Continuing on with our count-down of the most listened to and liked pieces here this past autumn. A reminder, each of these selections starts with a bold-faced hyperlink to the post where I first presented the author’s piece. There you may find a bit more about the writer and a link to the full text of the poem I used.
Musically this one combines electric guitar and electric piano, two instruments that don’t sound exactly like their acoustic siblings, but they mesh together just as well. There’s a player gadget below to hear Housman’s “Her Strong Enchantments Failing,” or you can use this highlighted hyperlink if you’re reading this in a reader that doesn’t show the player.
6. Truth Never Dies by Anonymous. After encountering this poem extolling the endurance of truth despite human disbelief and ridicule on Kenne Turner’s blog, I just had to try and find out where it came from. In the end I wasn’t able to come up with any likely author despite a day or two of searches, but it now looks likely that “Truth Never Dies” was written in the early part of the 20th century, and the author likely was connected to the Seventh Day Adventists, though a version of the poem appeared in early trade union and temperance publications as well as church bulletins of various denominations.
Now of course most Protestant churches, labor halls, or temperance meetings wouldn’t have a string ensemble at their disposal, but I set “Truth Never Dies” to one anyway. Once again, here’s a highlighted hyperlink to hear it, or you can use the player gadget below.
5. The Dream by Lola Ridge. I may be attracted to lesser-known authors here from time to time, but then in some cases their personal biographies are often as rich in detail and adventures as any better-known poet. Ridge is one example of this. Ridge, like Mina Loy touched scenes on more than one country and continent early in the 20th Century, but like Loy she ended up connected to New York City bohemian circles around the time of WWI. After decades of obscurity, 21st century scholarship is starting to show more interest in Ridge. This poem of hers is as resolutely Modernist as Loy, William Carlos Williams, or Marianne Moore—but in our year 2020 of wildfires, pandemic, political illusions, street demonstrations and disorder, Ridge, and her more than a hundred-year-old poem, seemed to fit our zeitgeist.
Music for this? More strings, though a smaller group of them. Maybe it’s somewhat incongruous to hear my bellowing yap chanting along with bowed instruments, but those are just conventional expectations, and I don’t go to conventions. This is the hyperlink to hear my performance of “The Dream” or you can use the player below.
It’s time to count-down the audio pieces that you liked and listened to here most this past autumn. But before I get to the count-down I’ll mention that new pieces are getting harder for me to produce for a number of reasons. As of now, I still plan to produce some additional examples of what the Parlando Project does: combining various words (mostly poetry) with various original music (as varied as I can make it). Still, given the over 500 pieces already posted here, there will be a lot to explore while you’re waiting. What are those pieces like? Or unlike? Well, our quarterly top-tens are one way to see.
In each of the listings below and in the coming days, the bold-face titles are also links to the original posts where the pieces were presented in case you’d like to see what I wrote about them then.
10. The Poetry of the Root Crop by Charles Kingsley. I love coming across a remarkable poem I’d otherwise never come upon unless I was working on this project. “The Poetry of the Root Crop” is largely unknown, and its author Charles Kingsley is too. No one seems to care much about his poetry, and even his lonely web biographic sketches barely mention it. I remember one I read saying his poetry was “competent.” Oh my. We poets are claimed to be a grandiose lot, and “competent” is a pen-knife between the ribs, not even a public execution. Kingsley the man is also lesser known, particularly here in the U.S., which might be unfair and yet favorable to us enjoying his poem. Considering Kingsley as a thinker and active force in his time has me going over this project’s many presented authors and recalling that while many had ideas I could agree with, they are often mixed with other prominent ideas and convictions that appalled me.
Poems can be about ideas, though they are not the ideal container for them as such I think. We are blessed that “The Poetry of the Root Crop” isn’t a manifesto, though it uses some cultural markers as part of its scenery. What it is, what poetry is, is an apt container for communicating the experience of experience. Kingsley’s experience of a graveyard and/or garden can change how you see the thing yourself. To have that transference between minds isn’t merely “competent” I think. If you don’t see the player gadget to hear this piece, this link will also play it.
9. No Common Ground by Dave Moore. Oh, how I miss having more of Dave Moore’s voice here. The pandemic has separated many artists, and performers most of all. How cruel this illness has been to have one of its earliest American super-spreading events to be through a group of people singing with each other!
So, it’s ironic that Dave’s piece that found so many listeners this Fall is about our chosen separations, one that I thought particularly apt for our current year when I reposted it on November 7th. The player gadget for “”No Common Ground” is below, or as an alternative, this highlighted link for those that can’t see the gadget.
8. Back Yard by Carl Sandburg. I think it likely that Carl Sandburg had some ideas I don’t agree with, but I don’t look for them too hard, because I’m so grateful for the feeling of fellowship I often feel with him. “Back Yard” too is not a manifesto, though it’s not hard to see its experience of the experience of an urban immigrant night as a statement by a son of a Swedish immigrant. Part of what I plan when I return to new pieces here is to talk a bit about our experience of the common ground of darkness as winter solstice approaches here in the Northern Hemisphere, and while Sandburg talks here of summer, his night somehow holds more than broad daylight can.
“Back Yard” has continued to draw listens since it was first posted here two summers ago, and this September, as summer was leaving us, there was another strong spike in listens. My stats tell me I have listeners here who are approaching summer solstice below the equator, so this one is right on time for you.
Oh, there are a few words you’ll hear in the background that aren’t Sandburg’s. Some other angel’s alchemy from the common ground graveyard/garden of Kingsley’s poem perhaps? You can use the player to hear those night voices, or this alternate, highlighted link.
Literature is the time-travel tourists’ Baedeker, an excellent way to visit the experience and outlooks of those no longer alive. Setting the Wayback Machine now…
The 4th century B.C.E. was a pretty busy time for philosophy. Over in Greece Aristotle was homeschooling some teenager who’d become Alexander the Great. For some reason I had teachers back in my teenaged years who were Thomists—so I myself got a limited dose of Aristotle back in those only slightly less-ancient years.
Not enough to conquer the world apparently.
In some other reality, perhaps I’d have been exposed to the Chinese classics. And from what I understand another 4th century worthy, Zhuang Zhou,* is a pretty big deal there, not only in philosophy but in Chinese literature and arts.** His collected teachings, the Zhuangzi, is a core Taoist text alongside Taoism’s founder Lao Tzu’s.
Anyway, I’ve just started searching for an available English translation of Zhuangzi, and I may have found one a couple of days ago, but just as I am no scholar of Thomas Aquinas or Aristotle, I at this point know little about Zhuang’s writing. One thing that the overviews of it let me know is that he used humor extensively.
Picture of two butterflies dreaming of Zhuang Zhou, or…
A picture taken today at the shore edge of Lake Superior. Zhuang also wrote: “They cling to their position…sure that they are holding onto victory. They fade like fall and winter—such is the way they dwindle…they drown in what they do.”
Musically, I had a couple of itches to scratch with today’s piece. One? I’ve been listening again recently to some modern disciples of a school of acoustic guitar playing that is sometimes called “American Primitive Guitar.” I don’t care much for that label, even if it was coined by John Fahey, it’s chief progenitor. It traditionally uses flat-top, steel-strung, acoustic guitars (a design variation perfected in the United States before WWII) and it’s informed by some of the tunings and techniques of early 20th century Afro-American Blues musicians, mixed with an appreciation for a variety of Asian musics and some Modernist “classical” composers. The other personal desire? I’ve been missing playing bass in the mode that makes it a lyrical equal to the rest of an ensemble. As a composer, I know the value of the simple bass line too, but sometimes I want it to sing away.
The player gadget to hear my recounting of Zhuang Zhou’s “The Butterfly Dream” should be below. If you don’t see it (some blog readers and reader view options don’t show it) you can use this highlighted link to play it. I apologize to any Chinese speakers for my attempt at pronunciation of Zhuang’s name. I did my best on that, though I’m likely wrong.
*OK, you probably know the drill if you’ve followed along with this project’s presentation of other classical Chinese authors. Zhuang’s name is also rendered as Chuang Tzu, Chuang Tse, and Chuang Chou. And he also was referred to as Zhuangzi, which seems to be the more settled name for the book of his parables and teachings. The shorter part of his name is an honorific, meaning “master,” but given the difficulties with spelling out Chinese names in the western alphabet, I’ve decided not to call him Jam Master Zhuang.
**The later master poet Li Bai would be one example of a writer highly influenced by the Zhuangzi. How far can Zhuang and Taoism’s influence be found? Martin Buber referenced him, and Wikipedia says that Taoist thought has been claimed by anarchists as foundational to their political philosophy.
In the 8th century, in China, there was a poem written by a man whose name we now write in our alphabet as Du Fu.* It’s a short poem, 8 lines, and in it Du Fu addresses a friend, another Chinese poet of his time, Li Bai. Du Fu was able to compress a lot into those few lines about their shared task of writing. I’ve seen the poem’s title translated as “Thinking of Li Po at Sky’s End.”
Here’s a literal gloss of the original Chinese ideogramic text translated into English:
Cold wind rise sky end
Gentleman thought resemble what
Goose what time come
River lake autumn water much
Literature hate fate eminent
Demons happy people failure
Respond together wronged person language
Throw poems give Miluo
I’ve been carrying this gloss around in the background since August, thinking about how to render it when I chose to translate a poem by Li Bai instead. Then this November I was taking time out from the Parlando Project for a task I complete each month: to write up my reactions to a small group of poems from a circle of poets I’ve known for over 40 years. I try do do my best at this. The members of this group are generally accomplished, two of them markedly more so than I. In-between responding to their work, I continued to consider the Du Fu poem.
This project that you meet me at here has allowed me to explore intensively how I respond to poetry, poetry that is often of widely different styles. This only makes me more worried as I respond to this circle’s new work. I’ve seen varied ways poems can work, but I’ve seen the varied ways they can fail with an audience too. I try to respond authentically to the circle’s work, with an open heart, just as I do with the poems I present here, but in the end, what do I know for sure about what works or makes something work better or less well? What then to tell other poets, perhaps ones better than you?
After all, the same thing that seems to succeed in one poem seems to fail in another. I often think of how many musicians and writers have said that if they had the maps and mechanisms to make their art work each and every time, they would go to that place and never leave.
Similarly, if we knew as readers and listeners how to always pay the proper attention, would more poems, songs, or tunes succeed or fail?
This year I’ve begun writing a series of sonnets about my inability to come to grips with a number of simultaneous crises: a viral pandemic, a wider and painful realization of our racial caste system and its costs, the climate change frog-potboiling, and a government in proud, foolish, and willful disarray regarding these things and the judgement of voters. Round and round I go trying to find out what I don’t know. Trying to figure out what’s best to do. No next thing I read or watch will answer that, and some of what I come upon will dismay or anger me. That syndrome has been given a name: “doomscrolling,” and perhaps you have found yourself falling into it too. In honor of the obsessive nature of us little people trying to make sense of these senseless things and manage some mitigating protection for ourselves, friends, and family, I’m calling my series The Doomscrolling Sonnets. We try to puzzle these things out, just as we continue to try to make poetry or other art work.
I think that may be what Du Fu wants to tell fellow poet Li Bai he understands in his poem.**
In my roundabout way, I came to a decision about how to present Du Fu’s poem. I decided to use it as a rough framework, an inspiration, as the kind of translation as starting point that is most accurately described as “After Du Fu” rather than an attempt at a faithful translation.*** This poem isn’t going to be written to Li Bai, it’s going to be to my friends, and to you if you too read, write, speak, or listen to poetry in this troubled time when our rudder is stuck hard to one side and we circle endlessly.
I love dividing the 14 lines of a sonnet in various ways. Instead of an octet and sestet, this one is two 7-line stanzas with the turn/volta in the middle, and a closing couplet. Rather than end-rhyme, I decided to use a variety of internal rhymes, repeated words, and near-rhymes. The effect I’m aiming for here is a constant but irregular little chime occurring rather than a fixed rhyme that has the reader settling into an expectation.
I open the poem trying to render Du Fu’s autumn setting with some extra elaboration, though I translated it to my colder Minnesota clime. I think of the geese here as our occasional encounter with our muses and sometimes the song we hear from them isn’t as sublime as we’d like. And late autumn reminds us of what we must, and have, finished, what we’ve written down: the dried, settled ink and frozen surfaces of pages.
Chinesepoems.com, the source of the gloss above, gives us a helpful hint at what Du Fu is getting at with his closing line. Qu Yuan is a poet who, in a time of despair, threw himself into the Miluo river and drowned. In tribute, poets would come later and throw poems into the Miluo at the site of Qu Yuan’s death. Here again, I had my own localization to apply. I used to walk every day over a bridge crossing the Mississippi River, that mighty stream that runs through the middle of the Twin Cities and the rest of our country. A couple of years before I came to the Twin Cities, John Berryman, a poet and professor had copied Qu Yuan (or Hart Crane) and jumped from that bridge, a direct downward path taken presumably in giving up his own doomscrolling life and literary problems. I knew nothing of Qu Yuan or Du Fu back then when that was my daily walk, but I too once dropped a poem over the side of the bridge. Maybe Du Fu spoke to me before I knew his name? Muses will do that.
This poem’s two best lines I think are my attempt to directly translate Du Fu:
True literature doesn’t care if it is popular, and
It is only demons that care about a poet’s failures!”
You can stick that one by your keyboard or in your notebook. I think it’s better to listen to muses than demons, even if the muses lead us on, because muses tell us to write poems which we may throw in the water rather than throwing ourselves. I say that, even though I have reminded you here over the years: “All artists fail.” And so, we, poets, will fail. We fail mostly.
* Du Fu is also spelled out as Tu Fu, and Li Bai as Li Po. The poet Ch’un Yuan referred to at the end of Du Fu’s poem can also be spelled Qu Yuan. It all has to do with the problem of taking Chinese language and portraying the names with the Western alphabet.
** Du Fu’s poem was written in a troubled time. The government of China was in turmoil, the country divided in civil conflict. Both Du Fu and Li Bai were imprisoned during this conflict, and Li Bai eventually had a death sentence handed down against him. Li Bai’s death sentence was commuted, but he was sent into exile. The two friends were separated for the rest of their lives.
I made it! This is the 500th audio piece presented here as the Parlando Project since it began in the summer of 2016. In the month of December I’ll write more about what the work for this project has been like, and what I think I’ve learned. I’ll also share with you, my valued audience, what I plan to do going forward in some upcoming posts, but let’s get onto presenting today’s piece based on a small portion of Susan Glaspell’s pioneering American play about pioneer women and their isolation.
I’ve long wanted to do something with a text from Susan Glaspell since she’s partly responsible for this project so often dealing with the beginnings of Modernism in the first two decades of the 20th Century. In America, I think we have a cultural tendency to forget our pioneers, to think of them as imperfect, “beta test” versions of what we consider to be the current and vital expressions of art. We owe them some gratitude, an obligation, but it turns out that looking at first attempts, first intentions, can reveal insights we’ve forgotten, potentially useful tactics we set aside. That said, there’s coincidence in wanting to point out Glaspell’s work here, I’m related to her in one of those fractal-branched family trees; and elderly relatives I once knew, now dead, knew her as a living person, a person with roots in Iowa along the Mississippi River, a place that was home for some time to my people.
Susan Glaspell at the keys. Can’t have a Modernist American theater unless someone writes some plays!
In a previous post I’ve noted that some figures important to American Modernism came from that mid-river region. Carl Sandburg, the forgotten Imagist with dirty fingernails was one. Glaspell was another, not just forgotten as a Modernist, but forgotten as a prime-mover in Modernist American drama. You see, she and her husband had a wild idea while living in an artist’s colony on the East Coast: plays that reflected the “make it new” ethos, radical social analysis, and the symbolic undercurrent that European dramatists were exploring. The theater she organized in 1915, The Provincetown Players, was nothing less than the CBGBs of independent and experimental American theater.
The one-act play that supplies today’s text is her ground-breaking “Trifles.*” It’s now remembered largely as a primary piece of feminist drama, rightfully so, and that outlook might see it as a piece of the social-realist school. There are good reasons for that. Recent scholarship has uncovered that Glaspell, as a young journalist, had covered a murder trial in Indianola Iowa with parallels to the story of “Trifles.”
But the Provincetown group wasn’t just about plays about issues, or gritty realism in opposition to melodramatic fantasy, gaslight adventures, and blithe romances. Modernist poets were also playwrights and actors in the group. “Trifles” isn’t a verse drama, it isn’t a choral poem, but it’s also not unaware of those forms of dramatic expression. In the play’s language, Glaspell uses extraordinary compression, objects representing feelings not explicitly told, and long arias of extravagant emotional expression are conspicuously absent. I’ve never heard it called such, but it’s not outrageous to call “Trifles” an Imagist play. In today’s presentation, which I call “I Know What Stillness Is” I have extracted a section of dialog near the end of the play between two women incidentally drawn into a murder site investigation. One, Mrs. Hale,** a neighbor of the murder suspect, speaks first; the second speaker, Mrs. Peters, is the wife of the sheriff leading the investigation.
Picture of the original New York production of “Trifles.” The woman playing Mrs. Peters at the far left is Marjorie Vonnegut. Yes, she married into that Vonnegut family. So it goes…
In my presentation, as per the ways of the Parlando Project, I want to combine music and words in some useful way that illuminates the piece. So, while not rewriting, I removed some sections of dialog, slightly compressing the scene, and added one subtle use of refrain not in the original text.*** If I was a bel canto singer perhaps I’d think of making this an opera, but instead I’ve kept the dialog spoken word, but by setting this to music I want you to hear the dialectical conversation the two women are having as one would listen to it sung. Does this work? Maybe, and that’s what I wanted to try.
One challenge I had in completing this given our pandemic isolation and my lack of collaborative resources was how to perform the two women’s voices, and I broke through that issue by finding and using recorded voices from a reading of the entire text of the play collected by Librivox. In the performance I used, the part of Mrs. Hale is played by Elizabeth Klett, and the part of Mrs. Peters by Arielle Lipshaw. The whole play is performed and is available here, but it’s a reading of the entire 1916 script, which includes Glaspell’s extensive stage directions which are read interspersed with the dialog.
I could go on about the things expressed in the play, the remarkably early and clear-eyed feminist analysis contained in it, but I thought my audio piece does well enough in portraying the sense of isolation that rural women of the time faced (and to some modern degree face again in our current pandemic.) There is an extensive overview of things others have noted in the “Trifles” Wikipedia page. Before leaving you to listen to our 500th audio piece I thought I’d say instead something about the music I composed for this. It’s an orchestral strings score with a female vocalese part, all of which I played via my MIDI guitar interface and little plastic keyboard. Musical mavens will note that I use simple musical devices in my orchestral stuff, and if I was high falutin I might call myself a Minimalist composer—but frankly, when exploring composition I’m naïve enough to find the simple musical materials produce results that I still find moving and effective.
I started this project thinking I might get to a nice big number of pieces combining various words with original music, like maybe 100, or dare I dream, 200. Thanks for reading and listening along the way!
Since this is the 500th piece, I decided to provide a bonus today for those that would like to listen more distinctly to the music I’ve composed by also providing a separate version without the dialog, just the instrumental music. The version with Glaspell’s words performed in a way to suggest the word-music in them, “I Know What Stillness Is,” has a player gadget below. If you don’t see the player gadget, this highlighted phrase is a link that may work to allow you to hear it.
*Glaspell later transferred the script into a short story which was titled “A Jury of Her Peers” and the piece is therefore known under two titles. Much later (in that year that read the same upside down and right side up: 1961) the somewhat revised and extended script became an episode of the TV anthology show Alfred Hitchcock Presents under the “Jury of Her Peers” title. In titling my excerpt and attempted recasting of the piece with yet a third title, I think I’m following a tradition.
**The part of Mrs. Hale was also played by Susan Glaspell in the play’s first production in Provincetown.
Today was a not-too-old, but widely observed American holiday. Yesterday was Thanksgiving, a holiday initiated by some indigenous Americans and some illegal immigrants who celebrated a military alliance and an autumn harvest together in the 17th century. As one native wit put it: we did the giving, we got no thanks. Invasion and conquest, colonial crimes—there’s no American exceptionalism in that.
Still and all, Thanksgiving’s purpose is generally to recognize a day to be grateful for what one has, the sufficiency of family, friends, life, community.
The day that follows, now given the unlikely name of “Black Friday,” reflects another facet of American culture: it purports to be a day designated to try to purchase all those things one doesn’t have, or those things one thinks friends and family don’t have yet and should get for Christmas. What an odd juxtaposition!
What did I buy for Black Friday? I watched a streamed Patti Smith concert. A minor expense with no crowds and no rush to get the last one before it’s out of stock—though with artists of my age, in our time, there’s always the chance that what performers once offered will soon go out of stock faster than big-screen TVs or whatever Apple Corp object is offered in our naked garden. Patti Smith has spent much of her life cultivating a vocation as an American artist, earnestly so. That earnestness is a strong spice in her presentation, not to all tastes, but I found it helpful as a young person. She once chanted “I am an American Artist, and I have no guilt!” I suspect that wasn’t a report of something achieved, but a maxim to goad herself toward a goal. She got further to her goals than I did, but for either of us—and for you—a question is brought forward: is artist a verb or a honorary title?
Shopping needs answered with my virtual ticket, I enjoyed the concert during which she reminded the audience that tomorrow is William Blake’s birthday. Ah Blake, another inspirational artist. When I was still a teenager the idea that someone could remove the scrim in front of reality and converse with what they found there was a romantic temptation, but also there was this other thing: Blake marshalled enough skills technical as well as artistic and creative to make his art books with only as much resources as he could obtain, often by being his own technical arm.
A visionary depiction of Black Friday shopping? “The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan” by William Blake. Note that Admiral Nelson is wearing his mask way too low for these Covid-19 times.
This project is about to present its 500th audio piece. It’s been a stout 4 years and a few odd months work. I often think of how much better it would be if I had additional musicians and singers who can do more than I can muster. I listen to work of other recordists whose audio quality surpasses mine, but for William Blake’s birthday this highlighted section is a link to a post from way back at the beginning of this project that talks not of Blake’s birth, but of the day he died. It discloses an unusual connection and possible inspiration to another set of poets who came by that place much later.
Here’s a surreal, enigmatic, and yet compelling story by Dave Moore that I adopted and combined with some orchestral music I composed for it several years ago. Dave wrote this during a period when he had returned to Iowa to help is aged father who was dying, and while nothing in the piece refers directly to that situation, this reader feels something of that experience is present in its absence in this.
Dave’s father was a Protestant minister, and so church buildings of various sizes would have been part of his upbringing. And the mysterious boxes within boxes that the story’s protagonist must pack may be a visual image for the tasks of dealing with the stuff of wrapping up a life. But neither of those things can completely anchor the way this tale unwraps itself.
Easily the strongest, most enigmatic, and potentially objectionable image in the tale is the encounter with a young woman. A listener may meet this image in the story and react to it quickly (or thoughtfully) as an intrusion of some kind of male gaze trope, that thing that can be a tiring and reductionist frame on the real lives of half of humanity. But to my reading of this, it is the core image of this piece and it’s remarkably faceted with a cubist/surrealist multiplicity of reflections: an anima, a reminder of the exiled female in the masculine church, a strange mixture of sexuality, ambivalent reactions to sexuality, and yet also with a bit of the nature of parental caretaking roles reversing themselves. Many a time when I revisit this image by listening to this piece, I see something new in it.
Long time readers here will know that I admire Dave’s work, and once more I thank him for his contributions to this project with his voice and keyboard playing—but for you that is of little matter. Perhaps my specific and not necessarily popularly aligned taste, or knowing Dave and the circumstances around this pieces creation including that it’s my own music and performance that presents it here, distorts my evaluation of this image; but listen to this piece and see if you agree that the strange encounter at the center of this dusty and enigmatic tale is a remarkable image worth contemplating.
What value is mystery and strangeness to gratitude, to a sense of thanks? Let me try an experiment with you here.
American Thanksgiving still retains a degree of its nature as a harvest festival, and so when looking for a text to use today I came upon this one by highly unfashionable poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Looking at the poem on the page one can see why modern poetic esteem may have passed Mr. Longfellow by. It’s a sonnet, intricately rhymed (ABBAABBA CDECDE), an antique skill that we no longer appreciate as much. Its imagery is both pat and removed from most of our daily lives, a rural landscape at night before the coming of electric lights, where moonlight can illuminate reflective objects and cast discernable if low-contrast shadows. Harvest signs include loaded wagons (“wains” is the charming old word for wagons chosen perhaps for rhyming needs), bundled sheaves of grain after reaping by hand, the changing of the bird population, falling leaves. In summary, we have imagery that is largely meaningless or lacking impact to us today in our modern America. It looks like stuff that is, and justly is, filed away in dusty poetry collections.
An illustration for “The Harvest Moon” from an 1880 edition of Longfellow poems
But what if we were to experiment a bit with Longfellow, and make him stranger and more mysterious? After all, this past rural world is now alien to most of us as some far-off land. And Longfellow, who we mistake as a rote poet here, has a subtle point to make, one that cultured British people might excavate and polish if this were a poem by Shelley or Keats, but which Americans may be too willing to overlook due to the old modes of Longfellow’s poetry.
In today’s performance of Longfellow’s “The Harvest Moon” I attempt that act of mysteriousation. It started with breaking up the lines and underemphasizing the end-rhyme. This lets it act as an occult undercurrent, rather than a regular chime we know is coming. I sing the words as if this is new and not fully understood to the singer or listener. And as I often do here, I make the music I wrote and performed carry a lot of the load. The main harmony is carried by a 12-string acoustic guitar, which is playing primarily suspended chords, chords that remove the 3rd of the scale that makes a chord major or minor, and replaces that significant note instead with a not fully discordant but unexpected 2nd or 4th. The bass plays a busy but similarly unsettled melody line under this. And as a final signal that we are to regard this old American landscape with a time-tourists’ eye, and not as an old poem full of discarded conventions, I play a higher melody line and drone on a sitar,* an instrument from another continent.
All that distancing effect is to force the listener to hear this poem as if it may have some meaning other than a decorative picture of a quaint and therefore meaningless scene. Longfellow outright begs us to do this in the text when he writes “All things are symbols.” This poem is late Longfellow, he’s nearly 70 when he wrote this, his America has passed through a horrible civil war, his life has passed through multiple family sorrows, and he is now an old man. The songbirds gone here are but counters perhaps, but his life of poetry is nearing its close. He’s spent his life helping establish that there can and should be an American poetry, that there can be American poets. We are them. Our grandparents and great-grandparents are the children asleep in those strange and now far-off curtained rooms. We are the piping quails, grounded birds gorging on the grain-seeds fallen to the under-shadows of the harvested sheaves.
Let us be grateful, let us be thankful, for those before us. Wrong and right they labored for us. Enslaved and wrongful masters they planted and harvested on lands that cannot forget the exiled feet of those before us. How strange, that it was exiles and the tempest-tossed that appropriated this place. Exiles creating exiles. There is a mystery in that.
*If you visualize me sitting cross-legged on a damask pillow with incense wafting in paisley curlicues while plucking on that elaborate musical device, it may be good for the effect of the piece—but in the spirit of full disclosure I’m playing a MIDI guitar here which allows my plucking to be translated into the notes and sounds of that difficult to maintain and master South Asian instrument.
As a person educated in the mid-20th century this is what I knew about Fredrich Nietzsche: he was a philosopher who was all the rage in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century and he had this thing about achieving a more perfected human condition. Oh, I knew one more thing about him, something that discouraged all other curiosity: the Nazis liked him, saw him as an intellectual forerunner of their decidedly non-intellectual movement.
I know only a little more than that now. In the past few years it’s become accepted knowledge that the Nazi connection was to a large degree accidental. Nietzsche’s sister was his literary executor,* and she was a Nazi fan-girl who did a great deal to forge that linkage; and since the Nazis were nationalists, the available idea that there was a notable German cultural figure whose contradictory writings could dab some intellectual cologne onto their bully-boy stink was useful.
But this fall, while reading a blog I follow,** I learned another thing: that Nietzsche was also a poet. Which shouldn’t be news to me I guess, but it had never occurred to me, even though as a philosopher Nietzsche seemed to be something of a human quote machine who could turn out memorable phrases. And today’s text, “In German November,” was the example that introduced me to that fact.
Ah sunflower! Weary of cold and $%*@! snow.
I know only a little about German literary Romanticism, but what I know makes Nietzsche’s poem part of that tradition: worship of nature, doomed love—Damn! There’s even a prominent talking flower for Odin’s-sake! This can seem very twee in summary, but Nietzsche redeems it with his gift for language and characterization. Unlike other translations I’ve done here, this one’s poetic images and plot moved rather easily into English.
This is autumn: it — it just breaks your heart.”
After the poem establishes its “This is Autumn…” refrain by opening with it, the first full stanza has a graceful post-equinox image of a now lower sun against a mountain that would please Wang Wei. The poem’s second scene, set in a orchard with post-frost fruit starting to rot mixes sex and death tropes effectively. And then there’s that talking flower.
It takes some nerve to carry that scene off both as a writer and as a performer. I felt I had to push myself as a singer to portray the sunflower, and part of the reason I’ve started to put chord sheets up for some of my compositions here is to encourage better singers to improve on my attempts.
Simple chords, but this one has opportunities for a singer.
Because Nietzsche’s German moves fairly easily to English my translation doesn’t differ that much from the one in this link, which also provides you with the original German. One choice/change I made: I wanted to emphasize the existential angst of the sunflower and to strengthen an image—and so the original German: “in ihrem Auge glänzet dann/Erinnerung auf” gains a repeated word “memorial” reflected in the dying flower/eye. I also thought the implied pause in Nietzsche’s refrain: “This is autumn: it—just breaks your heart.” could be emphasized further by repeating the “it” for a stutter effect.
As I mentioned above, I went for it in this performance, and given my limits as a singer it may not be to everyone’s taste, but it was the best I could do given the more limited recording opportunities I have these days. The player gadget to hear it is below. Thanks for reading and listening in whatever November wherever you are.
*Nietzsche died in 1900, late enough to give his ideas access to the early 20th century’s cultural ferment, but with the benefit that the proponent of those ideas wasn’t around to contradict the uses interpreters put them to.
**Byron’s Muse. I like to think I’ve outgrown youthful goth romanticism, which fits badly with my aged frame and less virginal connections to death, but Byron’s Muse sometimes reminds me that artistically there is still some attraction there.
I’m going to take a walk around to get to a good small poem by Emily Bronte today. It won’t be a walk about the English moors, alas, but it’ll have to do in this otherwise wild and windy place we call the Internet.
My spouse and I have a worthwhile understanding that we are both a sort of introvert. Definitions vary between peoples and time, but one short definition of an introvert is that they are the people that gain strength and restoration from solitude rather than from gatherings of people. One can easily suspect that writers and their close allies, the readers, may be more likely introverts, but of course that’s not always so. That indispensable pioneer French Modernist Apollinaire* was famously sociable within his element, a joyous bohemian boulevardier. Other writers, even while writing, seek out crowded places filled with voices and humanity to concentrate on their silent work. August Wilson, the great 20th century American dramatist, liked to write in cafes and coffee shops, places where other peoples’ voices were staging their own improvised plays.
But we can’t be sure that those two, or others like them, still aren’t introverts. My wife is good in typical social situations. I’m not. I’m so bad at social interactions that I’m sure I often leave a bad first, second, or last impression.** Still, one thing that joins most introverts is that however well we perform the social whirl, it tires us out—and when we need to recharge it’s not a different self-selected group, even a group of friends or family, that we seek in order to recharge, instead it’s solitude.
So, I have a phrase that I use with my wife when she needs to recharge: “Oh, have a good time at your Introverts’ Support Group.” Which of course isn’t a group—it’s time alone.
I have a phrase that I use with my wife when she needs to recharge: “Oh, have a good time at your Introverts’ Support Group.” Which of course isn’t a group—it’s time alone.
This sort of time alone is particularly hard for non-wealthy women to find. In Bronte’s time a great deal of domestic and family labor was assumed to be their unquestionable duty, something that modern times and insufficient good intentions haven’t eliminated. I have some idea of the particular domestic duties of Emily Bronte admirer and like-named Emily, Emily Dickinson, but less of Bronte’s own family obligations, but I assume they were considerable.***
In our current Covid-19 age of shelter in place recommendations, the pressures of everyone at home may make more and more of us like unto residents of an isolated parsonage in the North of England like the Bronte’s. If so, today’s Emily Bronte poem, written it says in her collected poems on Sunday December 13th, 1840, may still speak to us. Arithmetic tells me Bronte would have been 22 when she wrote this. Here’s a link to the complete text in case you’d like to follow along.
Introvert Irony: the only image we have of Emily Bronte is a group portrait painted by her brother of her with her sisters.
On publication this poem bore the title “Retirement,” but I’ve chosen not to use it as I don’t think Bronte is using the word in the sense most of us use it today. I believe the sense she intends is more at a wish to retire (as one would “retire to bed”) to rest and refresh oneself after a day of labor.
Indeed, the scene she wishes for and describes may be staged in sleep and dreams—though if so, her dreams are outside, alone, and in God’s nature. My wife’s most favored respite spots are walking in parks, nature reserves, and around wild lake shores. For introverts like Emily Bronte, my wife, and I, a concertedly apprehended nature is the other that somehow comforts us.
Wishing all the readers and listeners here the companionship and solitude they need and desire, and, and but, in the proper mixture! The player gadget to hear my performance of Emily Bronte’s “O Let Me Be Alone Awhile” is below.