bent with longer wavelengths. While the blue (shorter) wavelengths are scattered out, the yellow-orange-red part of the spectrum remain, thus producing the sky we’re seeing tonight.”