While continuing my observance of National Poetry Month, I must apologize for resorting to regular blogging form and writing about myself today. That sort of thing works for many, but I tend to run on a bit when I do it. It must take a long time to bore myself.
Why, when, did I decide to do the Parlando Project, this odd little idea to combine words, mostly literary poetry, with not-exactly commercial music? It wasn’t something I toddled off to grade school knowing I wanted to do. I had no great early childhood connection to poetry. I was exposed to the children’s poetry in my mid-west, mid-century tastes: Longfellow appeared, illustrated. The D. Seuss of my time then was Dr. Seuss, not Diane. My interest in music was greater, despite having no discernible musical talent or outlet. The wife of my little town’s school superintendent taught a music class, which was mostly music appreciation, little samplings from records of the orchestral repertoire. My peers found this impenetrable and boring. Since I was something of an outcast I decided to listen to what was so outré in their just-teenage world. Around the time I myself entered teenagerhood I got a gift of the mid-century handheld device, the transistor radio. I would bike around my town and outskirts with its faux leather case strap wrapped around my bicycle handle-grips, twisting the little plastic radio’s orientation with my fingers so that the stations from far-off towns aligned with its antenna. Was I listening to rock’n’roll, that mid-century strain? No. At first I was listening to an AM station that was one of the pioneers of what later became public radio, and this station programmed classical music.
Rock’n’roll was the music of those that distained that music appreciation teacher and distained me. If many then and now read the sneer or assertion in rock’n’roll as the music of when-in-the-course-of-human-events independence and freedom, I heard it as the music of those that didn’t care much for me. But I eventually relented. I wanted to look at the music the rest of the teenage world was hearing, thinking it might be a window into their interiors. Maybe it was a bit of survivor’s reconnaissance.
I found some of what the Top 40 station played interesting. This was in the era which the American pop music histories sum up as post-Elvis, pre-Beatles, describing it as dire and worthless. Were the teenagers of that Ike to Kennedy time, even if subconsciously, wanting more, wanting better? I dunno. For myself, I didn’t know any better. It was a mix of Brill Building girl groups, Black R&B, folk music/country and western* crossovers, late period crooners, and novelty records that would shame a modern TikTok sensation in their silly sensationalism.** Unlike my peers who were closed-off to me, there were voices there speaking secrets, their moods and moments.
Want to know why the Parlando Project musical pieces are all over the map in terms of musical flavor? This is the child-is-the-father-of-the-man reason.
Poetry? I admire the knowledge and deep interests of academics, while somehow worrying that poetry is seen as having an academic requirement for reading or writing it. You didn’t need to go to school to listen to the radio. There was no MFA for the Brill Building, Motown, or Slim Harpo, at least not then. Still, I have to be honest, like many who continue to read poetry that they won’t be graded on, it was a teacher again, Terry Brennan, a recent St. John’s of Collegeville grad, who taught an English literature class in my little 100-person high school who introduced me to poetry as possibility. Did I understand poetry? Does one need to understand what one is drawn too? I don’t think so — a little mystery may even help. Much of it was beautifully inarticulate to me, phrases that said with inevitability, descriptions that were exotic, situations that I hadn’t lived, or lived in any understanding whatsoever. I loved Keats and Blake. I found out Blake was the original DIY Indie, who wrote, illustrated, engraved, and published his work, mastering what technical, logistical, and creative work was needed to realize his art. I loved a capsule description of Blake I found in the back of one of my parents’ old textbooks that they had saved. It went something like this: “He wrote early charming lyrics showing real talent, but later descended into incomprehensible writing suggestive of madness.” Writing without limits! I was ready to sign up.
On the day after Christmas, riding in a Dodge station wagon filled with my sisters and parents, rolling between Minnesota and Iowa, I wrote my first poem. I was 16. I thought it rather marvelous that I could write such a magical thing. A year later, the last Christmas I was to spend in my childhood home, I got enough money to buy a cheap record player and three LPs. These inscribed, foot-square, vinyl circles were the adult music, the things that could contain the igneous something that was starting to get called “rock.” Rock as a name seemed solid, monumental, permanent. I suppose in much of my cohort it still is — childhood transition music sticks with you. These are the three LPs I bought with the leftover money: The Doors “The Doors,” Bob Dylan “John Wesley Harding,” and The Rolling Stones “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” In reverse order they imprinted me with love for Mellotron and ramshackle pretension, spare acoustic guitar arrangements and one-room songs without bridges or choruses, and poets who wanted to front a rock band that had listened to some Jazz and Blues records.
Of those 3 LPs, maybe only the Dylan retains current esteem, yet all were considered significant in their time. Blake & Keats? Well, it’s poetry, so the answer is complicated, particularly in the United States.
Music, various, and words, mostly poetry, exploring other people’s stories — yes, I can still see the damage there. While we’re not to the Parlando Project yet, this is enough for one post. Let me leave you with a Parlando Project audio piece, words from another poet recalling that era, Ethna McKeirnan’s poem of “Stones” that seemed permanent as she moved through her life. Player below for most, backup link for the others. McKiernan’s final new & selected collection including this poem is available here.
*Little known fact: C&W and folk music were often thought of as the same or aligned genres then. The 21st century Americana thing was how things were considered circa 1960 as well.
**Look up “Ahab the Arab” for one such example. Can I call it transgressive? Can you call it cultural appropriation? Fatima has less agency in this tale than Clyde (the girl-group Brill Building songwriters might have made her the main character.) If you’re on the borderline of acceptance, I’ll tell you that Jimmy Saville had the UK cover-version hit with this.
2 thoughts on “Meeting Music and Words, a personal history”
I had not heard of Ethna McKeirnan before, so, thank you for the introduction!!
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