It’s taken me a few days to write this post after learning of the death of Minnesota poet Kevin FitzPatrick. After someone dies, someone you know at some level, there’s an emptiness. While it’s impossible to feel emptiness, it may be the first obligation of grief to hold that sense for a little while. Was for me.
I didn’t know Kevin well. We were different sorts, and I myself am quite bad at friendship. But I knew him somewhat, and over time quite a bit as a poet. With some interruptions on my part for over 40 years I’d see him every month in a meeting that sometimes had as many as ten or so writers and sometimes was just Kevin, alternative Parlando voice Dave Moore, and myself. We’d meet in one of our places and those present would break out new work for comment and feedback.
If I didn’t read the news, it would still be spring.
I’ve mentioned it’s been hard to produce new pieces here recently. While there’s a variety of reasons for this, here’s one: I’d planned a little series on May flowers. I was inspired by my wife’s love for our native northland wildflowers and some gorgeous photographs of cactus blossoms by Kenne Turner that I recently viewed on his blog. I had this witty little poem by Emily Dickinson with a not so obscure moral underneath about being an artist — Emerson with a dose of playfulness. I’d completed composing the tune for it. And I planned to pair that Dickinson with a couple of poems by the master of Chinese classical poetry Du Fu.
But I was only halfway there in how captured I was by transient beauty. Earlier this spring on my morning bike ride I started to mull over this line that hasn’t found its poem yet: “This spring is filled with bird-songs and the death of young black men.” So, the horrible and the hortatory were already mixing in my thoughts, while I have nothing but good will and empathy to claim there.
Everyday I try to will myself to make useful or pleasurable work toward this project, and this, among other things, makes me pause. Am I missing the point? Do I even know what the point is, or the series of points that lead to it? I feel bad for the limits of what I can offer, and then I feel bad for not offering that little. Still, I’m stubborn with this. I keep butting against it, trying to push it over or trick my way around it.
And Tuesday I did. Starting early, I recorded an acceptable performance of the Dickinson poem with my music, worked on music for the Du Fu flower poems, and practiced my understanding of how to perform a poem of Kevin FitzPatrick’s that I will present at a memorial event this weekend. A good day it seemed, even if I missed the day’s near-perfect spring weather outside — never mind, the internal weather of being able to create, to illuminate for myself and perhaps for others the work of Dickinson, Du Fu, and Kevin was pleasant and enough.
Never mind, as I got ready to go to bed after this fruitful day, and I caught the news of another rain of bullets. Grade-school kids!
Should I have something appropriate to say, something useful about that? The horrible and the hortatory. Something that isn’t so entirely obvious to some and beside the point to others? Long time readers here will know one motto I have here: “All artists fail.” I’m certainly failing here for some today.
So, you’re going to hear me perform this little poem about flowers, about the work that goes into making mere transient beauty. Here’s a link to the text I used today if you’d like to read along. Dickinson judges right off that she’s sure this isn’t some “minor circumstance.” And Dickinson would know. She knew her flowers, wild and cultivated, intimately.* She was a serious gardener of food and flowers, and despite her growing reputation for being some secular nun always in cloister, she purposely chose that outdoor work with plants over other household chores. She knew their use for food, she knew their use for transient beauty. Flour and flowers.
Her little poem goes on, and the little bud fights several ways for survival. I love the litigious line she uses in passing that she may have borrowed from her male family’s life as lawyers “Obtain its right of dew.”
A prowling bee “Assisting in the Bright Affair so intricately done…”
My dear wife left me on the rise to her job with a hug this morning, wishing me success in being creative today. Was she being a “prowling bee?” If so, as another bard had it, “Sail on my little honey bee, sail on.”
To fail in art, as with Dickinson’s final judgement on our flower that blooms past bud, is a “Profound Responsibility.” If you’re working on art this spring, I’m not asking you to fail, or to be happy with failure — at least I never am. This spring is full of bird song and dead people, the lightness of flower petals laid on us are a suffocating “heavy brocade” as Du Fu had it in a poem of his, one I was able to complete a performance of. All I know and can tell you is how that feels.
To hear my musical performance of Dickinson’s “Bloom” (Bloom — is Result — to meet a Flower) you can use the audio player you may see just below, or if you don’t see the player, through this alternative highlighted link.
*As I mulled over this poem’s presentation, I was reminded of how seriously Dickinson took her connection with gardens and flowers by Twila Newey musing on Twitter that Dickinson’s mature aversion to publishing could have been the result of her individual conviction that transient and intimate beauty, as in her garden, was sufficient, or even superior to a wider advertisement fixed in type.
Early this week, Poet Jose Hernandez Diaz on Twitter put out a call for people to respond with their go-to poets in our troubled times. I’m always uneasy when being put on the spot for short-lists, because I’m by nature a person of various moods and needs. The poet I need today is not always the one I need tomorrow. And then, it’s the same or even more so with music for me. Perhaps some of that comes through here in this project’s variety?
Two things seem to connect me to this master of classical Chinese poetry: Du Fu wrote his best work as an old man (such as I am) — and that productive period coincided with a great governmental rebellion and crisis in China. When Du Fu writes a lovely nature passage, I always read it as the work of someone who is also seeing great destruction and violence in the human part of nature.
Du Fu, not an Asian-American, but his poetry sometimes speaks to my country none-the-less.
In this troubled week I went looking for a poem I could get close to and perform, and I found this one of Du Fu’s. For practical reasons, I need to make my own translations of Du Fu from English language glosses (such as the ones found at Chinese-poems.com) and the difficulties of making a graceful poem in English out of an 8th century Chinese poem would seem daunting, but they attract me all the more. Obviously, there are great risks that I will misunderstand what Du Fu is trying to say — but not only do I accept those risks, I’ve been tempted more than once to transform key images from Du Fu’s time and place to contemporary America. For these reasons most of my Du Fu pieces should be understood as adaptations, the kind of thing that I’ve decided are best labeled as “After a poem by….”***
This is the gloss I worked from for today’s piece.
And here’s my “Rain on a Spring Night (after Du Fu)” version used for today’s performance:
I usually would work longer on one of these, but it’s been too long since I presented new work here.
I think of my opening section as a good faith attempt at an accurate translation into a working English poem. I used English syntax and conventions, added the poetic device of parallelism to substitute for the word-music losses inherent to translation, and tried, as I always do, to present vivid images.
The last section of Du Fu’s poem is where I likely diverge. I do sense a turn in the poem at this point, I think it’s possible Du Fu’s trying to contrast the peaceful rain following nature’s order in his opening. The (cooking? signal? lantern?) fire on the boat is the only human sign in the poem. Is that only coincidental decoration? The gloss’ final line is most difficult. A single image there comes through to me: that flowers, perhaps even fallen blossoms, are like the patterns on a brocade fabric. “Government city” puzzles. Like brocade on rich courtiers? Or is this spring morning near a capitol city?
So, my choice was to allude, somewhat obliquely as Du Fu seems to have done, and the final scene is designed to depict not peaceful spring and beneficent rain, but the aftermath of violence as we all to well know it now and here: the yellow crime scene tape, the flower memorials left. A rain of bullets is not a good rain.
My music and performance is very sparse for this, but I decided that’s starkness was effective. You can hear the performance with a player some will see below, or with this highlighted link.
*I wouldn’t even have known their names, much less their poetry or something of their lives before starting this Project six years ago.
**I have to note his name was often spelled in the western alphabet as Tu Fu. Du Fu is supposed to be the better approximation, even though there are as many or more references to him as Tu Fu online or in books.
It seemed a long time since I last had a new performance to share. I checked, and found it’d only been a week, but since then the moon has had a red eclipse, and in my country there’s been a couple of mass shootings motivated by ignorant ethnic hatreds. Willful ignorance combined with violence is particularly ugly, and presently a state-leader with missiles and bigger guns wants to kill to impress too.
I’ve completed no new pieces. I tried to start two, but so far nothing is developing. So today I thought I’d present this new-to-you performance of William Blake’s “The Tyger,” mostly because it’s pretty good and I don’t have anything else ready. I made that decision this morning, and then I suddenly realized that “The Tyger,” a poem first published in 1794 by a mystical Englishman, has turned just about right for this ominous spring and our current year.
Over 40 years ago, I was in bed and my partner asked me how I could account for the presence in the world of evil.* Strange place and time for that question — for in that moment I was more impressed with beauty and joy. I stumbled for my answer: good was always present in the universe, and always powerful enough to overcome evil — but not always both at the same point. Alas, “not always” is more painful than it sounds to nakedly say.
Visionary poet William Blake asked that question too. Blake was born into a family of religious dissenters and progressed to rebel even further from Christian dogma. He intuited a moral universe where evil was caused by over-justified powers of the creator. Interesting thought that. In “The Tyger” poet Blake asks a manifestation of terrible predatory power a series of rhetorical questions, meaning to direct our thoughts in the direction of his conclusion.
Now, to get to my performance of Blake’s poem, we need to make a jump cut. Ready?
Year of the Tyger, three times.
In what’s usually called the Chinese zodiac, years go through a 12 year cycle. I wrote this musical setting for a video of an event in 2010 tied to the Chinese Year of the Tiger. In order to extend the length of performance to the length needed for the video, I refrained Blake’s “Tyger Tyger burning bright” stanza after every verse, a tactic which makes it longer than I’d like it to be today. As it turned out, the video ran longer than planned, and I needed to cross-fade even my lengthened “Tyger” with another piece then for the final cut of the video. Given how long ago the recording was done, I only have that completed mix from the video’s soundtrack, so “The Tyger” I present today ends on the start of that cross-fade.
The “Chinese Zodiac” progresses, and as it goes we’ve once again come to the Year of the Tiger in 2022. I think this performance from the previous Year of the Tiger retains its power and so I present it to you now.** There’s an audio player gadget below that will play it for many of you, and where that’s absent, here’s a highlighted link that’s an alternative way to play it.
*This all seems way too Leonard Cohen doesn’t it? No, it actually happened like that.
**I often find I have one more question as I think I’ve finished a post. This time, I asked myself, what year in the Zodiac cycle was Blake’s 1794? Why, another Year of the Tiger of course.
The world of this poem is scribed with the understanding that when you’re on a lake’s surface you are at the boundary level of two worlds. Like unto angels in Medieval drawings, those fishing are pulling the fish from the aqueous world into the sky world, and I often felt I could sense the hooked fish’s wonder and distress. “Who are these scale-less giants unconcerned by gaseous air?” This poem is called “Anglers.”
Meanwhile, back in Chicago, the Yip Abides blog and rmichaelroman caught this wall painting in 2009. Whimsey aside, the very fish the anglers are seeking to catch in Minnesota today are spending their day trying to catch other fish.
It’s unsaid in the poem, but I was in the boat described. I didn’t put myself there because I wanted to focus the reader’s attention on the two brothers and yes, on the fish. There are other undercurrents that I think I kept out of the poem, and someday should make at least one other fishing boat poem. If any in this blogs’ diverse readership reads this before or after getting in a boat and wetting a line, net, or spear, the poem asks you to consider this if you like to think on the water and not just chum with talk: you are frighteningly miraculous.* Don’t let it give you a big head or anything. There are angler forces without skin on another level above our surface.
My grandfather’s actual Johnson Seahorse outboard motor mentioned in the poem
I recall that the more published and noticed members of my little writer’s group Kevin FitzPatrick and Ethna McKiernan were not particularly satisfied as readers/listeners of this poem in an earlier version, and I may have made a couple of changes based on that in the version you can hear today. I think they may have been puzzled or unimpressed** by the pun at the heart of the title: that on the flat surface of the lake, the “anglers” are the highest upward length of a right-angle to the water surface, the sharpest break vertical the fish would ever experience. And then there’s the even more obscure eye-rhyme-ish pun of anglers and angels. Neither of them cared much for puns, while Dave Moore and I indulged generously, enough to wrinkle the other half of the group’s noses.
Now Kevin and Ethna have been, like the fish, also pulled through the surface, and today there’s a church-based memorial service for Ethna which I don’t think I will be attending, though I’m glad to have attended a poetry-centered one for her earlier this year, and I’m planning to attend the poet-focused one for Kevin later this May. In lieu of today’s service attendance, and out of guilt from my absence, I’ll say that if their skin-less existence is in wonder and distress, that my thoughts go with them, and in my dim watery existence here I ask us on all our levels to turn our circle-eyes toward wonder.
And I know too there are practical voices in the fishing opener today. “That’s what I get for getting into a fishing boat with a poet. Such high-flown thoughts! Damnit. I’m trying to get a worm on this rig’s hook. We feed worms to fish, and then well, we feed worms.”
If you’d like to hear my performance of my own poem “Anglers” there’s an audio player gadget below this for many of you, and for those who can’t see that, this highlighted link will open an audio player for it in a new tab. My music for this uses what I often call my “punk rock orchestration.” I use very simple orchestral instrument colors both because I lack the knowledge/skill to do more complex ones and because I think there’s a direct charm remaining and being featured by stripping that sound down.
*Ah, footnotes, the sinker-weighed lures bobbling along near the bottom! No, I’m not out fishing today, or most any days in this part of my life, though I think about my hours of fishing as a young person. I always considered the fish though, a little to a lot. One thing’s simple though: every poet wants to be miraculous.
**When a poem or poet doesn’t “hook” us, these two feelings can be cause and effect in either order.
A lot of these performances begin somewhat randomly. Oh, Edward Thomas isn’t random, I’ve enjoyed exploring this British writer with you since I first ran into his connection with Robert Frost in the years just before WWI. Was I looking for a poem considering a particular subject or event? One could see today’s piece, “Cock-Crow” as a spring poem. Well, spring is random, the current one where I live more so than most. but I wasn’t looking for a spring poem so much as I wanted to find someone else to present from the early 20th century.
I picked up a poetry anthology from 1929. It’s titled 20th Century Poetry, which would be audacious for a book published a little more than a quarter of the way in, but the editors were aware of that and they rightly note that their century milepost had marked a noticeable change in poetic expression.*
It starts with selections from 50 British Isles poets. Names you might expect are there: Yeats, Hardy, Houseman, De La Mare, Masefield, and so on. A couple of distinctive British women poets you may recall from posts here too: Charlotte Mew, Frances Cornford.
It’s to be expected, given that 1929-to-now allows plenty of shelf-life for poet’s readership and notice to expire, and because Britain and the United States do not share a completely unified poetic canon, that there are a good number of “Who?” names there too: Edmund Gosse, William Watson, Henry Newbolt, Clifford Bax, and Edward Shanks.
It may have been my mood, but though I would have loved to find a little-known poem I thought would be interesting to perform there, much of it was quite dreary as I skimmed through it. The copy I was reading was a library scan, and these books sometimes have interesting marginalia. In my boredom, I examined the library stamp:
I wondered where Fort Huachuca was, and what would be going on there between the World Wars? Turns out it’s near the Mexican border in Arizona. It was a military facility since Western Frontier times, and it was the base for a “Buffalo Soldiers” Afro-American Calvary Regiment. Just before America’s entry into WWI, the base commander was Charles Young, the Black officer that was the subject of this poetic tribute by Countee Cullen that I presented here last year. So, as I wandered off from the poems themselves, an interesting place for this poetry anthology to reside — even more so when I glanced at the Wikipedia list of the notable people who had been there over the years. That list includes Jayne Cortez a Black Arts Movement poet and (out)spoken-word performer who was born while her father was stationed there. She’d have been too young when she left Fort Huachuca to have read this anthology, but the momentary thought that perhaps her parents had read this volume I was scanning was more intriguing than many of the British poems — or at least it seemed to me reading through it in the middle of a 21st century night.
The editor** is faint-praise in his introductory note to Edward Thomas in his anthology, calling him accurately (but misleadingly) a “commencing poet” and saying that Thomas’ poetry “comes from a very shy and personal mood that sometimes seems to lack variety if we bear it company for long at a time.” He oddly concludes Thomas’ “Invention made no parade of vigour, but he borrowed hints from no one.” Gee, Johnny Editor, it’s the middle of my American night and a lot of the early 20th century British poets you’re presenting are boring me to the point I can’t get to sleep with their all-too-unoriginal “vigour” — an odd effect which I attribute to my hopefulness of discovery — but I’ll take Thomas’ originality thank you.
“Cock-Crow” is a little 8-line poem describing awakening from disturbing or unresolved dream-sleep, or lack of it, to a set of chickens — not hanging out round a New Jersey wheelbarrow, but amusing Thomas with the bird-pair’s face-to-face rural dramatization of a veddy British heraldic motif. Is Thomas simply smiling at that coat-of-arms likeness, or is there a resonance toward Britain’s more overt class structure?
“Heralds of splendour’ he says of us! That’s about right. Lions’ll go and eat you, and unicorns don’t even bother existing.”
The charm of this poem is that Thomas acknowledges the unsettling “wood of thoughts that grows by night”*** yet allows them to be chopped down by bird-song — and transcendental bird song is ever-present in Thomas’ poetry. And what revelation does that song bring? Farm workers putting their boots on and getting to work. So. Much. Depends. Upon. Putting your boots on and getting to work. Want to read the text while listening? Here’s a link.
Musically I started with a simple folk-guitar accompaniment, though I tried to be settled and unsettled with the harmonic cadence in this one. I ended it with a minute-long coda where I used a vocal chorus to spread out across the English countryside like all the birds of spring. Why do I do these audio pieces? Because I want to hear them — and you can to. You can use the player that appears below, or this highlighted link in the player’s absence.
*We’re approaching a similar milepost in the 21st century. Can we say that English-language poetry has significantly changed since 2001? You might say “We’ll know later what we can’t see now in the midst of things.” But the editors of this book were in the midst, and yet thought they could see something distinct in their new quarter-century.
**John Drinkwater for the anthology’s British half.
***Whose woods these are, I think he knows. Thomas led a troubled life. Every peaceful British rural scene in a Thomas poem is set next to that dark woods of thought that grows by night.
This is going to be a sort of catch-all post following up on a variety of things. And speaking of catch-all, it’s Willie Mays’ birthday today,* and at the end there’s a recording of an early LYL Band performance of a Dave Moore song celebrating the great center-fielder.
I want to start off by saying that I plan to write something regarding the welcome and thoughtful response about translation Teresa Pelka left here a couple of weeks ago. Hope to have that here soon.
Next, I want to thank those of you who stuck with the experiment/new thing during April Poetry Month where I did daily posts which included some of my favorite pieces from the early years of the Parlando Project with short new accounts of how I view them in 2022. Many of my regular readers/listeners hadn’t heard some of those early pieces. On the other hand, I worried too that that much posting, that many audio pieces, could overwhelm some people.
I’m up to around April 25th in catching up with the blogs I usually follow. I’m too often a week or two behind, but I missed all of your own posts in my being “away” for National Poetry Month on my adventure.
Besides the “classic pieces from the early years” posts I did two other different things this April. The most easily noticed one was the lyric videos. I had noted that my teenager does a fair amount of searching for topics inside of YouTube itself, and sometimes follows algorithm suggestions for other videos, and since a large part of the readership of blog posts here comes from general search engines, I wanted to see if the YouTube audience might bring some new eyes and ears to this.
Did that work? Hard to say. YouTube analytics say that I didn’t get to a thousand views in the month, but I doubt they count the views of the embedded videos in the blog posts.** The most popular video as far as YouTube counts was Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” at just 33 views, but the effort may have a long tail, as some older videos of mine have slowly picked up views over the years. Having 30 videos of various kinds of poetry and music on YouTube at least gives something of a representation of what the Parlando Project does for those who happen upon it.
I thought I could knock off the lyric videos quickly. “It’s just a lyric video” I’d tell myself, but I kept getting interested in the limited toolset of the software I was using*** and wondering how this or that could be used. And I started wanting to include more and more relevant pictures behind the lyrics after the first couple of them, which led to rapid but extensive searches for pictures. One thing I feel bad about: I don’t have my wife’s photos (the better digital photographer in the family), or even my own, handy for quick search and retrieval, so I ended up under time pressure sometimes using other people’s work without giving the photographer their due credit. Photographers in my audience: my apologies to your art, and if I ever do successive lyric videos expect to see credits.
The less noticeable thing I tried — and that less-noticeable result was particularly disappointing — was that I became Twitter-active during April. I tweeted multiple times many days, and tried promoting the pieces with tweets embedding the blog post link and/or the video. Neither link drove any traffic to speak of. With YouTube the views on Twitter may have been invisible, but the WordPress blog post analytics tell me if someone read a post via a tweet link, and I don’t think I got into double digits for the whole month. The tweets themselves didn’t take as much time as the videos of course, but that wasn’t all. During the month I also monitored #NationalPoetryMonth hashtag tweets — reading many, liking those that gave me something I appreciated, replying to some that I thought I had something to say about, and at least skim-glancing the rest. That this was humanly possible to do says something about how skimpy the Twitter National Poetry Month traffic was by Internet standards. Yes, hundreds of #NationalPoetryMonth tweets a day, but I also monitored three “Day” events during April: Arbor Day, Anzac Day, and International Jazz Day. If Arbor Day swamps the number of tweets over National Poetry Month traffic that tells you something (Anzac Day was even heavier, I couldn’t even skim there were so many).
I think Twitter works if you already have a large circle of acquaintances and want to keep them at least minimally engaged, but I can’t say that it works well to grow that circle. I wasn’t the only one sincerely trying to promote poetry on Twitter in April, and it’s possible I wasn’t the best at it, but from watching not just myself but the others using the #NationalPoetryMonth hashtag, I’d say Twitter was non-rewarding in promoting poetry via #NationalPoetryMonth.
I probably worked full time every day of April on these things, part for the adventure (which I received) and part to grow the audience for poetry and this Project (results mixed, some may be yet to come).
Well, I promised Willie Mays, and you shall get him in the person of Dave Moore’s exuberant piece from the middle 1980s recorded with Radio Shack microphones and battery powered mixer, a cassette tape recorder, and drums via me pounding on a four-pad Mattel Synsonics Drums electronic drum toy from the era. How did I play the drums and the guitar on this? I would pound out the beat and record it onto a second tape recorder first, and then press play while the rest of the band joined in with their parts. Dave’s on keys, and the bass player is Dean Seal.
Something this very short clip doesn’t show you. There were 2 men on base. You see Mays throwing the ball after the catch from that deep a center field and it was fast and on target to the 2nd baseman. The opposition batter who hit that didn’t even get a sac fly RBI out of it!
I “remastered” this this morning from a stereo digital file I took from the cassette 20 years ago, but there’s only so much help I can give it. I like the way Dave tells the story though, and maybe you will too. Player gadget below where it can be seen, and this backup highlighted link for others.
*Experience has taught me that baseball-related posts here get a very low interest. I understand somewhat — my interest in the game has dropped since my youth too. Still, Willie Mays was a baseball hero of my youth, and he was a very good centerfielder who could hit, run, and go and catch the ball in the strangely elongated center field of the New York Giant’s Polo Grounds stadium. Shaped like a very deep U, the deepest part of center field was nearly 500 feet from home plate, and the gaps a “mere” 450 feet or so. “Two-thirds of the earth is covered with water. The rest is covered by Willie Mays in center field.” Oh, and a super-tangential link to the name-alike baseball player to poet Ray Dandridge we featured last month: Ray Dandridge the baseball player played for the NY Giants high minor league team in Minneapolis for several years. One of the young Afro-American players he took under his wing: Willie Mays.
**It doesn’t appear the count includes views of the embedded videos you saw inside the blog posts here, and if you’re like me that’s how you view the videos in web posts, because viewing them on YouTube itself means you have to sit through at least the start of an ad or two in many cases.
***I started using Windows Movie Maker, which is slow, a bit buggy, and has been unsupported for several years now. I moved over to Apple’s iMovie on the Mac, the latest version of supported software from a huge company that is supposed to be very aligned with art and artist’s needs. I found it indistinguishable from iMovie versions of several years back, incredibly simplistic and simpleminded in how it treats text and typography, and yet because it was running on a nearly decade newer computer than my Windows desktop, faster and more responsive — and I found I needed that doing a video a day along with everything else. One other thing it became fast at during April: complete and utter lock ups of the Mac that would be followed seconds to a couple of minutes later by an unbidden computer reboot. This would happen when editing/creating pieces, particularly when I was trying to work rapidly, and other times when rendering the video. This was very frustrating, and I can’t understand how a company with Apple’s resources would produce application software running on its own operating system on its own hardware that could produce a crash of the entire system and an unbidden reboot like I was some 1990’s computer. Bizarre. If you ever find yourself in this kind of iMovie situation, the old “dumping prefs” thing seemed to help, and I went to a planned reboot before every render by the last half of the month.
I saw this Whitman poem from the 1867 version of Leaves of Grass during National Poetry Month but was unable to find the time to compose the music and arrange a performance during that busy month. Still, I was so stunned by its expression that I made a note to myself to get to it after April.
This week I did just that.
The de profundis poem is a fairly common poetic trope, up there with the aubade and the elegy in examples. It takes its name from the opening words of the Latin version of the Hebrew psalm 130, but it’s not a mode we often associate with Whitman. Whitman, with all his talk of containing multitudes and nonchalantly harboring his contradictions has a personal poetic voice associated with an unashamed and near-boasting manner, a self-portrayal as an example of an unafraid and unbounded life-force.
Why would he write such a poem then? Well, he did want to portray everything human, which would include doubt and failure, it could just be that. But let’s consider something else about Whitman. When this poem was written he’d been working for more than a decade on creating a poetry that was unprecedented: not just free in its subject matter, but “free verse” without fixed meter and rhyme. There were next-to-no models for that form then. Yet, if one was to go this week to a good bookstore, move to its poetry section, and then open any volume of contemporary poetry to a random page, the odds are you’ll find an unrhymed poem, rhythmic perhaps, but not likely in strict meter with unvarying beat-count line-lengths. That poem may not sound like Whitman, but the path to make its own sound can be traced to him.
Back in the middle of the 19th century, in an America which was just getting its poetic feet planted, and still in the process of proving it could write as well as the Europeans in the way the European’s wrote, there wasn’t any call for this. Isn’t it remarkable then, that this carpenter’s son and peripatetic journalist in a place so far off the cultural centers of the western world went and did this!
When Whitman wrote this poem America had just emerged from a great civil war. I’ve said here that WWI, a similar trauma for Britain and Europe, made from its breaking of nations a plausible opening for Modernist poetry. But in post-Civil War America, Whitman’s break didn’t quite take, even though Whitman would include free-verse poems about that war in this edition of Leaves of Grass.
Ah, but there was one Civil War poem in Whitman’s 1867 edition that, for the first time caught the public’s fancy: “My Captain, Oh My Captain,” an elegy for the assassinated President Lincoln all strictly rhymed up and in regular meter. Oh me! Oh life!
No matter, eventually Whitman got his due. We no longer even need to particularly like his poetry (though I suspect many here do), so significant is his prime-mover role.
I’d forgotten that an abridged version of this poem appeared in the movie “Dead Poets Society.” A photo of Whitman is in front of the classroom, but most recall the “My Captain, Oh My Captain” scene over the one above.
The things that stand out for me in “Oh Me! Oh Life!” are Whitman’s acknowledgement that the failures of those around him, which drive him to despair, are a way in which he is like and “intertwined” to those “cities fill’d with the foolish” and “sordid crowds,” and then the answer he says he receives from out of the depths: the answer that we live to experience that connection, however sorrowful as well as comforting — and that each of us, in our own wisdom, paths, failure, and imperfections contains a self-consciousness, an individual identity, the lifely miracle that we experience life through our own minds creating themselves.
In working on how to perform “Oh Me! Oh Life!” I considered spoken word (a choice I often make here) — but I soon decided that I needed to sing it in an open and emotive style. Whitman was a fan of opera (a more popular form in his time), and his poem here is something of an aria. This decision seemed right, but it presented a problem: I’m not that good a singer. I pressed ahead anyway, as I think imperfection in the service of required expression was the better choice. My version of “Oh Me! Oh Life!” isn’t opera — I kept the accompaniment spare for my setting perhaps in the hope that the simplicity of the music will match the limited nature of my voice. I think that did work somewhat. The irregular nature of Whitman’s line-lengths also presented some challenges, and I “solved” them in my performance by elaborating and repeating some of his phrases.
You can hear my Whitman performance two ways. There’s a player gadget below for many, but some can’t see that, and so I also provide this highlighted link to play it.
It’s been quite the job of work to do daily posts with new lyric videos here this April in celebration of National Poetry Month, and I haven’t taken the time yet to see what impact those extra efforts have had. Though I was re-releasing already recorded audio pieces from the earliest years of this six-year Project this month, even the fairly simple lyric videos took more time than you might think — and then there was the selection of which pieces to present, as well as writing a few hundred words on what I currently thought of each of them.
Well, not only is today the last day of National Poetry Month, it’s International Jazz Day, and I felt I needed to make a nod to that today. So, let’s play two!
The first piece is, I think, one of the prettiest of the more than 600 performances we’ve presented: Carl Sandburg’s “Autumn Movement.” Sandburg gets tagged as an urban poet, and of course he broke into the scene with Chicago Poems in 1914. But he grew up in a more downstate Illinois town, and traveled around the less urban areas of the country before spending the majority of his “now you’re famous” years on a small goat farm. “Autumn Movement” is from his 1918 Cornhuskers collection, which as you might expect from its title is not all city living.*
Here’s Sandburg with farmland not skyscrapers
While “Autumn Movement” is short in word-count, I did get to playing a bit as I tried my best to approximate in this piece the stylings of Bill Frisell with my Telecaster and fretless bass. Frisell, who can play more contexts more better than I can properly imagine, is usually labeled a Jazz guitarist. I’m not, labels or otherwise. I just have a lot of guts — but the result is pretty.
And the bonus second piece? “Sonny Rollins, The Bridge, 1959” is not an early performance (I performed and presented it earlier this year) but for International Jazz Day I thought it’d be good to have another piece that not only uses Jazz musical flavorings but actually deals with being a Jazz artist — or by easy extension, an American artist in any medium. If I’m not a proper Jazz composer or musician, I take great strength just from considering their achievements, their dedication, their originality. Given that most of the giants are Afro-Americans who’ve had a whole ‘nother level of obstacles and expectations to get over as serious artists — well, the mind boggles and the heart swells considering them.
And one more chorus: three ways to hear it: the graphical player just below this, the backup highlighted hyperlink, and the lyric video just a bit lower down on the page.
I hope this experiment has been enjoyable for the regulars here who may have joined the Parlando Project already in progress and who perhaps haven’t heard the earlier pieces — and it was my hope that it would also bring some new readers and listeners into the fold. If you’re one of those: welcome! I’m not predictable in what kind of poetry or music I’ll use, but I do consistently try to keep it interesting and varied, and I’d sure like to have you come along with me as I do that.
And here’s my ode to the inspiring Sonny Rollins in lyric video form
Robert Frost wrote a lot of poems about rural life, including many of his best and best remembered, but his contemporary Sandburg, Mr. City of the Big Shoulders, probably spent more time around actual farms and farming.
Americans know little of English poet Charlotte Mew, who wrote today’s poem during “the last Twenties,” but her poetry shows some unusual qualities, particularly for her time.* For example, this poem starts off off-hand and rises at its end to hearing an angel — so beginning like a reserved Frank O’Hara and ending as if she were Rilke.
Oh, and in the middle of the poem, there’s a short meditation over the corpse of a dead rat.** Joyce Kilmer must have forgot to add that kind of touch in his better-known Arbor Day connected poem!
Accounts from those who were acquainted with Mew often commented on her eccentricities, and even though Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy thought highly of her writing, Mew’s writing career never really gained traction. Over the decades since there’s been some increase in interest in Mew, especially in England. I’d suppose that the eccentricities and tragic arc of her biography help some with interest, but in the immediacy of Parlando’s performances we’re left with just the text of a poem like this. This performance is a live LYL Band take, and like much O’Hara, I found the conversational style makes the text easy to perform.
As with Frank O’Hara, or Emily Dickinson for that matter, just what Mew is getting on about in her poem may not be grasped on one listen or read-through. Yes, the poem’s audacious empathy for the trees comes through easily, but what’s the purpose of that rat? I think Mew is explaining that it’s the absences, the deaths, that more fully convince life into our memory, and that this is so for the “god-forsaken” rat and the angel-blessed trees.
The poem’s Plane tree is a species well suited to urban spaces, able to survive the Victorian pollution of London that Mew was born into.
One last day to go in our celebration here of National Poetry Month, but I’ve got some plans for a big send-off day tomorrow if time and life allows. As with most of the 30 performances of a variety of poems that we’ve re-released this April, there are three ways to hear Charlotte Mew’s “The Trees are Down.” You can use a player gadget below, this highlighted hyperlink (supplied for those who won’t see the player), and via a lyric video above.
Thanks again for reading and clicking play. It should be obvious if you read or listen to the things here, that there’s a reason I’m attracted to the unusual. You must be too. I’m grateful for that.
*That relaxed beginning, interrupted by the interjections of the workmen’s voices all related in long prosy lines is still an unusual effect today. Maybe the beginning has some Whitman in there too?
**Without plan, 3 poems in the 30 have had rats in them. T. S. Eliot’s “Waste Land”river rat in “The River Sweats,” Du Fu’s scurrying rat in the ruins from “Jade Flower Palace,” and now Mew’s spring corpse rat.