Readers often hear different poems when reading the same text. It’s unavoidable, even though it causes some authors to despair at how they are misread. So, it should be no surprise that it is possible in performance to recast poetry considerably without changing a word.
Around 1902 Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote a poem taking exception to a too-easy consolation meant to comfort. He cared for the poem enough that around 20 years later he revised it slightly, to emphasize his response to this well-meaning gesture, explicitly writing out the one word concise enough to underline his feelings at the offer of comfort: “No.”
Those who study Yeats’ life are pretty sure this poem is biographical and is based on his unrequited courtship of Maude Gonne. That’s a long story, and to say that these were two complicated individuals is to understate the matter. If one reads today’s text, that poem “The Folly of Being Comforted,” in that biographical way, it makes sense. Here’s a link to that text. That reading, coldly condensed, would have it that someone told Yeats, “Hey, that hottie that you are so enamored with — I’ve heard she’s getting older, grey hair, older skin around her eyes. Sure, they say with age comes wisdom, but never mind any of that, she’s no longer so attractive that others will be chasing her. So now, maybe your chance will come around.” And to this Yeats gives his “No,” explaining that as he sees it, she’s not lost a step beauty and attractiveness-wise.
There’s a perfectly good romantic love sonnet there, and that’s not what I performed today.
I’m mentioned this year that I have family and others I know going through infirmities and transitions. It’s not my nature to talk about them, or even to directly write of my own experience of those situations. Even though one of the principles of this project has been to seek out and to present “Other People’s Stories,” I’m hesitant to speak over their own voices* in the same way that I’m comfortable talking about those long dead and in some cases too little remembered.
As I was working today on finishing the mix of the audio performance you can hear below, Dave called me to tell me that our friend and poet Kevin FitzPatrick had died last night. We were planning to visit him in hospice tomorrow. Now we’ll visit him when we think of him. Visiting hours are now unlimited.
For many years Kevin and Ethna would celebrate poetry in a public reading on St. Patrick’s Day in Minnesota.
Another poet we both know, Ethna McKiernan, is also facing a serious illness this year. When I read and then performed Yeats’ poem, I was thinking of these things. I recognized it was a romantic love poem, yes, but I read all sorts of undertones in it. We are meant to pass over them in the “correct” reading. Maude Gonne was all of 35 when Yeats first published his poem, the grey hair and “shadows…about her eyes” were likely subtle things. We’re all more than double that. Age is not subtle at that volume. When I read Yeats’ simple elaborating line “I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.” I felt my own lack of useful care or comfort I’ve offered Kevin or Ethna, partly because I fear I’d be rather bad at it, and partly because I’m less close to either of them than even Dave is. That said I’ve been acquainted with Ethna for about 40 years. I may have not been close to her in her “wild summer,” but I knew her when. Yes, the fire “burns more clearly” with her even now as Yeats says. After all, when you get our age, there’s more fuel.
Yeats called his poem, “The Folly of Being Comforted” and he ended the poem with that title. He likely had real feelings in this matter, long ago when he was alive. When I think of these mortal matters, now, here, my feelings are different than a witty sonnet about someone’s crude mistake regarding his estimate of Maude Gonne. And so I performed my feelings, using Yeats words.
The player to hear that performance is below for many of you, but some ways of reading this won’t display that. So, I also offer this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window and play it.
*I feel I must guard myself in that partly because I’d easily fall into it if I didn’t.
I move back and forth with musical instruments and intent here, but since I started as a guitarist, there’s a lot of guitar playing in the Parlando Project pieces. When someone asks about my musical stuff, such as what I play, I often redirect, and make it a point to call myself “a composer” even though the poet in me knows that word’s connotations are fraught.
“Composer” risks putting the listener either in mind of some long past-tense powdered wig guy or a highly serious and educated modern theoretician. I’m neither. What I mean is that my intents with music are to invoke certain sonic combinations. I use various instruments to do that, and often that’s a struggle as I’m not as skilled as many players. Every note I play here comes after a committee meeting between the composer and the musician where the composer asks for things the musician can’t do and the musician suggests to the composer alternatives it can accomplish. Sometimes these are drawn-out affairs, and sometimes they are small latencies as I am asked to improvise then and there.
My poor guitars sit silently in the middle of this struggle, in days between pieces being finished, or in the moments between notes. These two sides win and lose and compromise. I’d certainly be a better composer if I could experiment in areas which my musicianship cannot empirically enter. I think I become a better musician in the times when the composer pushes me to think thematically or to not make the reflex choice.
If all that above seems dreary, it’s not. Yes, there’s friction, but each side enjoys it most of the time. And making music and hearing it are both sensuous acts. Thinking and scheming are involved, but what happens after that, when the next note is sounded, that just feels.
I mentioned last time that every September 18th I take some time to play an electric guitar and commemorate the date that Jimi Hendrix died after likely mistaking the dosage of some foreign sleeping pills. Think for a moment during this paragraph about the troubled history of musicians and drugs. Drugs to stay up, drugs to mellow out, drugs to excite creativity, drugs to sleep fast and deep. In terms of the life the composer asks so much, and the musician abuses the body’s instrument trying to extract those timbres and notes. It’s unavoidable for the composer and musician to struggle, but sometimes external and internal factors let this get out of control.
I played for a couple hours this Saturday, as much as I could spare. I had no ready words to include until I read on the same day an interview in Premier Guitar magazine with a band called Squid.* Squid is a British post-rock/math-rock kind of band, and that’s a genre I have some interest in, as bands that get those labels often are seeking new solutions to using conventional rock combo instruments. The band’s two guitarists had some interesting things to say about the electric guitar as it stands in 2021, more than 50 years after Jimi Hendrix helped redefine its parameters. So, I copied out a couple of quotes from the interview** and read them along with what occurred to me on the guitar in that hour and time.***
Today’s piece is what resulted. In the text, Squid guitarist Louis Borlase opens with an abstract theoretical statement, but soon offers a testimony affirming the expressiveness of the instrument, and for all of Squid’s make-it-new Modernism he ends by saying that that expressive voice allows you to aspire to “those people who came before you.”
Borlase implies a lot into what for someone of my age seems objectively a short amount of history for the electric guitar, which was only about 20 years old when I was born, and then whose extraordinary timbral variations were first exploited in my lifetime. But he’s not wrong, electric guitarists have stuffed a lot into that time since Hendrix’s. And electric guitar is also just another instrument, something to make music with, and we know we’ve done that since someone drilled some holes in a hollow bone or reed.
The second part quotes the other guitarist, Anton Pearson, who speaks theoretically again. Pearson says that the electric guitar is the “perfect marriage of technology and a gestural nature” which I believe at this time is true. Just as the invention of the modern drum set allowed for one drummer and their four limbs to command a combination of percussion voices and roles, the modern electric guitarist can use the fingers of both hands and foot-operated devices to create a large amount of playing instructions and sounds.
As beautiful and fundamental as wind instruments are to music, no one has extended them to that level. Keyboards come very close, including their modern use to control synthesizer timbral range and their ability to use all the fingers and limbs at once, but Pearson wisely restates his “gestural nature” of the guitar to include “visceral nature.” I have seen Keith Emerson stab knives into his keyboard and wrestle it to the ground. I have heard the groans and watched the creative agony on Keith Jarrett’s face while he played acoustic piano. Yet, they never touch the strings directly with either hand in various ways, they never move the instrument into the spot where the amp starts to possess the note.
“Is this a crime against the state? No! Someone controls electric guitar”
Are we past all that, is the electric guitar now a long-tail, trailing instrument tied to a passing era? The very thing I pedantically call myself, a composer, is now often modified to “beat maker” as folks think of new ways to order and modify sound, often without touching a conventional instrument. As listeners the instrumentation is immaterial after all. As I wrestle compositionally with my drum tracks, I know that rewards care, and succeeds or fails just as playing an instrument does.
But does anyone just power up and make beats for the sheer joy of it, not for recording or an audience, but just for the physical feel of the sounds being made, and made in real time, and for the ambiguity of the aches in my old finger joints after a session of fretting and neck wrangling? Does Jimi Hendrix, if and wherever his consciousness resides, miss that feel of that neck and the strings under his fingertips?
*If this sort of music sounds interesting to you, you can hear some of the actual sounds of Squid, touring dates, etc. at their web site at this link. Not your thing? I understand. It’s just one of the kinds of music that interests me personally.
**The full interview conducted by Tzvi Gluckin is available on Premier Guitar’s website at this hyperlink.
***Toolkit and process? Here’s details for guitar nerds. Everyone else is excused and can go home early. The drums are a software drum machine, which I intended to improve and then didn’t. I laid down the electric bass part with a Squier Jaguar bass. I did two passes and picked the best one. Last year I bought a set of TI flat-wound bass strings for this bass, which cost about a third of what the bass is worth, but I have old fingers and the soft feel of the TI strings are what they like. The guitar I naturally was drawn to on this day is my current Fender Stratocaster, a “reverse Strat” which emulates the pickup array and neck that lefty Hendrix would have on a regular right-handed Strat flipped upside down.
I tuned up and played for a couple of minutes to reacquaint my hands after playing bass, and then hit record and played for a bit over 16 minutes with the bass and drums. The lead guitar in the right channel is going through a reissue EH Triangle Big Muff fuzz pedal and a Cry Baby wah-wah pedal, though for some of what you’ll hear the wah pedal is left partway down for that Tallulah Bankhead “cocked wah” sound. Rather than emulating Hendrix (something I do sometimes on September 18th) I was aiming this time for the guitar to speak in different voices and over the 16 minutes it sort of does, but I decided to trim the piece down to mostly the parts where I read the Squid guys quotes about electric guitar. At over 6 minutes, even the edited piece is longer than I like to present for the Parlando Project.
The last track I laid down was the left channel rhythm guitar part. I used the same Stratocaster guitar, but it’s compressed with a Boss CS-3 compressor pedal and running through a Walrus Audio Lillian phaser, which even bought used is the most expensive guitar pedal I own. That track sounds almost like a modulated electric piano comping away, but it’s just electric guitar being versatile.
Both of the guitar parts are one pass, “live in the studio” parts. I didn’t have much time to do otherwise. The guitar amp for both electric guitar tracks is a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe.
My recording computer in my studio space is still an 11-year-old Mac Mini running an older version of Apple Logic Pro X.
If you’ve followed this Top Ten countdown series of the most liked and listened to audio pieces this summer at the Parlando Project you’ve taken a bit of a journey, and I thank you for coming along. The kind of music I create and present here varies, and lately I’ve been doing some louder stuff with electric instruments which may not be your cup of noise. Stick with Parlando, we’re like Minnesota weather — we’ve got four Seasons! and they play in repertory. Now on to the most played audio piece here this summer.
A Cradle Song by William Blake You can think of this honest lullaby as a Blake out-take. It sounds like it belongs in one of his pair of engraved books of short poems, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, but for whatever reason it was never engraved by this artist/printer/poet.
In the original post* I commented on why I chose to perform this piece of worry and comfort. I said then that lullabies are designed to comfort the parent and the child, and this piece still comforts me as transitions proceed around my life. Perhaps it’ll comfort you too. And as a bonus, here’s a chord sheet of my music for this text of Blake’s. I played this with a capo on the 4th fret, so the recording sounds in the key of C# minor, but the chords shown here have more open strings, and acoustic guitars love open strings.
Blake’s lullaby, with my music to suit.
Speaking of musical variation, I spent time yesterday in my studio space playing a Stratocaster electric guitar as part of my yearly September 18th commemoration of the death of Jimi Hendrix, and that squall delayed by a day this wrap-up of our summer Top Ten countdown. During this, a sixteen-minute torrent of notes was recorded yesterday, and being in the room with that sound too comforted me as much as this lullaby’s soft acoustic guitar. I’ve edited the live take down to six and a half minutes, and there are words too, a sort of found poem. Follow this blog or check back, it’ll be here in the coming week.
*Each bolded piece’s name listed in this countdown is a link to the original post and presentation of it, so if you like a piece or want to know more about my original encounter with it, clicking those bolded links will take you there.
Continuing our countdown of the most listened to and liked pieces here this past summer we move today to the numbers 4 through 2 on our list. I’ve mentioned that blog traffic and listens have dropped off a bit this summer, which from looking at past years stats follows a yearly trend. Things are picking up this month, which is encouraging — and even before autumn has begun, we’ve already rolled up our most page views and visitors for a year ever. Most of the blog visits come from those using search engines stumbling onto a particular page, and there are some perennially popular Parlando blog posts that draw visitors month after month and year after year. Maybe sometime this fall I’ll talk about those, but when it comes to listens to the audio pieces this summer, the list is all recent work, so let’s move on to them.
4. I, Too by Langston Hughes I did a double post for American Independence Day, using texts from Walt Whitman (“I Hear America Singing”) and this answer piece by Langston Hughes. Hughes’ piece easily outdrew the Whitman in listens, perhaps because it’s fresher to some listeners (Whitman’s piece has already had at least one widely-sung setting). Then too, the music I wrote for “I, Too” was a catchy little cycle of chords that I played in full strums on acoustic guitar. To my ears, and apparently many of yours, it was simply effective.
Hughes wrote his poem as an individual Afro-American’s story, one paralleling his own biography, but it’s easy to see he intends it as a fully-earned addition to Whitman’s catalog of Unum’s in the E Pluribus. I decided to add onto Mr. Hughes’ lyric one short phrase at the ending, “If not us, who else,” in part to double-down the Independence Day point being made. Questions of cultural appropriation may prick us, their needling will establish these concerns have small if sharp and painful points, but the overall issue of who tells, who sings is long past decision. Story tellers will tell. Singers will sing. Poets can do both at the same time.
If you haven’t heard this one, or want to hear it again, there may be a player gadget below, and if not, this highlighted hyperlinkcan also play the piece.
3. Sappho’s Old Age by Sappho Speaking of cultural appropriation, yesterday in this Top Ten countdown we had a piece written by pioneering Canadian poet Bliss Carman presenting himself as if a reincarnated Sappho. Is that ridiculous? I guess it can’t help but be, but I honestly enjoyed his poem and performing it. However, this piece in today’s part of the countdown was somewhat more popular this summer and was actually largely written by Sappho.
Now it’s my turn to respectfully appropriate her work and twist it my way. Ancient Greek being — oh what’s a saying for this? Oh yes: “It’s Greek to me.” — I worked from literal glosses of the text and tried to turn it into singable modern English idiom. Then I got to the poem’s conclusion, and enchanted by the parallels with a poem by 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud that I presented here this spring, I decided to replace Sappho’s metaphor with one drawn from Rimbaud and his life.
Bliss, I guess you and I are in the same boat, probably on one of the lakes between my state and yours.
To hear the performance in my old age of Sappho’s song of her old age a lot of ages ago, you can use the gadget below or this highlighted hyperlink which will open a new tab window and play it.
Bee busy! Hearts! Summer photos by Heidi Randen.
2. The Poem ‘The Wild Iris’ by Heidi Randen Heidi wrote the text I used here at the end of a post at her blog this summer, though I added the music and additional repetitions and pauses of my device to the piece you’ll hear. In turn Heidi was resonating with something she had read in a poem by Louise Glück. So, in the end, I appropriated her work appropriating Glück’s. This process by which I appropriated the text as well as the musical repetition give it a rondeau effect if not that exact form.
Oddly, all this repetition was to present a thought about transitions, which Heidi and I are both going through this summer. Things cycle, things repeat, and then they don’t. Every day for months a parent picks up an infant and carries it somewhere. Then the toddler asks, and the parent lifts their toddling body to hip or shoulder and carries them bidden. One day they no longer ask, the parent no longer lifts, and never lifts again. And then sometimes, with time and age, the parent, will be carried by the child.
That and more. We can be so nearsighted with doorways, they sometime appear only when we are on the threshold.
Let’s continue or count-down to the most listened to and liked Parlando Project piece over the last summer. Today we move to the half-way point, numbers 7 through 5.
Wait, maybe you’re new here. Parlando Project — what’s that? Well, for a little over five years I’ve been presenting combinations of various words (mostly poetry) with original music. The words are mostly poetry not just because poetry has musical elements built into the form, but because I like compression of expression. Typical Parlando pieces are 2 to 5 minutes in length. You may notice that I’m generally not doing poetry written during your lifetime or even mine, and that’s not by choice. American copyright law puts up heavy barriers to reuse of copyrighted work; but on the good side I happen to like some of what went on in the first quarter of the 20th century, and so you’ll see a lot of work by the pioneering Modernists here. One of the benefits of this Project is that I’ve been rediscovering in public what they did to “make it new,” and finding some of their ideas worthy of being revived today.
What kind of music then? I like to think I vary that, composing and arranging for different instruments and sounds. Some pieces are just voice and acoustic guitar (my first instrument), some have fuller arrangements using orchestral instruments, and some pieces use an off-the-cuff rock band. And some pieces use instruments you don’t hear all that often in America, or synthesizer sounds created or modified for the composition.
7. Answer July by Emily Dickinson We left off with Dickinson’s childhood classmate and “You should really publish your stuff Emily” friend Helen Hunt Jackson. So, it’s a natural segue to this piece that was a bit more popular last spring.
What was I saying about unusual instruments? The main motif in this one is played on a sitar, the South Asian instrument that had a short vogue in The Sixties. Some composers and musicians who encountered sitar took the rich musical heritage associated with it to heart and incorporated, and still incorporate, elements there into music played on other instruments, but unless one wants to invoke a “Don’t be late for the Human Be-In” soundtrack vibe, the sound of the sitar isn’t something Americans get to hear much now, but it’s still a beautiful sound.
I’ve never actually owned one of the complex and somewhat fiddly sitar instruments, though I’ve used more than one “electric sitar” approximation over the years. The practical compromise I’ve come to favor is to use MIDI “virtual instruments” where I can play my guitar with a MIDI pickup and the sounds that come out are decent approximations of the real acoustic instruments playing that note.
Dickinson’s poem I used here is one of my favorite expressions of the ineffability of the summer season, and it seems a lot of you agreed this summer. To hear it again, (or for the first time) you may see a player gadget below. No gadget? Then this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play it.
6. Over the Roofs the Honey-Coloured Moon by Bliss Carman. I had fun last month riffing on some late 19th/early 20th century poets’ names, but Canadian poet Bliss Carman’s name easily equals Algernon Charles Swinburne in promising the most in Yellow Book Aestheticism of that period. His audaciousness in the collection that introduced this piece Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics was to “Imagine each lost lyric [of ancient Greek poet Sappho] as [if] discovered, and then to translate it.” The first part of that description, which hints at mediumship is outrageous enough, but even the second clause reminds me of my own audacity in avidly translating work from cultures and languages I’m not native or intimate with.
His synthetic results still have their attractions. Sappho — however real and in what particulars she was, thought, and created in her reality — hardly exists. We have but two or three mostly complete poems, and a scattered field of quotes and fragments. We have thick books binding up Shakespeare’s works, and facsimile editions of Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts with every alternative and scratched out word, and yet we reinvent those authors and their work every generation or so, using such ample literary evidence and fresh insight. Carman was more cavalier with Sappho, and the best historical studies and literary scholarship can point out what are likely errors or mere imagining in this man’s early 20th century Canadian Sappho — but Sappho was a lyric poet, and lyric poetry exists in charged moments that seem as present. Lyric love poets may lie, may often prove untrue even if they are sincere during their moments, but isn’t it also so that we may accept those momentary lies if they are beautiful enough?
Taken maybe 80 years apart, three poets, their collars and neckwear. Each have their mouths basically in a neutral state though Carman’s is somewhat downturned and Millay has just a hint of a knowing smile. Dickinson seems to be looking right into the colloidal silver on the plate and saying, “I know, I burn you.”
5. Recuerdo by Edna St. Vincent Millay Speaking of lyric poets able to interrogate romance, let’s move on to Millay. Each of the bolded listings in this Top Ten is a hyperlink back to the original post when I discussed the work in somewhat greater length, and with this one I compared Millay’s impact in her time to Joni Mitchell 50 years later.
I also wrote about the ambiguity I sensed in the tale of the infatuated young couple and their interaction with the old woman on the ferry. In that reading the old woman is meant to stand, imagistically, for economic and social inequality coexisting in the romantic night within the last time we called a decade “The Twenties.”
Maybe I’m reading too much in this, but it’s as if a great portion of the whole of the novel The Great Gatsby was condensed into this poem that I can sing in four minutes. Well perhaps the 20th century cared more for novelists than lyric poets, but both Fitzgerald and Millay went through a period before their deaths when they were down-rated and thought too tied to now irrelevant past decades. Fitzgerald got reassessed in the second half of the 20th century while Millay’s examination of society and literary value continued to languish. Now our own Twenties can find its own reading of that previous Twenties. Reading, or listening? Here’s my performance of Millay’s “Recuerdo” available with the player gadget where present, or with this highlighted hyperlink where it isn’t.
It’s time for our quarterly look back at the pieces here the got the most listens and likes. We start today with the numbers 10 through 8. Each bolded listing as we count down from 10 to 1 is a link to the original post where I first discussed my encounter with the text used, and those original posts will also include the text of the poem used or a link to it.
10. I Am Laughing in the Dark Underground by Frank Hudson The Parlando Project has from the beginning aimed to put other folks words to music we compose and play. Dave and I are both writers, so I could predominantly present work we wrote the words for here — but I find the encounter with other people’s words interesting for myself, and I hope it adds variety for you the reader and listener. Therefore, it was with some hesitation that I posted this self-written piece for the blog’s 5th Anniversary last month.
You can click on the bolded title above to read what I wrote about writing the words then, but in summary, this text came largely from my interrogating one of those vivid dreams that happen around dawn when you’re half waking and half still asleep. To hear the musical piece, you can use this highlighted hyperlink, or a player gadget that will appear below for some of you.
There’s a player device that some of you will see to hear Dave’s song as I performed it, and if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink is another way.
“By Moonlight A Goose Can Be a Swan” a late summer photo by Heidi Randen
8. August by Helen Hunt Jackson Speaking of deceased musicians, recent new member of the choir invisible Michael Chapman had a musical life that ran with some marvelously miscellaneous combinations. Early in his career a singer/keyboard player wanted him to join his backing band. Chapman would recount that he figured his own front-man career was launching just fine, and said no thanks. The keyboard guy? Elton John. Chapman was based out of Leeds in England then, and he wanted another electric guitar in his band. He picked up just such a fellow from Hull who had to be lured away from his band for Chapman’s. That guy’s name was Mick Ronson. Having been pried away from one band, Ronson soon left Chapman’s group for another, becoming the notable guitarist and arranger for David Bowie’s breakthrough Spiders From Mars band.
Musicians love those kind of stories, because it’s assumed that many will have “close, but missed it” tales of successful opportunities slipping from their grasp. How about writers? I give you Helen Hunt Jackson. Jackson was a grade school classmate of one Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson she connected with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the late-period Transcendentalist critic, activist, and editor. Higginson, you may remember, later gets his knocks from history for not fully recognizing and promoting Dickinson’s unorthodox verse, though after Dickinson’s death he arranged and helped edit the publication of collections of Dickinson’s work that started Dickinson’s career posthumously.
Jackson on the other hand ardently pushed Dickinson to publish while she lived, and for that effort she got little support from the living Emily.
I first ran into Jackson around the same time I watched the often satirical Wild Nights with Emily movie a few years ago. That mixed-bag film portrayed Higginson as a nincompoop and Jackson as a simpering all-to-Victorian fustian. I’ve read a lot of bad 19th century verse looking for stuff to use here** so I figured it worth the risk to look at some of Jackson’s own poetry.
No, it’s not Modernist before it’s time in the same way that Dickinson’s can sometimes strike you, but it can be more vivid and effective than many of her contemporaries with higher surviving profiles, and this sonnet “August” is a fine example of that. Here’s the highlighted hyperlink to play my performance, and some will see a player below that can do that too.
*Dave, a keyboard player, led off his song with Nicky Hopkins, who’s one of the lesser-knowns in the grouping. As a bass player I couldn’t let that role in the song’s “catacosmic” band go unfilled, and so I added the Jaco Pastorius verse.
**My general read on the later 19th century was that the Modernists were correct in rejecting what poetry had come to by the beginning of the 20th century. Stale metaphor, simple messages, perfunctory expression, hard-walled gotta make my rhyme and meter exact verse — there was good reason to make it new.
Today’s piece uses a very short poem I wrote in immediate reaction to some sad news I heard this weekend. Despite that news’ immediacy and particular sadness, the poem that resulted became something else, and I’m not sure why, even as I was writing it, revising it, and then figuring out today’s music and performing it. Being present throughout, shouldn’t I know?
Without stepping on anyone’s own living story, and my limited understanding and participation in it, let me just say that not one, but two poets that Dave Moore and I have known for many years have been dealing with potentially mortal illnesses this summer. I started intending to write a personal poem about considering their possible deaths, and some very tangled words started to emerge.
Why those words? I’ve already told you I don’t know for sure. Perhaps the words were tangled because I don’t feel I’ve been a supportive friend in their time of illness for complicated reasons which include my social awkwardness and not really knowing to what degree they would welcome that in their situation. The tangled words were awfully impersonal, even if the person wrestling with them was infused with emotions.
I decided to leave the tangled syntax of what came out, because I came to feel that their odd flow was a potentially striking effect, slowing the reader to consider them more closely. I made attempts to bring the personal in, but none of my considered words seemed to fit when I did. Could the impersonality too be part of the way the poem means? Yes, by this point I truly wondered what my poem — my own poem — meant.
Why Now, Vocalissimus
Why now, when it is already so
when I listen to people sing in the night,
that so many of them are dead?
And some of the words that comfort us,
or cause us to wonder at why we’re not,
were written by those who now never talk.
But if you go to silence for after all,
leaving just words, sundered breath,
will they be but husks, after seed has left?
When I completed the draft I used today, I thought it had become a poem that isn’t about particular people, but about us (you, I, anyone) wondering about what a poet leaves when their poems no longer have a choice but to remain silent on the page. I know that is a problematic mode. T. S. Eliot, who like many effective poets was right and wrong about why his poetry — much less poetry in general — worked, would approve of this poem’s impersonality; but in our century now we often expect poetry to include diaristic detail, and while the muse wouldn’t supply it, I myself expect that the poem should be specific about those that I’m thinking of — and yet to include explicit thoughts of that while they live seemed morbid and presumptuous. Even though I present this piece today, I’m not sure the poem is done with me yet.
Poetry. Seeds. Speak it!
What’s with the weird Latin word in the title? It’s to lead you away from me and my particular poets in my thoughts, and back to just about the only appearance you’ll find of that word used in an English language poem: Wallace Stevens’ “To the Roaring Wind.” In that poem “vocalissimus” is that voice of the muse that asks to become the voice of the poet; and by extension asks us to be the voice of the poet beyond their lifetime, which is what this project is about in our normal course of presenting other people’s words.
Let me leave you with one thought: you here who write, read, speak poetry are part of a continuum. Poet’s poems dream of being more than your poem — the ones with personal details, the ones without. Few will achieve that dream, but still they dream it, before and after the dreamer.
I thought I might get a second American Labor Day piece in from a few ideas I had last week, and this is the one that survived the cut. Well, maybe it’s more than one, as it’s a two-in-one, combining poems written 40 years apart: Lola Ridge’s “Wind Rising in the Alleys” and Dave Moore’s “Big Kids in the Alley.”
Ridge is a figure that could fascinate several different ways. She has a life story that would defy the most expansive novelist to invent. She was “on the scene” in both the literary avant garde of the NYC area of the first half of the 20th century and in touch with the political radicalism* of that era, and as woman who clearly saw the limitations of gender roles, she was allied with the wave of feminism arising then as well. A several-time immigrant herself,** she wrote with insight into the immigrant experience.
Having an interesting life isn’t the same as writing interesting poetry or poetry that compounds its interest over time, and I blow hot and cold myself as I once more start to read some of it. She has more than one style of poetic diction, occasionally sounding a little bit 19th century, and then sometimes flat and spare, to other times striking out with passionately with intense tropes of natural phenomena intending prophetic power. The first time I featured her work here I could easily see how that last kind of writing could link in with our era of Climate Change. In my second time into her work this summer I may be starting to “get” her, and Ridge may be one of those poets who one needs to get over the ways she seems “wrong” before understanding what she’s doing that’s uniquely “right.”
Accidents or coincidences, can sometimes help me do that. Reading her poem about a so red sky in contemporary times of widespread fire-smoke is one such connection. And my second time with Ridge happened when I saw this poem where nature in an urban alley is portrayed at a prophetic level. When I read this poem first published in 1920 I thought of a Dave Moore lyric used in the first Fine Art record in 1978. I made a note immediately to myself that they could be combined.
Are these Labor Day poems? Sandburg’s piece from “Smoke and Steel” I used last time is certainly one in the context of the larger poem it concludes. “Wind Rising in the Alleys” is the concluding poem in Ridge’s Sun Up, a collection of mostly short, sometimes Imagist style, poems and “Wind Rising in the Alleys” is the last one printed in the book’s final sub-section which also includes poem-portraits of famed Anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. The poem for which the section is named, “Reveille” starts “Come forth, you workers!” and ends “Let us meet the fire of their guns/With greater fire/Till the birds shall fly to the mountains/For one safe bough.” “Reveille’s” militant final lines compress parts of Ridge’s rhetoric: fervent radicalism combined with a “who would guess it would come next” poetic image.
As I mention here political beliefs and calls for direct action following from them, I’m thinking that some of you may not share those beliefs. So, let me stop for a moment and mention something important to poetry as an art. Poetry is not a very efficient method of communicating ideas, much less particulars of strategy and tactics. To say that it fails in these things (or to overstate what it may do in some part) is to find the obvious, for poetry fails as expository work or argument closer to the degree that music does. What poetry can do instead, is to tell you what having some idea or intent feels like. Do you recognize what it feels like the moment that someone you love or desire lets you know that they feel the same? That’s what poetry can do, and do intensely. Of course, it may happen that that lover turns out to be flawed, or an outright heal, just as much as they can turn out to be a partner for a lifetime and the treasured ancestor of ancestors.
That moment of love and connection is powerful to feel, and it’s not just romantic love poetry that can present that connection.
The optimistic winds in the alley Ridge speaks of have hope in them, hope for change. I can’t say exactly when it was written, but for publication in 1920 it may have been written in a time that was not at all hopeful for American labor and political radicalism. Berkman and Goldman were deported in 1919, and that year saw red-scare round ups and a particularly deadly year for anti-Black race riots. Whatever it is, “Wind Rising in the Alleys” is not a victory march.
I write about poetry and music on May Day or Labor Day, you can easily find others who will discuss political and economic matters. Let me just summarize a lot of complex history to say that workers and capital have both advanced their lot in the United States greatly since 1919. Hooray for Labor Day. Has justice advanced too? Yes, but the argument that that has been to a lesser and insufficient amount is strong. Hooray for Labor Day — and the days afterward.
Here are the texts of the two allied alleys that I’ve put together today.
Step forward to 1978. Dave Moore’s “Big Kids in the Alley” was written at the request from a rock band named Fine Art forming and making its debut album. I’ve written elsewhere a short history of that band, one of the earlier bands in the Twin Cities area to make and record original music in the Punk to New Wave transit station on the route-way of Indie music. Just as “Wind Rising in the Alleys” was the “album closer” for Ridge’s Sun Up,“Big Kids in the Alley” closed Fine Art’s record and was the encore or set closer for a lot of live sets I saw. At this time it remains one of two studio-recorded songs of theirs that can be found on the Internet, and it was even sampled and used in a hip hop record in our current century. Here’s the YouTube link to that cut from the vinyl record.
You may think that’s quite the intense showpiece. On stage it could be even more so, and it’s certainly not the kind of song you’d want to put in the middle of a set list with other songs immediately following. Rhythm guitarist Ken Carlson was always solid and tasty, and vocalist Terry Paul used a more aggressive style here than what was customary for her, but “Big Kids in the Alley” was also a feature for Fine Art’s lead guitarist Colin Mansfield. You can hear effects pedals sweep frequencies in the song, and Colin would usually play all or most of the parts using the edges of a Zippo lighter in his right hand as a string and pickup exciter as well as a pick. Colin had some understanding of avant garde and other orchestral instrument music under his belt before Fine Art, and while what he was doing here was unprecedented in punk and new wave bandstands in the Twin Cities in the 70s, unorthodox sound generation methods had some pedigrees there. Outside and Free Jazz players would also do similar things, though because those styles were usually wind instrument based, the precedents are less direct. A short-lived rock band movement in NYC at the same time (documented in the No New York LP also of 1978) used random noises and alternative guitar tunings often played by naïve players.*** Colin wasn’t a naïve player.
Lyrically, Dave Moore’s words for “Big Kids in the Alley” starts as a parody of “The Internationale” the 19th century labor anthem. If you read this Wikipedia article compiling the various versions of “The Internationale’s” lyrics over time and in many languages, you can see that they vary considerably, but the opening’s general thrust, retained with some intensifying language in Moore’s parody, is mostly honored. I sometimes wonder how many folks in pioneering venues that supported “punk” or “new-wave” bands in the Twin Cities 40 some years ago recognized the reference. You never ask such things when dancing.
The final chorus of Moore’s version adds an unexpected departure. This morning I realized I’d never asked Dave what his intent was in what he wrote there. I called him up, and he explained “That you’re going to have setbacks, that they are going to react violently. That you should realize that.” Note that the arrangement on Fine Art’s version ends on Dave’s final thought, which emphasizes its impact.
I didn’t use Fine Art’s music for this performance, and my musical setting is simpler while referencing a similar flavor. I did dig out an old Zippo lighter I keep in a drawer in my studio space, but I didn’t quite get Colin’s exact effect in my “get’er done” charge to record today’s piece.
You can hear this loud rock band combination of these two texts written 40 years apart with the player below, or if winds haven’t blown that up your alley, this highlighted hyperlink in an alternative way to play it.
*Early American Modernists, unlike an appreciable number of European or European-based Modernists, tended to be left-leaning, even radical. Many of the American publications that printed the work of Modernist poets or visual artists were equally if not more so concerned with social reform or outright restructuring.
**Though, I do not consider the elements in anyone’s background determinative, I enjoy on a superficial level the diversity of ethnic and regional variety in English language poetry. Ridge is a case where the hyphenation cannot cope. Born in Ireland, immigrated to New Zealand at 8, then to Australia where her career in the arts gained a foothold, then to the American West Coast were she at least touched bases with the contemporary arts there, and finally to New York City where she lived the majority of her life, including time in the teaming immigrant Lower East Side.
***A less-remembered pioneering American punk band Pere Ubu was working some of these ideas as early as 1975. Sonic Youth was connected to and arose after the NYC No-Wave scene was receding, becoming a successful band in the Indie Rock era. In the Twin Cities, The Wallets later presented a more song-oriented version of what some of the NYC No-Wave bands did.
This is the weekend that ends in American Labor Day, and I’m going to see if I can put up at least a couple of pieces celebrating that.
The relationship between poetry and labor is complicated. On one hand, unlike entertainers, popular prose writers, or some other fields in the arts, almost no poet earns enough solely from poetry to escape a complete lifetime of some other everyday work. This could lead to the world of work and the concerns of those that do it being widely incorporated into poetry, but in my observation that’s not so. Why should that be? Well, as much or more than any other art, poetry, in self-image or in public image, sets itself apart from ordinary work.
Poets are seen as dallying with the muses, observing unsullied nature, being drawn to erotic passion, explaining the godhead and the nearly unreal, or engaging in an endless spree of derangement of the senses. None of this seems related to the world of work. Things like that may be a way to spend the weekend or a holiday, and so poetry may be attractive to those seeking to temporarily escape their workdays — but then not an art used to understand them, or to interrogate them.
American Modernist poet Carl Sandburg conspicuously didn’t avoid work and workers as a subject. Some elements of Modernism liked to write about the products of early 20th Century industry — odes to locomotives and airplanes could stand in for birdsong or daffodils just fine for the make-it-new crowd — but the systems that built them and the human effort involved were largely not viewed as fit subjects. Satires of the management classes could be undertaken, and by damning their mundane concerns, the world of work could be dismissed as a fallen human state.
In variety and extent of opportunities to observe work the poet Sandburg may have had an advantage, and he didn’t squander it. Itinerant laborer, municipal government functionary, labor-union agitator, journalist, small-time farmer — Sandburg certainly had his perch to observe work. He wrote about all of those trades from inside and beside. Today’s piece is taken from the very last section of the long title poem in his 1920 poetry collection “Smoke and Steel.” In the poem Sandburg concentrates on that backbone of American industry in his time, the smelting of iron ore into steel, and he does so by focusing on the laborers in that system. While he’s in a long-winded Whitmanesque mode, he brings to this task the miniatures of Imagism, and in this final section, if separated out as I did here, he presents an Imagist poem. Earlier in his poem we meet a lot of people and their tasks involved in the manual labor of steel making; and now in this Imagist ending we’re left with three or four objects. Once he violates the unity of the charged moment, but otherwise it follows Imagism’s rules. Here’s a link to “Smoke and Steel”, and the section I adapted and used today is at the end of the opening poem.
We first meet cobwebs, called “pearly” to indicate a beauty in them, and they’ve caught and held raindrops. Just a “flicker” of wind tears them away from the scene. Moonshine, golden and so also portrayed as beautiful, perhaps in a pool of rainwater, is likewise shivered and dispersed by the wind. Finally, a bar of steel is presented, and there’s contrast. It’s not so transient. Violating the unity of the moment, the poem says it’ll last a million years, even if nature will coat it with a “coat of rust, a “vest of moths” and “a shirt” of earth, images that seem to me to connotate the grave when we are also told the steel bar will “sleep.”
I’ll admit that while I could visualize the cobwebs with pearly rain drops and the moonshine rippling in short-lived puddles, just exactly what the steel bar was as an image to be visualized was puzzling to me. A railroad track? We don’t usually call rail tracks bars. A fence, or even a jail cell (“steel bars” as shorthand for jail)? Nothing earlier in the poem prepares us for that reading in this section. Some steel ingot stockpiled and stored outside? But destined to be forgotten and left for a million years? Other than that “million years” permanence we’re told only one other thing about the steel bar: that it looks “slant-eyed” on the cobwebs and pools of moonshine. I understood this as “side-eye” and that reading seems pretty solid to me. The steel bar knows it’s going to be there longer than the cobwebs and moonshine, so it can dismiss them as ephemeral.
Then looking to confirm if a slant-eye look would have been understood to Sandburg as side-eye, I could only run into the use of, and disparagement toward “slant-eye” as an ethnic slur. Though that slur wasn’t news to me, it hadn’t occurred to me as I don’t think it’s what Sandburg intends.* Realizing this after I’d completed recording today’s performance, I considered that it might harm the ability of some listeners to receive the poem’s intention, and if I was to perform the poem again, I might take my privilege with a work in the Public Domain and sing it as “side-eye.”
Coming as it does at the conclusion of Sandburg’s longer poem “Smoke and Steel” what do I think the cobwebs, steel and moonshine mean as they are met by the wind of time and change? We may abide by the convention that poetry and work are separate things, but as Sandburg has just written a long poem about work, we know he wants these things to be combined. The things we do everyday for pay, the work we do in arts like poetry — are the later the cobwebs and moonshine, beautiful, transitory, little noticed; and the former the steel, the solid, useful things that will last? Or is the steel the “real” that is buried, and the cobwebs and moonshine it distains the eternal now that returns fresh?
And then, can either be both?
The player gadget to hear my performance of an excerpt from Sandburg’s longer poem that I’ve titled “Cobwebs, Steel, and Moonshine” will appear below for many of you. Don’t see a player? Then this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play it.
*Sandburg is too comfortable with ethnic slurs for many modern tastes in his poetry, and “Smoke and Steel” contains a handful of them earlier in the poem. The unabashed way he uses them in his way argues against this ethnic-Asian slur being a 1920’s dog-whistle.
As promised, here’s the very next piece Dave and I tracked last July after our take on Bob Dylan’s “Went to See the Gypsy” which eventually broke out into a full orchestrated arrangement. It’s one of Dave’s songs, his words and music, a piece he wrote a couple of years ago called “E Flat.”
Dave says he wrote it after reading a report that planet Earth’s fundamental vibration was determined to be at the pitch of E♭, though this pitch was at an octave range much lower than human instruments or hearing go. I did a little searching today to see if I could re-find that report, and I’ve come up blank — though the concept of our planet having a frequency has been trotted out, often with a dose of cosmic woo-woo. The most popular Earth frequency I found was “Schumann’s Resonance” discovered in 1952 by a German electro-physicist Winfried Otto Schumann.* Schumann’s observations were made of electrical wave activity between the earth and the ionosphere, and were calculated to be on a fundamental frequency of 7.83 Hz. What pitch is that? Well, it depends, and if you follow some esoterica, that’s an important depends. Most musical stuff these days is set so that 440 Hz is an A note, but that was not historically the only way the pitch we call A was defined; and there’s a belief that one such past standard, 432 Hz, is better. Some of this belief is buttressed with “hear me out, this is very scientific, an objective fact” talk about powerful natural vibrations that have perfect ratio relations to a 432 Hz A.
So, I found that — but at A=432 Hz, 7.83 Hz is closest to a C note. At A=440, 7.83 Hz is closest to a B. So, no E♭ either way.
As of today, I can’t relocate the report Dave read, but that doesn’t mean his song isn’t close enough for rock’n’roll. When we performed it this summer, I set out a time-keeping drum beat, and while Dave sang I played a free-form guitar track swinging close to the amp speaker for feedback sustain. Some days after the live tracking I fancied up the drum track, added electric bass, and played the electric guitar chordal part that dominates the final track you can hear below. When Dave and I play we decide things very fast, and I didn’t do a great deal of thinking or composing for what I added later either. Working on this song was like painting with wet oil paints.
W. O. Schumann at the chalk-board and Patti Smith looking to run her nails on it.
By the time I was throwing on the last guitar track I was verging on consciously aiming for the sound of the Patti Smith Group’s “Radio Ethiopia,” the title track to Smith’s second LP. Not a very famous or prestigious record. Why’s that? Here’s the punk-rock-speed history.
A significant group of people (though not top-the-American-charts-sized then, or modern Internet multi-million-follower sized now) had taken Patti Smith’s first album, Horses to their hearts. I was one of that group. The chanted and declaimed poetry, the open references to rock’n’roll — that record’s sound was balanced between passion, looseness, and intent, unembarrassed in its declaration and performance. I also believe that impact was intensified because it was fronted by a young woman who acted unencumbered by gender roles.**
But that’s the first LP. I spoke above about the second LP, one that got tagged with the “difficult second record” label. “Difficult second record” syndrome is usually explained by a band having had a reasonable period to develop a range of material for their debut album, material that they have confidence in while still retaining a sense of freshness in their own experience of it. The second record now has expectations that have to be dealt with, expectations to either be mostly “the same, but better” or if not that, “different, but every bit as good.” But there’s less time to develop that second record while they tour to exploit the interest from the first.*** What was it they did right to make a splash with the first? Does a band have time to figure that out? What to keep, what to add?
Radio Ethiopia, the album, kept an element from the tracks that are often less remembered from Horses: the first record’s more conventional rock songs as opposed to the longer, idiosyncratic spoken word mixed with rock-references tracks — but in place of Horses longer pieces like “Gloria,” “Birdland,” and “Land,” we got a different style on Radio Ethiopia in songs like “Poppies” and particularly and problematically on the 10-minute title track. Smith’s vocals were mixed lower in these new long-form songs, at times down to a subliminal level, and the chordal guitar work got denser. Few liked it. Not “few” as in dedicated, knowledgeable fans — “few” as in not-very-many.
I liked it.
Here’s the lyric sheet Dave was singing from. Yes, the song’s in E♭
Will you like what I did to Dave’s song here then? Who can tell? It sure is musically different than the piece we performed just before it this summer, and the final resulting pieces you can hear here, even more different. I like different. If you don’t care for it, I’ll say that my aesthetic here is like Minnesota weather: don’t like it, or like it, today? It can, and will, be different tomorrow. Some will see a player gadget to play it below, but if you don’t here’s a highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window and play it.
*It would be so resonant if he was related to the composer Robert Schumann, but I’ve found no cite claiming that.
**One could, and likely someones have, written a treatise on Patti Smith’s relationship to gender, which is complex. Those hadn’t been written in 1975, which didn’t mean it didn’t have impact then. What some felt, got, resonated at pitch, would be emotions recollected in intellectuality later.
***Radio Ethiopia came out just 10 months after Horses.