Breakfast in a Pandemic

Can we accept a little fall-off from Rilke last time to something I wrote?

As long-time readers here know, the Parlando Project is about “Other People’s Stories.” Dave and I both write words as well as music, but I find it interesting to examine how I experience other people’s words, other people’s outlooks and visions. This project’s focus for the past four years  has been an exploration—often into writers I didn’t know, or writers that I, and perhaps you as well, think we know because of what we have been told about them.

I was able to run this piece past a fine poet Kevin FitzPatrick,*  before it reached the form you’ll read/hear today. He noted that I was working in my Frank O’Hara mode, and he’s right. For me in my 20s, O’Hara helped me integrate the French Surrealists with the American mode of Carl Sandburg,**  with a Modernist touch of exoticism I’d retained from love of the English Romantics.

I had to remind Kevin that a big influence on this poem was his own poetry, about which a reviewer once said included so many “poems with other people in them.”  Why, oh why, is that so rare? How many poems are about the poet’s own head space or solitary meditation on nature? Of course, that landscape can’t be avoided. And yes, some very good poetry can be written in that less populated country. Readers here will know how much I’ve come to admire what Emily Dickinson did. Though we now know that her life was not entirely that cloistered myth that once was used to define her, does her extraordinary corpus of poetry ever include another human character speaking for themselves?

So, my poem starts out like a nature poem, albeit in an urban setting, and then another character breaks in and changes the poem. The music I composed and performed seeks to underline that. And a disease pandemic is, after all, a natural metaphor for our separation.***

Breakfast in a Pandemic

A long poem for me these days. Some thought it could be shorter and some thought it could include even more detail . They’re both right, but that’d be another poem I decided.

 

In the text of the poem I use an epigraph from Frances Darwin Cornford’s “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train.”   Dave wondered if that might put off some readers. His concern has merit. Cornford’s poem (better known in Britain) is an earworm best known for being disliked. I have not seen anything from Cornford about what her intent was with the poem, and perhaps she had little conscious intent, thinking of it only as a catchy triolet. However, I think it’s a kind of pointed  failed encounter and is written as such.

As I said above, the music here tries for contrast, with acoustic guitar and then drums and bass with a smattering of woozy strings and distant woodwinds. The composer in me isn’t sure the composition or the performer achieved all of his intent. The middle section may be taken at too fast a tempo. My late father who hated poetry read too fast would certainly think so. But I remind myself that plenty of modern spoken/chanted word is taken at a rapid pace, so maybe not.

The player gadget is below, so you can listen and decide for yourself. Stay well, valued readers and listeners!

 

 

*Alternative Parlando voice and keyboardist, Dave Moore had some helpful suggestions on it too.

**I don’t know what O’Hara thought of Sandburg, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t favorable. Sandburg might have seemed too straight, and too yokel. But Sandburg was working often in the mode of Whitman and Hart Crane which O’Hara also was (along with O’Hara’s French language influences).

And did you know that Whitman’s oh so American ‘barbaric yawp” was a formative influence on French Vers Libre? I didn’t either until this project’s exploration.

***At least the existence of this poem means that this pandemic of our age won’t be as little covered by poets as the big 1918-1919 flu pandemic that poetry ignored.

Before Summer Rain, or we get to Rilke eventually

How do we determine what a poem is on about? That this should be a question is a reason many flee poetry. Plainspoken poems still exist, and some poets manage to pull off the technique where there’s an easily accessible layer, and then on further consideration, deeper ones beckoning beneath. But the plainspoken poems are not always honored in the school anthologies that introduce growing minds to the art; and too many when introduced to deeper readings fall away from poetry thinking that either they “just don’t get it” or that those pointing out these subtleties are hallucinating angels and cows in cloud forms.

Even a poet like Robert Frost who was able to pull off that trick of relatable surface and deeper, more complicated undercurrents, must suffer from party boors like myself reminding trapped conversation subjects that “The Road Not Taken”  is about the over-consideration of choice not the necessity of stalwart individualism. Damn, the listener thinks, looking for an out, “I thought I had a poem, my poem, and now this fellow is saying one or the other of us is an idiot or a fool.”

There’s another route, another signpost that may help, one couched in the informal phrase “Where are you coming from?” Given that literature in our age has been to a large degree taken over by memoir,* we may employ this tactic as readers or listeners. In this frame, poets are about their lives, and in an even more contained sense, about the important facts of their lives: a trauma, a struggle, a novel life story.

In this view, to consider “The Road Not Taken”  in the context of the tragic friendship between Robert Frost and Edward Thomas walking in the wandering lanes and paths of the Cotswolds may help us understand that that poem isn’t just a self-contained piece of art, though it can be that, but also an artifact of something complicated as lives are.

So, I promised I’d get to Rainer Maria Rilke. Last month I started to translate his poem “Before Summer Rain”  from the original German. I sometimes do my translations before reading existing English ones. I’m not sure if that is a good idea, but I like the surprise of a poem coming into view for the first time as I work out the language. I finished a draft of it, and then found two or three other English translations in short order.

My “Before Summer Rain”  that I could view when this draft was done was a fairly light, fairly clever nature poem about the onset of a thunderstorm. Summer, leaves are all green—then sunlight, perhaps even the chromatic range of the light’s color, takes on a new cast. A bird calls, but we sense it more as a warning omen or a call for others of its species as the storm brews. Inside the house, sunlight no longer illuminates things. Will it storm or will it not quite reach ignition and fade off? A few drops or a deluge? The poem ends.

 

Before Summer Rain

 

Right away I doubted my translation in light of the others. I didn’t get the picture entirely wrong, but a couple of significant details diverged, ones that seemed to take the poem elsewhere. Here’s a link to the most common English translation I found. The translation is by Edward Snow, though almost none of the Internet sites that use his work credit him. Snow published his translation in 1991. He’s an award-winning translator who concentrates on Rilke’s poetry—plenty of reasons to respect Snow’s authority on the accuracy of his Rilke. Other than our differing attempts to make compelling English poetry from Rilke’s German, here are the two things that stuck out.

The end of Rilke’s German line “man denkt an einen Hieronymus” (literal: “one thinks of a Hieronymus”) is in Snow’s, and I think every other English translation I found, translated as “St. Jerome.” This indicates strongly that is how the word would be understood in German, and Hieronymus is  the Greek version of the name Jerome. This may be problematic for the poem, however. Assuming that the more knowledgeable translators are correct, this leaves many readers in the dark. What the hell does St. Jerome have to do with this reasonably vivid and non-allusive description of an oncoming storm?**  In my first complete draft I thought it better to leave it Greek, which would be mysterious in a more mysterious as opposed to a “what the…” way. My second choice, the one I used by the time of my performance, was to use the literal translation of the name from Greek: “sacred name.” This increases an immediate sense of the moment being described by Rilke. The bird’s call is so urgent, so important, that the sacred is invoked.

OK, if I’m going to worry about a single word, what next? The concluding two lines of Rilke’s poem in German are: “das ungewisse Licht von Nachmittagen, /  in denen man sich fürchtete als Kind.” (literal: “the uncertain light of afternoons, / in which one was afraid as a child.”  Snow renders these as “the chill, uncertain sunlight of those long / childhood hours when you were so afraid.” I had a completely different sense in my draft, that it was still the external object, the changing light of the summer afternoon threatening to storm, that was being depicted. In poetry the observer, the poem’s speaker, and the object may often be merged, but Snow says this is not just an oncoming storm, this is a trigger of something darker than even that. Snow seems to add “chill,” which I can’t find in Rilke’s German, to intensify that sense.

I had read the poems mood as mostly light, mostly clever. Snow had read it, I think, as darker, more chilling. A day or so later I started to think. Did Rilke suffer some kind of childhood abuse?

And so, just in trying to do a translation, trying to figure out what a poem was on about—so that I could bring you an audio performance of a piece that otherwise wouldn’t exist, I found myself thinking I had two roads: throw out my attempt at translation as a misleading embarrassment, or dig more into Rilke’s life.

Turns out I knew even less than I thought. I had this sense of a lean, sickly, aesthete melding art and spirituality, a purist willing to risk lyrical excess. In looking at the highlights of Rilke’s life, it’s stranger than that. I began to think Midwesterner Don Marquis would have made of Rilke something of his poet character Fothergil Finch in his Hermoine and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers  satire. But Rilke’s childhood did  have elements that we, and he, might view as abusive.

Rilke age 4 and Rilke age 11

Rilke age 4 dressed by a mom who missed a dead daughter, and Rilke age 11 sent off to military school to butch-up by his dad. Yes, 19th century children’s clothes are a different sensibility, and some kids respond to a disciplined and regimented life. Rilke didn’t seem to, and his teen years in the school were not good, clashing with the other students who were more into it.

 

And so I concluded, I needed to revise my translation or abandon it.

Then yesterday I had a chance to record with acoustic guitar, and I grabbed a few things that might work presented that way. I thought, “Before Summer Rain”  needs revised words, but maybe I can compose the music while I’m at it, and I could record the revised words later.

The tune came fast. The chord progression has similarities to a strain used in Ray Davies Kinks’ song “Rainy Day in June”  (another song about sudden summer rain), but given that I had access to a quiet room where I could record acoustically, I decided I’d go all the way and use an even quieter nylon-string guitar available there.

Nylon-string guitar might bring various things to mind: “classical guitar,” Willie Nelson, Latin American music. I’ll often associate it with two things: learning to play guitar on a J C Penny’s nylon string guitar in my youth, and the early albums of Leonard Cohen where Cohen would play his “one lick” effectively on nylon string guitar. Testing the melody against the existing words, I recorded a couple of takes, while trying to reacquaint myself with the different sound of nylon strings.

There, with live mics and the recorder running, I realized I had already written the translation that could bring out the personal darkness, the undercurrents of childhood abuse, with my version of Rilke’s words. It was simply a matter of performance.

You can hear the performance below with the player gadget.

 

 

*I don’t object to this except to the degree that as a contrarian by sensibility, I don’t want any mode or approach to become so predominant without at least asking what else could be done. This is part of the reason that this project has been focused on “Other People’s Stories” and isn’t as much about a personal journey (though those elements can’t be avoided).

**Wikipedia’s entry for St. Jerome, who I only knew as the man credited for translating the Bible into Latin (then the common language of educated Europeans) includes an anecdote about the guilt-ridden Jerry after a night of too much party trying to atone by visiting Rome’s dark catacombs to commune with the decaying bodies of apostles and martyrs. Major goth points, and possibly even a reason why he might be mentioned in Rilke’s poem. But how well is this known? I also find it odd that the German to English literal has it “a  St. Jerome” if we remove the Greek. Was St. Jerome enough of a big deal meme-wise that you could refer to him as a type, like calling someone “a Judas?”

Small Iowa Town, after World War Two

Nostalgia may be cheap, but none-the-less, we feel it. Perhaps by “cheap,” we mean “common,” and if so, should artists always flee that, the common experience? Interrogating the common may verge on an obligation in many answers to that question. What is it in our mundane experience that we may share with others, that we can bring something else to?

Here’s an attempt I made a few years ago to do that, accompanied by some music I wrote and performed earlier this year. I think it’s an example of some principles and risks in this approach. What are they?

How common is your common? On one hand we often enjoy and seek out the exotic, and art can help us explore that too. I’ve spoken here before about how the exoticism of some of Keats attracted me as a teenager, and the strangeness of Surrealism and the gnomic statements of Wallace Stevens attracted me before I could understand all that they were on about. But just as well we may be attracted as readers and listeners to things that speak to our own parochial experiences. Why would we read or listen to work about ourselves? Are we hoping to learn something just beyond what we already know? Or is it, as it was once said about the readers of small-town newspapers, that they’re read by the townspeople to see what the editor missed?

In these ways you may be helped if your common is shared by a lot of people, who know they share that commonness, or it may be best if your experience is novel enough to not be very common at all, and where the attraction is that common human motivation: curiosity.

How important is your common? Some works spend a good deal of effort making the case that the reader or listener is wrong in not thinking that the common experience the creator is examining is important. Others have a lighter load to lift: those who’ve witnessed momentous events or taken part in widely recognized essential activities.

The degree of difficulty for the former is considerable. You may bore your reader or listener with making your case for the value of the seeming unimportant—or not make your case vividly enough and have them give up with a “who cares” shrug.

Why would one then choose to explore something generally considered unimportant? Well, a good deal of art doubts hierarchies of experience. Societies invest a lot in hierarchies, and artists like to overthrow them. Societies are often wrong, cruelly wrong sometimes, in those constructs. Artists aren’t always right in their alternatives, or completely right, but we are tempted by angels and devils to try.

Rules of the Game 1080

Back in 1973 I hosted a visiting German artist in New York. The musical souvenir he was bringing home was a copy of Charlie Daniels’ “Uneasy Rider,” a novelty hit single about a long hair at a redneck bar.** German appreciation of American music was it’s own approximation. This picture: “Rules of the Game” is by Renée Robbins, taken in Iowa in 1977. The player in it seemed sort of Charlie Daniels-ish to me.

 

What do you bring to this common experience? Why does your expression, your examination of some common experience need to exist? As a matter of political and social persuasion, the second dozen or even the second hundred similar account of a similar experience and evaluation of it may add weight to the scales of attention or justice. An atrocity like George Floyd’s needless death gains some of its power and value not because it’s unique, but because it’s not. It’s not the first or the second, or the hundred and first. We ask, we view, in a way that it be considered as if it’s the first, as if it’s an only. We ask too, fervently, that it be considered as if it should be the last. But in the world of the arts, of chosen creation, we have a burden in making the same point over again worthwhile.

But of course, we do take up this challenge. How many poems, how many songs are about the flush of love and desire? How many works of art are about the absences of death? By some accounts, all of them that are any good. I think there’s a great middle range between love and death that is open too to artistic expression, the range of how we see, feel, hear experience between those two poles. It may seem trivial compared to the existential fact of death or the powerful urge of joined fertility—but great or small, your charge is to bring something else to this common experience large or small, call it beauty, call it a frame, call it music, call it a vibration that we can feel together.

Now, let me exit the high falutin and get down to today’s piece and see how I dealt with an element of my common in “Small Iowa Town, after World War Two.”

Small Iowa Town after WWII

I had my own mondegreen moment listing to this today. I heard myself saying in line 23-24 “Seeing the storefronts in their row inhaling silently the adults…” instead of what I wrote above. I may keep the unintended revision.

 

First off, the subject matter is problematic. The experience I speak of here is shared by few even of my age cohort, and every day by fewer, as older generations pass on. Yet, it also has little appeal of exoticism. In my grandfather’s time and before this culture, the small rural American town, was common, and a considerable amount of art (much of it not high-art, and much that was aimed at the cultured market was critical) dealt with it. As I said in starting this post, a sentimental or wistful nostalgia is considered cheap and if it’s also not even considered common to the reader/listener, there’s no path to success.

I will note that I consider the experiences I recount in this piece as exotic. I’ve spent over half a century away from it, it seems strange/familiar to me now, an unusual construction. I make in my defense a common plea of the artist being accused of trafficking in cheap nostalgia: I’m really talking about how memory, change and experience work.

Is it important? I’m not sure. That I’m writing this generalized essay says that I doubt you will think it so. I plowed this field early in this project with one of the least popular pieces ever presented here: “Homeopathic Hometown,”  and this may not fare any better. I plead the audacity of the artist that wants to tilt at hierarchies of importance.

Right now there’s a good deal of mistrust in America between the generalized* remaining rural citizens and it’s urban and suburban centers. Even though I’ve been away from small-town Iowa for so long, I can understand loss and aggrievement.

So, what can I, what did I, bring to this problematic subject to make it worthwhile? I tried to talk about the strangeness of the change, that part I find exotic, that far-away world that assumed permanence of a kind. I leaned on the slowly evolving music a good deal today. As in “Homeopathic Hometown”  there’s a linkage that I feel viscerally between a certain kind of German music of the late 1960s through about 1990 or so, a melding of the then new synthesizer sounds with a particular European interpretation of progressive rock music, and my experience of these changed small towns. When I listen to the Bowie Berlin trilogy I get nostalgic not for a Berlin I’ve never known, but for a rural Iowa I think I know. It’s one of those odd links I can’t quite explain, but feel. Long rolling songs about long rolling hills and valleys. Small as a palpable absence. Grant Wood as a German Expressionist.

The player gadget to hear “Small Iowa Town, after World War Two”  is below. It’s a bit longer than most things here, but I had to give it some time so the music could expand. Perhaps the music will work even if the words don’t succeed.

 

 

 

*Well, there’s a good deal of mistrust, period. And the residents of country and remaining small towns are not monolithic stereotypes. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now—and nobody likes to be reduced to a type—but generalizations of a divide and a mutual dislike and attribution of bad motives aren’t baseless.

**At the conclusion of the song, singer Daniels states that he wishes he’d taken his misbegotten car trip west on a route (across Iowa) through Omaha instead of through Mississippi.

On the Grasshopper and the Cricket

There used to be a thing, back in the Seventies when “The Sixties” were being established as a retrospective era: “The Beatles or The Stones?” The idea was that this choice, which was supposed to be somehow exclusive, was an “opener,” a what’s your (astrological) sign query that would tell the questioner who you were—or at the least start a conversation.*

Among the smallish subset of 20th century young people who liked poetry in English and were inclined to the Romantic revolution launched by Wordsworth and Coleridge at the beginning of the 19th century, one could play a similar game: “Byron, Keats, or Shelley?”

Sarcastic Byron “Mad, bad and dangerous to know” was the bad boy. Shelley was the beautiful intellectual, the man whose genetic material you wanted to incorporate. And Keats was the misunderstood outsider, the garageman’s son who presumed words alone could elevate him.

English Romantic poetry’s boy band—choose your poster.

I was easily a Keats man in this forced choice. I’m not sure, but I think Parlando alternate voice and keyboardist Dave Moore was a Byron guy back then. Early supporter of this blog, Daze and Weekes, Shelley. There are no wrong choices there, and when it comes down to it, no necessarily exclusive choices there either.

Keats hasn’t played a lot here in the Parlando Project. I’ve expanded my interests much since my teenaged years, and I guess the English Romantics have fallen back into the pack of poetic schools as I moved on to other things. Coincidence can bring Keats back though.

John Keats and the Chirping Crickets 3

Unheard music will Not Fade Away! John Keats and his “Chirping” Crickets.

 

Last weekend I hesitantly went to the newly reopened Minneapolis Institute of the Arts with my family. It was my wife’s idea, a way she hoped would be fairly safe in these Covid-19 times and still get us out of the house. She wanted to see a special exhibit on the immigrant experience. I thought I’d like to review their Chinese section.**

I may well write about the immigrant exhibit later, but the reason I wanted to do a bit of a wander in the Chinese wing was from my recent presentations of 8th century Tang dynasty poets here: Du Fu, Wang Wei, and Li Bai. As it turns out the holdings are a bit lacking in artifacts from that time. While this was a golden age for classical Chinese culture, that might not have carried over to the tastes or availabilities of objects to Western collectors.

But as I wandered the hall, I noticed something that had persisted in Chinese culture for centuries that I hadn’t encountered before. Beside a large, lacquered Chinese string instrument (the size of a pedal-steel guitar), there was a note that Chinese interest in music extended to modifying pet crickets vibrating wing edges with metallic powders and resins to increase the qualities of the cricket’s song. That grabbed this music-nerd’s interest! I started to examine other displays: there were cages and holders for pet crickets, tiny dishes in cricket-scale to feed them, and in one, two tiny wands, like fine detail paint brushes, only finer, the brush a single small hair. These, the note told us, were cricket ticklers designed to encourage the insects to start their music.***

Chinese Qin and Cricket Note

Beatles or Stones? Qin, songbirds, or crickets? The sort of things that a Chinese scholar might have in China during the time of Keats.

 

I’d already been looking at Emma Lazarus’ summer sounds poem before this trip, with its pairing of cricket-chirp with far-off children’s laughter. And then I found this slight little sonnet by John Keats, another one with crickets. My favorite short Keats poem, In the Drear-Nighted December  is a fine quasi-Buddhist meditation on suffering depicted as an appreciation of a frozen winter water-run. This one, “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket”  doesn’t strike my heart as strongly, but it’s still charming in comparing warm days and winter. This one has almost a Midwestern tang to it. I could see James Whitcomb Riley or Paul Laurence Dunbar writing it. The humble man in nature noting the grasshopper’s****  song even in the hottest summer days, and the comparison of the like sound of a housebound cricket chirping behind a wood stove in darkest winter.

The player gadget to hear my performance of John Keats’ “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket” is below.

 

 

 

*Don’t ask a music-nerd like me this question. Yes, I understand the points it’s attempting to weigh, but I won’t be able to resist spilling out mini-improvised essays on The Animals, The Yardbirds, The Zombies, The Kinks and so on, and then I’ll interrogate the now exhausted and bored questioner about how these exotic British acts are viewed as “saving” us from Bobby Rydell et al, when Afro-American jazz and R&B artists—right on the other side of town in a lot of cases  here in the U.S. —were doing vital work then that inspired these Brits. You can see I’m no fun at parties now, can’t you.

**Like some American museums that date from the late 19th century, Asian art was a significant part of the MiA collection. A significant number of wealthy collectors then were interested in the “exotic east.”

***There’s more I learned. Besides keeping them as pets and enjoying their music, cricket fights were a broad Chinese cultural thing as well, and because a full-formed cricket’s life span is but a few months even without visits to the Disabled List, an entire industry rose up in the capture of crickets for song and sport, with a hunting season in August and September gathering the most from the wild.

****Despite their somewhat similar appearance and sounds, the cricket makes its spiccato with its wing-edges, the grasshopper with its legs. I plucked a 12-string guitar and had double-basses provide some heavy late-summer air for this piece, but probably the most cricket-like sounds in the recording are from a marimba. The old saw says that if you take the number of cricket chirps in a quarter-hour and add 40 to it you’ll get the temperature in Fahrenheit. If so, this is a fairly cool bpm cricket.

Long Island Sound

Some poets, like some musicians, suffer from the “one hit wonder” syndrome, and Emma Lazarus is surely one of them. Lazarus is forever tied to a sonnet The New Colossus,”  the one that includes the line “Give me your tired, your poor…” which has not only been made part of The Statue of Liberty, but has become an unofficial idealized civic document of America’s relationship to immigrants and refugees.

Which might make you think that Lazarus’ family was part of that great American immigration wave of the 19th and early 20th century. Not so. Her family were 17th century immigrants to New York State, via a bank shot from Portugal to Brazil, as Jewish heritage peoples fleeing the aftermath of the Inquisition.

That someone had to have written this well-known poem is self-evident, but it hasn’t really made Lazarus’s work beyond “The New Colossus”  subject to much study or readership.*  Today’s piece “Long Island Sound,”  another sonnet by Lazarus, has been passed around on blogs and poetry sites a bit though, so let’s see what we have. Here’s a link to the full text of “Long Island Sound”  if you’d like to read along.

It’s a nature poem, a somewhat ecstatic one without resort to explicit words labeling emotion. I note one or two darker notes in the catalog of images of an August day that add shade to this summer ease: a “grave sky” appears here, and unless that’s a foreshortened “engraved” for meter’s sake, a summer storm may be forthcoming. The imagery raises to a superior level at times for me. The far-off sail “white as a crescent moon” is good, the tide’s sound on sand rendered as a “lisp” and the children linked with crickets is even better, and the “clouds fantastical as sleep” sticks with me even after several readings. Did Lazarus intend the pun on the word “sound?” I hope so.

I also like the ending. As I’ve learned, Lazarus’ family was well-off, but the persona in the poem is not specifically of any class or wealth. I can recall a summer working at a small factory in Mamaroneck, and a weekend afternoon watching a friend of a friend’s father sail his one-man boat out in the lower part of the Long Island Sound while we on the shore had the free talk and association of those without money for much of anything else. This poem’s Winslow Homer-ish landscape requires only the poet’s ownership of attention to claim it.

Winslow_Homer_-_Moonlight

Since this is a painting by Winslow Homer, you won’t be able to hear the water lisping on the sand or crickets chirping amid the sound of distant children.

 

The player gadget to hear my performance of Emma Lazarus’ “Long Island Sound”  is below. A short and jaunty one today.

 

 

 

*No worse than any other 19th century American woman poet who isn’t Emily Dickinson I guess. Lazarus is not the poetic innovator that Dickinson was, but she shares a few traits with Dickinson: her family was well-off, allowing her some privileged resources, she never married, she was something of a follower and admirer of Emerson (for at least awhile), and like Dickinson she knew Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

The River Merchant’s Wife, Another Letter

What if you were to find out that a famous, much-loved poem was not a singleton, but that it was instead part of a pair?

The River Merchant’s Wife, A Letter”  is perhaps the most famous Chinese poem in English, and it’s been widely anthologized since Ezra Pound published it in his 1915 collection of translations Cathay.  It’s not hard to see why. It’s a lovely piece of free verse, and though it holds to the Modernist style of showing not telling its sentiments, most readers can easily divine the emotions of the young wife displayed in the poem, separated and longing for her partner.

Be patient with me, reader. I feel I must deal with a few peripheral issues with this poem, which I too admire, for as close as it is to many of its readers’ hearts, there are a few issues. While it’s reasonably frank in its Imagist way about a woman’s desire, one could look at it as an endorsement of patriarchal marriage, rather than a portrayal of two people at a particular moment of time.*  One could conclude that the woman’s agency in the poem is limited to the feelings her tale evokes in us.

If you, like I’m sure some readers here and elsewhere are, seeking art as a break from social issues, there is also a literary issue, one of the nature of translation. I would discuss even more things I happen to think about when I consider this famous poem, but to keep this post to a reasonable length, I’ll just speak to the translation controversy.

Pound wasn’t a Chinese scholar, didn’t speak the language, and didn’t have any knowledge in depth about the history or culture of that vast country. What he was instead was a poet who had what musicians call, and I’ll repeat with punning intent, “great chops.” Particularly at the time literary Modernism was getting underway in the early 20th century, he had a sense of how to pare things back, to express something vital minus a lot of useless extra baggage. Pound likely recognized a kindred spirit in Le Bai,**  the 8th century Chinese poet, and so thought it all right to speak for him in English.***  The poem he produced from Li Bai’s work is a loose translation, missing nuance that more informed scholars find in the original. There have been other attempts at better, or at least more accurate translations. None have produced as widely an effective poem.

But it was in looking at that this past week, while trying to better understand Li Bai’s work and intents, that I had a remarkable discovery. It was probably around midnight, when I should have been sleeping, reading a .PDF scan of a 1922 book of Li Bai translations by Shigeyoshi Obata.****  His translation of the poem Pound made famous is rendered as “Two Letters from Chang-Kan,” the first of which is Obata’s rendering of “The River Merchant’s Wife, a Letter.”   But, But But—what!   There’s another letter!  Did Li Bai intend this to be from another persona, another river merchant’s wife, or is it a second letter written by the same character? Either could make sense. The situation is the same, absent traveling merchant partner, young wife left at home. The speaker’s mood has similarities to the well-known poem too, but there are differences. In my reading of more Li Bai poetry this month I’ve come to believe that he works in subtle associations, subtle parallels, implied metaphors not necessarily made into explicit similes.

Partch-Li Bai-Pound

Harry Partch kicks out the jams, Le Bai considers the abyss, Ezra Pound looking like he’s ready to write yet another crank letter to the editor

 

In this poem, the speaker is a bit more angry with the situation and more wary. She’s not fallen out of love, no, but her expressions seem to mix frank longing for her missing partner, with suspicion that it might not be mutual. Was Li Bai contrasting two women, or expressing that the human heart can hold all those emotions at once?

I’m indebted to Obata for making this Li Bai poem known, and since I know of no other translations, I based my version I use today on his English language one—though I, like Pound but having only my own talents—took liberties. I wanted to tell a story that worked as a song, one that would pull the listener in and bring forward in both the text and performance the wider meaning of what is said by the river merchant’s wife in this purported letter. So, my version has a stronger if not strict meter, occasional rhymes, and I try to emphasize those parallels that serve as images that I think are part of Li Bai’s poetic sense-making. Parallelism, refrains, rhymes—these are all musical tactics that can work to bring some things to the foreground that were undercurrents in Obata’s version of Li Bai.

My performance of what I call “The River Merchant’s Wife, Another Letter”  is available with the player gadget below. As this is already a long and much-delayed post, I’m not including texts yet for this, but I hope the performance will work in its way.

 

 

 

 

*I’m sure some have written critiques on this basis, because there is matter there for this, including that the wife is a teenager (though the poem indicates the husband is roughly the same age.) I wonder if anyone has written that the husband’s absence is based on the needs of commerce, asking if this is a veiled attack on capitalism or a cultured acceptance of it?

**Li Bai is the now preferred way to write the poet’s name in western characters. Many works of Pound’s time use a different scheme to render the same poet’s name as Li Po. There are more variations too. Same guy. Confusing.

***Yes, one of the things I could talk about, instead of getting on to the pleasure of the resulting poetry, would be the cultural appropriation in that assumption. Big subject, worthy of a longer treatment.

****The Works of Li Po the Chinese poet done into English verse.  Obata was of Japanese heritage, but writes he had access to Chinese-speaking friends and other resources while studying at the University of Wisconsin. When he encounters Cathay  he realized Pound’s artistry, but also knew how loose Pound’s translations were, and how they missed certain cultural nuances. “I confess that it was Mr. Pound’s little book that exasperated me and at the same time awakened me to the realization of new possibilities so that I began seriously to do translations myself.” Despite reading both Arthur Waley and Pound’s Chinese translations as a young man, I had never heard of Obata, and there is little available in Internet searches to indicate he made any lasting impact—save for one thing: his translations have been used for settings of Li Bai poems by Constant Lambert and Harry Partch, which seems like remarkably rich company to the likes of me.

At the Beginning

Before I present today’s audio piece, once more a story, one that has kept me up reading and thinking about it for the past week. Like many of the stories I’ll tell here, the events may seem at first to be far off and unrelated to you, as much a “who cares” as poetry is to many people. But the story behind the poem affected me, now, in our current age, just as poetry written long before I was born might.

In 1878, a man was born in Germany named Erich Mühsam. When he reached the proper age he was sent off to a fine boarding school where young Mühsam recognized two things: he didn’t much care for the school’s rigorous discipline (“corporal punishment,” the polite word for instructional beatings, was the order of the day) and that he wanted to become a writer, a poet. So, the teenaged Erich wrote an article for the local Socialist newspaper about the school’s abuses. For good or bad, that was his ticket out of there. He was expelled.

As the new 20th century began he returned to his home city of Berlin and fell in with some young folks who were running what in my day would have been called a commune: “Neue Gemeinschaft” (New Society). It’s there that Mühsam met Gustav Landauer, who though only eight years older, became a sort of guru to the young Mühsam. Landauer was a theorist, a charismatic one at that, for a type of Anarchism that believed that the most effective direct action was to begin living the theory rather than seeking (and likely waiting) for some revolution to give Anarchists that opportunity. He encouraged Mühsam to develop as a poet, and poetry was part of Landauer’s world-view. Landauer’s wife was also a poet and a German translator of works of Wilde, Poe, Rabindranath Tagore, and Walt Whitman.

Mühsam absorbed much from Landauer, and you can see that in the text for today’s piece, a poem Mühsam wrote in 1909—but Mühsam was a more active revolutionary, though much of it was through literary efforts: poetry, plays, cabaret works, essays, and editorship of his own anarcho-communist journal Kain. The Left in this period was (as it often is) splintered—sometimes most sure that those with beliefs most adjacent to a segment’s own were as dangerous to the cause as overt opponents. Mühsam was non-violent but open to alliances with those that weren’t. Landauer and Mühsam sometimes found themselves on opposing sides, but their relationship was never severed. Landauer was accused of being to professorial and uninvolved in active struggle. Mühsam was thought by some as too provocative. *

Muhsam-Landauer-Buber
Mühsam, Gustav Landauer, Martin Buber. How does that last guy fit in? Read on. Is it just me or does Mühsam have a little Marc Maron thing going on?

 

How many of you find this Anarchist theology boring? Well, here comes WWI. Boring also to some, but also deadly and existential.

The war stifled critics of the Imperial German government, at least at first. Even the activist Mühsam had a hot take where defending his country and citizens seemed an imperative.** Write anything critical of the government and you might be arrested and jailed. Support strikes by war-workers? Go directly to jail. So, eventually Mühsam was jailed.

By late 1918 the dam broke. Beside the mountains of deaths on all sides, unimaginable before this first full-scale mass-production European war, Germany was losing, and no amount of government propaganda could convince many that this was not so. Sacrifice for winning can be cast as heroic. Sacrifice for losing is a harder sell.

And if you were waiting for it, here it comes: revolution!

In November 1918 the Kaiser abdicates as WWI ends. In the Bavarian regional capitol, Munich, the Independent Socialist Party declared the “People’s State of Bavaria.” A guy named Kurt Eisner was named its President. Seeking alliances with others on the left, Mühsam and Landauer are offered positions in the new government. They don’t take them up on this, but during this time the two old friends are now in Munich.

Eisner’s Socialists were democratic, republican (small case, they believed in elections). In the midst of this chaos, with even basic social functions in turmoil and the new Socialist alliance unable to prove any of its theories, they held elections in January 1919. They lost. Eisner went to parliament to present his resignation, true to his beliefs. An assassin shot and killed him on the street before he arrived. Now a new government is proclaimed “The Bavarian Soviet Republic.”***  And now Mühsam and Landauer join up.

Ah, so now the story of sleek agitators and thoroughbred theorists pressed into harness as government draft-horse functionaries? If only my story could stay so boring. This government lasted six days. I’ve had left-over pizza that lasted longer than that! And Wikipedia says that during this less than a week time a “mentally ill Foreign Affairs deputy” declared war on Switzerland. How could they go up against all those multifunction knives and prevail? Oh! Such comedy, dark as it is!

Trust that dark. That’s where we’re going.

Now yet another government is declared in Munich, this time led by Communists and a guy that his contemporaries said “Wanted to be Lenin. He thought  he was  Lenin!” Mühsam is arrested by this new government and thrown back in jail. Given that he was so provocative, one doesn’t have to imagine him stretching his talents far to piss them off. Lucky him. The more mild-mannered Landauer has suffered in this winter the death of his talented literary wife (a victim of the 1918-19 flu pandemic) and the dashing of his hopes for wider realization of his theories. He sticks around, out of power. Is he frozen by grief that winter? Spring comes. There’s a revolution one can count on…

…but not just flowers are coming. The Freikorps, a right-wing militia, goes into Munich to put down the revolution. This they do, hundreds die. Who can tell Landauer’s mind, but Landauer had refused advice to leave in that spring. He’s rounded up, imprisoned. The day after May Day, the guards take him to a room. They beat and abuse him. They shoot him. They beat him some more. They shoot him again, finally killing him, and toss him into a common grave.

Mühsam escaped this because he had been imprisoned by the last revolutionary government. But in the aftermath, he’s still a notorious revolutionary, so he’s put in a new prison as an enemy of the new central German Republic government.

While he’s imprisoned, in 1920, a collection of his poems titled Brennende Erde (Burning Earth) is published, and this month I got a pdf scan copy and did a rough machine translation in order to peruse it. Why did I go looking for this obscure collection? I’d read a passing reference to him as a poet and activist, and something drew me to look, in this time when I’m questioning the arts and poetry and the seeming necessity of activism that I feel unequipped to take on.

I did a more careful, human, translation of the first poem in that collection, “Zum Beginn “ (“At the Beginning.”)  It carries a subheading there telling that “At the Beginning”  was first published in Gustav Landauer’s magazine, and given the importance of Landauer to Mühsam and the short interval between the publication date for the collection and Landauer’s death, it’s easy to read it as a comment on what Mühsam learned from his teacher. Here’s my English translation, the one I perform today:

At the Beginning

 

Can one read things in it that seem to speak to today? I believe one can. I wonder if whoever was putting together the collection before publication thought it spoke to 1919 too. That line written in 1909: “Plague air hangs over the world” could be read in 1919 as a comment on the great influenza pandemic, not as a mere metaphor, just as you might read it now in Covid-19 times. The closing litany of people awakening to the power of realization, that too could be more than a dusty relic as folks marched this summer under a growing common understanding of oppression and “nets tightly wrapped around the forehead…until it can’t breathe.”

So, what happened to this young poet who turned activist/poet? In 1924 there was an amnesty declared for political prisoners and he was released. Lucky him! Another lucky man released by that amnesty had tried to declare a new government from Munich too, this time in 1923: a painter turned activist named Adolph Hitler. You probably haven’t heard much of his paintings.

Just as his 1909 poem foretold, Mühsam arrived by train in Berlin after release from prison and was met by a crowd of admirers, cheering and lifting him onto their shoulders. Someone thought things got out of hand, and soon the edges of the crowd were being attacked and beaten, though Mühsam was carried to safety that day. More than a decade after he wrote his poem, those with the fists still had the power—or some of it.

Mühsam took part in the artistic and political ferment in Berlin for almost ten years. Shortly after that pardoned painter/activist succeeded in getting power in Germany, someone burnt down the Reichstag, and it was time to round up those that had ticked off Hitler and his supporters. Mühsam was one of the first taken in. You know the quote attributed to the conservative German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller? The one that starts “First they came for…?” Jews, Gays, Leftists, avant garde artists? Was there any group Mühsam didn’t qualify for? Lucky man, head of the line.

He was sent to a concentration camp. There he was beaten and abused. In short order he was taken into a room and abused and beaten until he was dead. The guards hung his body and said he committed suicide.

There are martyrs we remember and martyrs we forget. Phil Ochs wrote a song “Too Many Martyrs”  and we might slag him off for stating the obvious rather than the artful—but the obvious is likely the truth here. At least in the United States we have next to no remembrance of Mühsam or Landauer. As far as I can tell from a brief search, Mühsam’s poetry has not attracted interest from English translators, with one site that did feature some English translations (and tantalizingly, some set to music) now defunct—and the domain name takes you to a place with bogus antivirus pop-ups flashing all over your screen. Both do have some interest to Anarchists as political figures. That’s a bit odd. Isn’t one of the romantic knocks against artists turning activists: ars longa, (and their political concerns), vita brevis? Countering that is what I call Donald Hall’s Law: that poet’s statement that almost all poets, even prize-winning poets, are largely unread 20 years after their death. I fight that here, but Hall may be right.

History had a few more things to offer me as I read this sad and affecting tale of these two men.

Mühsam wasn’t the only one who had their life impacted by Landauer and his idea of practicing egalitarian Anarchism right now in a communal and immediate relationship. His most famous pupil was probably Martin Buber, whose influence on humanism in the mid-20th century was considerable.

Remember Landauer and his wife, and his belief in the monad of domestic life as a model for change? Well that talented writer and translator and that theorist of humanist Anarchism had a child. And that child, Brigitte, survived her parents and married a doctor in Berlin. In 1931 they had a child, Mikhail—and later that decade they got out of Dodge before the painter/activist/ Führer got around to those not first on every part of his list.

They settled in America and adopted an easier to spell-and-say name, so their grade-school-aged son Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky became Mike Nichols. He became a radio folk-music DJ, an influential pioneer in popularizing improv comedy with Elaine May, and then on to a significant career as a stage and movie director.

Strange, the undernotes of history. I’ll likely never listen to a Nichols and May routine or watch a Nichols-directed movie like The Graduate  again without thinking of that grandfather, that heartbroken, widowed man being abused to death after watching the revolution, one he didn’t want to wait for, fail. I’ll still laugh. The laughs are just darker.

Today’s music is more in the “bash it out fast” manner, no pretty string quartets, no subtle sound design, just two electric guitars, bass, drums and my effort to speak the words. The player gadget is below if you read this in a browser. Apple WordPress Reader users, use the Reader’s gadget to open this in Safari to see the player.

 

 

*Among Mühsam’s early 20th century beliefs were “free love” and gay rights/acceptance. The communard Landauer believed that a loving and equalitarian family unit was a small-scale model for society.

**He took that back, and wrote anti-violence and war poetry during the war. Can one imagine Twitter in 1914? The telegraph lines would have melted.

***OK, if you stayed with me so far, with “Socialist” and “Communist” being thrown around in addition to the “aren’t they the guys who throw little black round bombs” “Anarchists,” “Soviet” might be the final straw  that chokes your metaphoric dolphin or turtle or other benevolent creature. “Soviet” means in this context, a worker’s council as a source of authority. As far as Anarchists were concerned, that’s a good thing. Anarchists are often against violence, and particularly state violence, torture, and oppression—but they are very much for long boring meetings, which have a special dispensation from being defined as torture or oppression.

The Poet’s Voice

Stick with me here valued audience. I know awards speeches are not a popular genre. First off, everyone watching has just lost except for the speaker—not just the tuxedos in the hall, but anyone watching at home who aren’t important enough to be invited to the event. So maybe it’s safest to thank others effusively until your time is up and the music plays you off. A choice to make other points can be ineffective.

Yet, this isn’t the first time I’ve used an awards speech as the text for a piece, though the other two times they were speeches by actors, David Harbour and Viola Davis. Both of those speeches made claims about the value of dramatic art: Harbour making the claim that we may use make-believe heroes to inspire us to do necessary things, and Davis testifying that art, because it includes the illuminated communication of intense human experience, is the only complete way to explore humanity.

The Nobel Prize award requests an acceptance “lecture,” which sounds more high-falutin and boring than an acceptance speech. The literature winners often take the bait and tell us something about the value of their art—but it just so happens that I’m listening for that right now, because I’m not sure about the value of the arts of poetry or music, the things this project is made of, in the midst of this year’s multiple crises: a pandemic, an economic downturn that I fear we haven’t sounded the bottom of, a king of misrule, and a tragic occasion to consider remedies to racial oppression. When I talked about these things this week with friends, they reminded me, “And we haven’t even talked about global warming lately.”

The first section of today’s piece is taken from William Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Even a couple of decades later his statement was much loved in liberal arts departments as I was getting in touch with them in “The Sixties,” because we still hadn’t gotten over the fear we talk even less about: global atomic warfare destruction. Faulkner was a wordsmith to reckon with, even if he couldn’t figure out the plot of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.*  When I looked back at his speech this month, the line I open up with today grabbed me in 2020 as much or more than it would have back in the mid-20th century:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.”

Don’t misread the end of that sentence. He is saying we can bear that fear (his contemporary fears, and ours) and go on writing. One may raise their hand before the Nobel-Dynamite-Prize winner Faulkner and ask: “Well, yes I suppose we could. But shouldn’t we be doing something else instead? A lot of people’s survival is at stake.”

The next section I quote from Faulkner’s speech tries to answer that. It’s a fine piece of writing too. If one abstracts the thought from the rhetoric, he’s saying that we have jobs in relationship to those that will be doing something else instead. This is akin to Viola Davis’ argument about art: no position paper, resolution, or negotiating point can fully connect one heart with another, and no struggle can see its way without full illumination of the human experience.

Is Faulkner right about that? I don’t know. It may not be right for you, but it’s a plausible idea for an old man like myself, one who lacks the social cohesion to build a barricade and the bravery to mount and advance over it.

Faulkner Stamp

An example of writers not being much good at other jobs, Faulkner was bad when given a job as a postmaster. His resignation letter read: “As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.” The Postal Service had its revenge in 1987. Faulkner’s price had risen by 20 cents.

 

The concluding statement in today’s piece is from another American Nobel Literature prize winner’s “lecture,” Bob Dylan’s. The inspiration for this came from a gift Dave Moore gave me this month, a small, handsome book containing Dylan’s lecture. When Dylan won the Literature prize there was a great deal of consternation that what he did wasn’t literature, possibly also not very good, but for sure not literature. Some commentators seemed to feel that poetry might not even qualify, wondering what novels he had written.** But never mind, song lyrics can’t be poetry can they?

In the concluding part of his speech Dylan cleverly concedes that point, and then collapses his wings around those objecting that performed oral poetry is not literature. That’s books, stuff written and read on paper. Suddenly they are surrounded with no retreat. Shakespeare*** wrote for voices and audiences in common. We only know his plays in page form from bootleg tapers. Songs, music, are like that too. They are alive, they live on the currents of breath. Literature is an artifact—a voice is the art, a song is the immediate fact of an experience. I, you, anyone, can doubt art in its absence, in silence—while fear likes that space just fine. But while a song is sounding in your breath and ear, doubt is beside the point. “Songs are alive in the land of the living” Dylan proclaims.

My performance mashing up these quotes from the two Nobel Prize speeches accompanied by my own music can be heard with the player below. If you’d like to read the entirety of these two speeches, Faulkner’s text is here, and Dylan’s is here (with a link to his own audio reading).

 

 

 

*A Hollywood anecdote had Faulkner, who was working as screenwriter for hire in the 1940s, getting stumped about the famously convoluted plot of Chandler’s detective novel he was adapting for a classic 1946 movie. A point about an early murder that deepens the plot was unclear. “Yes, but who killed General Sternwood’s chauffeur?” he queried. Chandler replied: “Dammit, I don’t know either.”

**I found it interesting that novelist Faulkner more than once refers to poets as he speaks about the writer’s task in his speech.

***And Dylan closes with Homer, the blind one in the silence of sight, who didn’t ask the muses for paper but the music to tell the story.

Inversnaid

Before we get to this gorgeous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, let me talk a bit about what I believe regarding our experience of poetry. One of the reasons this project presents the (mostly) poems it uses as audio pieces is that I have a conviction that poetry has a word-music, a sound that is inherent and relevant to the form.

That doesn’t mean that poetry has to sound pretty in some immediate way, have regular meters, rhyme up, or even have some sense of “singing” imbedded in the authors intent. None of those things harm poetry in and of themselves, but all of them are just techniques of word-music, in the same way that the “rules” of music are discovered on a form that expresses itself in a variety of ways which may be successful with varied audiences.

Nor does it mean that poetry on the page isn’t a useful alternative way to experience poetry. Particularly complex poems, with subtle relationships, may more easily impress themselves when they can be comprehended in a non-linear way on the page where one may look up and down the stanzas and see relationships or indications of linkage. On the other hand, some complex and hermetic poems, or poems that use language in ways that are not in the form of ordinary literature, may be best experienced as we often experience songs or memorized verse (like nursery rhymes, folk sayings, or mnemonics) in a way where we encounter them more than once, in a portable form that we can hear in the background of other events and situations. Our memories as a playlist.

And now we return to Gerard Manley Hopkins and his poem “Inversnaid”  after that preface. Is there subtle thought in it? Yes, there may be. One could write an essay on deep ecology based on it. I suppose it could be a metaphor for Hopkins theology and philosophy, of which I know enough only to say that he was self-aware and concerned in those areas. Essays could be written, perhaps whole books inspired, though because it’s a short poem, it’s possible that one can carry “Inversnaid”  in a way that neither and essay or book can be.

But I’m not there yet with “Inversnaid,”  and I’m only the near-partway into my journey with Hopkins. No, what this poem is for me yet is: beautiful, sonorous, passionate, intense—it affects me. Frankly, I see only a bit of its matter, a little more each time. It shows the way that poetry, while it can contain ideas certainly, isn’t about ideas so much as it’s about the experience of ideas.

gerard-manley-hopkins

Another remarkable thing about Hopkins: like his near contemporary Emily Dickinson, he wrote his poems largely without thought of publication, and the extent of his work was unknown until a 1918 collection was published after his death.

 

Though Hopkins was a 19th century poet, a Victorian by calendar, and “Inversnaid”  is end-rhymed and follows Hopkins own appreciation for how English poetic metrics can work (ideas inspired from older Anglo-Saxon poetry) this is in some ways another Imagist poem before it’s time. There’s almost not a single emotional word in the entire poem. “Despair” and “bereft” do occur, but this poem doesn’t seem to be about either of those emotions except in contrast to them. Instead, like a good Imagist poem it’s about the immediate experience of a moment before those emotional words have appeared to frame or fence the experience in.

That Imagist effect is somewhat masked by Hopkins’ obscure language. This is a 12-line poem, not even sonnet length, written by a man whose shortened lifetime overlapped human beings whose lifetimes overlapped mine—yet there are more words than I, something of a language maven, didn’t know than one might find in an 16th century poem or the deepest subculture patois of a rap performance. Only the last quatrain stanza is in what one would call standard contemporary English.

One could intimidate a reader or listener easily by giving them a definition pop-quiz after hearing this poem. “OK, so you liked this poem! Well then, tell me what these words mean: burn, rollrock, coop, flutes, twindles, fell, degged, groins (stop snickering, this will be part of your final grade!), braes, flitches, heathpacks, and beadbonny.”*  I’d be surprised if many American English speakers could define a third of these. Residents of the British Isles might do better, but would they get over half?

We’re in near “Jabberwocky”  land here as readers. But we’re not quite as lost as listeners, because like Carroll’s nonsense poem, the sound makes us sense something of the intended meaning without dictionary. And the sound!

One could intimidate a reader or listener easily by giving them a definition pop-quiz after hearing this poem. ‘OK, so you liked this poem! Well then, tell me what these words mean: burn, rollrock, coop, flutes, twindles, fell, degged, groins (stop snickering, this will be part of your final grade!), braes, flitches, heathpacks, and beadbonny.”

This is really a proof-of-concept example of Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm” where unequal metrical feet are subsumed to attention to the set number of stressed syllables or words. And every one of those obscure words add to the sound so strongly as to be forgiven.

My performance of “Inversnaid”  should be available with a player gadget below. Full text of the poem if you like to read along is here. Thanks for reading and listening!

 

 

 

*I say this because I think I’d have gotten four as an American English speaker, and only that many with help from my love for old English-Scottish border ballads. Perhaps I should be docked a point though, for in my performance I misread “degged” instead as “dregged,” a word which sort of made sense to me. Some have attempted a glossary for this poem, here’s the best one I’ve found in a quick search.

Good Night

Here’s a mysterious poem by Carl Sandburg that makes its mystery in an unusual way. I think it may have been written for a child or for children, but by accident or design the matter of the poem makes a different sense as I read it now.

What makes me think it was written with children in mind? There’s the repetition of the idea of spelling these two short, common words in the title, neither of which are “spelling demons” that are difficult for adults to spell. And then further repetition in saying the two words “Good Night.” It seems something between a lullaby or a book like Goodnight Moon,  beloved of parents seeking to ease their child to sleep. The middle of the poem has three episodes of things gloriously becoming gone and away, as if being left for sleep and dreams.

This is where the poem now seems to take on a layer that I’m unsure was part of Sandburg’s intent in 1920 as I read it in 2020. He starts with fireworks—which are firing all about me on this Independence Day night as I write this post. Besides the noise—and noise normally has a note-length and measure—a visual aspect which a fireworks display is notable for is its short duration. Those colors and light against a night sky may be stunning, but they are short. They are memories almost from the moment they burst.

And then comes two other short episodes: a steam train and a steam boat. The steam train on a moonlit night is moving of course, but its spume of exhaust is also leaving skyward. Likewise, the river steamboat is moving past a geography leaving the sound of their steam powered horns carrying across the fields they are not as stationary as.

Carl Sandburg and a BIG microphone

Carl Sandburg. From the size of it, that microphone looks like it could be steam-powered too.

 

Sandburg the boy would have known those two steam-powered things. A child in 1920 could know them too. They were the ordinary things of freight and travel. In a few decades these steamers would be obsolete and all but extinct. 1920 is a little too early for Sandburg to know that. When he wrote his poem they were moving and gone. Now they are gone and gone. Carl Sandburg is gone too of course. And if he told this poem to his children? They grew up, aged, and are gone too. Many ways to say good night. Many ways to spell good night. Many ways, all leaving. Oh! the boom! The red and yellow, the blue and gold spreading and tailing! Ah! Many ways, all leaving.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “Good Night”  is below.* And here’s a link to the text of this short poem if you’d like to read along.

 

 

 

*Unless you’re reading this on the WordPress Reader app on an Apple phone or tablet, which for some reason can’t show the player. If you switch to viewing frankhudson.org in the Apple Safari browser, you’ll be able to hear the music. Alternatively, the audio pieces are available as a podcast in Apple podcasts. Thanks for reading and listening!