A sampling of some of the Emily Dickinson performances the Parlando Project has done over the years

Since I’ve spent hours this week soaking up all the Emily Dickinson spirit I can absorb, it’s time to see if I can let some of that experience overflow here today. Maybe someday I’ll count which poets’ words I’ve used the most in the Parlando Project, but since this is an ongoing thing we’d only see the on-going horserace. Still, I suspect Emily Dickinson would be at or near the top — and that’s even though I at first sorta-kinda avoided using Emily Dickinson poems.

It was decades ago when an American Literature professor H. R. Stoneback remarked to me that you could sing most of Emily Dickinson poems to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”  Others may recall the same being said but “Amazing Grace”  or “The Theme to Gilligan’s Island”   being called for the tune. The point is that singing Emily Dickinson has been done, and I wanted to seek out new combinations of words and various music.

But Emily waited for me, eventually showed me the variety of her rhythms, and well, once you’ve entered the mind-space of Dickinson you may just want to wander around a bit. So here’s a sample of what we do, seven of the Emily Dickinson poems I’m recalling that I’ve combined with original music today —  and as a bonus, three others that are directly Emily Dickinson connected, but more obscure. After all, the Parlando Project does Poetry’s Greatest Hits, but we like the deep cuts too. The bold faced headings below are links to the earlier posts when we presented the piece where you can read more about my encounter with the poems

“We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.”    I enjoyed expanding on both the undercurrent of dread and then the Three Stooges level tree-bonk in this one. Earlier this year for National Poetry Month I created a video for this classic performance, and that’s linked in the post you can reach with the bold-faced heading/link. I’ve always thought this one of my most successful pieces.

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“May Flower.”   I sometimes catch in Dickinson’s Transcendentalism a whiff of 1960’s Psychedelia, so I went with a Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd feel for this setting. Writer Sherman Alexie earlier this year wondered what an Emily Dickinson cover band would be like. I sent him a link to this. His response? “Oh, wow, I was making a little joke about rock star Emily and here you’ve been making it real. That little beauty has a Zeppelin/13th Floor Elevators vibe. Way cool!”  The bold heading above will give you  another National Poetry Month poetry “lyric video” for this which also tries to tie Emily’s “Sixties” with “The Sixties” of our last century.

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“It sifts from leaden sieves.”   I love this poem of snow sifting in a field’s stubble, and in the original post I posit it could be Emily looking out her famous bedroom window at the farm field that was once across the road from the Dickinson Homestead.

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“Soul Selector Blues”  (my adaptation of “A Soul Selects Her Own Society”)  I have converted several literary poems into the Afro-American Blues song form. For this one I even tried to degrade the recording’s sound to that of a worn 78 RPM record. My goal here? Once you’ve heard this Dickinson poem as if it was a tune for a classic blues-woman singing her self-determination, you’ll never read it on the page the same way again.  “Close the valves of my attention. Like a stone!”

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“Answer July.”  Instead of borrowing from American Blues, this one has a sitar part. Not authentic South-Asian sitar, or so I’ll plead in terms of cultural appropriation — more like Alex Chilton and the Box Tops “Cry Like a Baby.”  In the original post I mention my recent pet theory that Emily Dickinson may have picked up legal concepts and lingo from the lawyers in her family, and in this poem she seems to be humorously applying courtroom situations to the seasons.

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“Bloom — is Result — to meet a Flower.”    Some of my pieces have used orchestral instruments, but some are just solo acoustic guitar. This one is more the latter.

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This Word Is Not Conclusion.”   A good one to end a list or collection.

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Emily Dickinson Experience

The Tell It Slant Festival is increasing my Emily Dickinson Experience this week.

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And then here are those three connected poets I promised.

A poem by Susan Gilbert Dickinson, the sister-in-law, neighbor, and frequently proposed lover of Emily Dickinson, “Crushed Before the Moth.”   I still have much to learn about her, but when I visited the Emily Dickinson Museum a few years back, the part of the tour into the next-door home of Susan and Emily’s brother Austin surprised me with it’s impact. Whatever the details of their relationship, we know Susan was intimate with Emily’s poetry, so it’s interesting to see what her verse is like.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a remarkable man who Dickinson sought out for feedback on her poems, and who was one of the initial posthumous editors of her verse. This project has led me to learn more about Higginson, who’s often played as a version of “the record-label man who refused to sign the Beatles.”  I found that he’s much more than that, though I don’t know much about this poem which may have been a youthful composition. The poem is called and is about “June.”

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And finally, another too easily dismissed classmate of Dickinson who wanted to and finally managed to publish Emily Dickinson while she was alive, Helen Hunt Jackson. Did you know Jackson was a early campaigner for American Indigenous rights?  That’s a long story, but here’s Jackson’s short poem “Poppies on the Wheat.”

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The Emily Dickinson Tell It Slant Festival

Productivity on this Project has been lowered this week for what seems to be a good reason. I’ve been attending online some of the Tell It Slant Emily Dickinson Festival put on by the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst. My focus from their offerings? So far I’ve heard every session of their multi-day, 15-hour, reading of all of Dickinson’s 1789 poems.

These marathon public reading sessions are wonderful, more rewarding than I would have predicted. Their format is to read from the Ralph Franklin edition of Dickinson’s poems, organized in a best estimate of order of composition, with a revolver of readers reading one poem, and then on to the next reader without pause. Online during weekdays, it’s been a Zoom thing, with the reader’s face appearing as they read in turn from their own office or home, and with the poem’s complete text appearing on-screen at the same time. The readers vary in voices and coldly-judged reading skill* — but this is a feature not a bug. You get a sense of humanity breathing the words of Emily Dickinson, and as it’s online, the readers and listeners aren’t even all in America as they celebrate this American poet.**

This process really impresses one with the immensity of Dickinson’s verse. There are often surprises with lesser-known poems catching my interest in-between the “greatest hits.” Dickinson’s various moods and voices come out, reinforced by the various readers approaches. In the side-chat text window, folks (and sometimes myself) react as the progress through the 1789 reaches their favorite poems.

In summary, even though I’ve read — and then spent the time to internalize and perform many Dickinson poems — this marathon reading has overwhelmed me with the facets and power of Dickinson’s work.

Tell It Slant 1

I’ve spent most of my Project time here this week.

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There are still events this weekend, including two final sessions of the marathon reading, though I think the readers may be at a public event rather than in their homes and offices on the weekend. Here’s the event’s schedule and sign up site: The Tell It Slant Poetry Festival 2022 Schedule – Emily Dickinson Museum

Thanks to all the readers and the organizers. Want a musical piece? Here’s my expression of another Emily Dickinson poem that asks us to consider the slant. Player gadget below. Can’t see the gadget? This link then.

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*I’ve worked for a radio network with experienced and skilled voices that expect/achieve a consistent performance when speaking with microphones, so I appreciate those easy-to-take-for-granted skills. But the variety of the readers in this marathon are a modifier of multitudes. Think of the difference between a professional, polished studio music recording and an informal get-together of an assortment of enthusiast musicians. Each has its flavor. The majority of the volunteer readers are as least as good technically as I would be in their role.

**These readers are volunteers. There are indications that one can just sign up to read, but the general level of reading skill I’ve seen indicates at least some self-selection is going on. Maybe 75% of the readers are women and there was only a smattering of people of color. This isn’t a gotcha note on my part. First of all, an all-woman roster could have expressed Dickinson’s range — after all Dickinson herself did — but modern English-language poetry has such a range BIPOC voices that I’d like to see more shades of faces volunteering and reading. I wouldn’t be surprised if the organizers feel the same way.

The most popular Parlando Project piece, summer of 2022

They tell us: yesterday was the last hot day of the year, with temps peaking above 90 F. The summer night ended, like a fair or exhibition with fireworks lightning and booming thunder, and the coolness of fall seems to have arrived today. The urban trees here have just a touch of autumn colors on the edges of avant-garde branches. A city’s pretense is that it is artificial, a human-made place, but the trees are here to remind us.

Late September Days cartoon

The above cartoon presented without further comment.

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I’ve said that when I look at what pieces were the most liked and listened to each quarter that the results often surprise me. The Parlando Project takes words (mostly poetry) and combines them with various original music. For practical reasons,* the poetry we use is largely in the public domain, poets whose reputation has usually settled to a stable level. We’ve done many pieces from such poets that retain readership into our century: Dickinson, Frost, Yeats, Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Eliot, Millay. I also enjoy reviving work by poets that once had considerable readership, but who have fallen out of favor or esteem: Longfellow, Teasdale, Sandburg for example. And there are poets that have higher profiles in the UK than here in the US: Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy. And there’s my translations or adaptations of work outside of English: Du Fu, Li Bai, Rimbaud, Rilke.** That’s a big world of material, and my attempts good, bad, and indifferent are up in the archives for all to hear. But then there are the wildcards, the poets that only indefinitely reached and failed to retain much regard.

Apparently, Robert Gould Fletcher is one of those. He was identified early on as an Imagist, a form of early English language poetic Modernism that I think has values worth revisiting. Curious, I dipped into a couple of his many books from the first half of the 20th century and found a short nature poem that intrigued me. As I worked to set it to music my city had a summer storm whose aftermath was a striking yellow/green/brown sky tint. In the heat of that evening I started to recast Fletcher’s poem, producing a result that’s a “after a poem by” or “inspired by” work — but it wouldn’t exist without Fletcher.

Despite Fletcher’s non-existent current literary standing and my own low profile as a poet, “Yellow Air”  was the most listened too and liked during our past warm summer. I wouldn’t have predicted that, which is a pleasure.

You can see Fletcher’s original text and the full text of my subsequent version along with guitar chords which you might use if you want to sing it yourself by clicking on this link to the original post. Or you can hear it straightaway with the player below.

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*Submitting writers may know how slow and inconsistently editors will respond. Well, I found the response asking for permission to present poems here was even worse. If an unsought grant was ever to fall from the sky for this Project, I’d ask first for someone to bug and cajole rights holders for the rights to present more recent poems here.

**How much have we done this? Over 600 times! And all of the results are still available here via the archives. If you just want to sample the music more rapidly without my comments on the encounters with the text, the most recent 100 or so are available as podcasts on Apple podcasts or most other places that offer podcasts. Note that the Parlando Project podcasts are just that: the typically less than five-minute audio piece. From time to time I’ve considered a more conventional talking-about-stuff podcast, but I’m unconvinced the interest would replay the work on top of the research, composing, and recording effort that goes into this Project.

Abbreviated Summer 2022 Parlando Top Ten

There were fewer audio pieces presented this past summer, so I’m going to abbreviate our traditional Top Ten review of the past season to reflect that — but I still kind of like this part of the Project, as I get to see what pieces got the most response. Like the Parlando Project in general, the most popular pieces tend to be quite various, and it’s often the pieces I’d least expect that bubble to the top. As a proper Top Ten, we’ll look at them as a countdown, starting with the 10th most liked and listened to one and ending with the most. The bold headings are links to the original posts in case you’re new here and would like to read what we said then.

Very briefly here are the pieces that make up numbers 10 through 6.

10. Arthur Hoehn by Frank Hudson. In the summer doldrums I felt free to include more of my own words. This is a short elegy for a classical music DJ who worked the overnight hours. I’m quite proud of the final lines of this one.

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9. Staying the Night at a Mountain Temple by Li Bai. Another of my loose translations of a Tang Dynasty classical Chinese poem. I based my translation on my understanding of Li Bai’s (his name is also rendered as Li Po) general outlook. An example here of how I work with orchestral instruments.

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8. Stratocaster by Frank Hudson. Really, this project is usually concerned with other people’s words, but this sideways ode to an ingenious radio repairman whose swoopy electric guitar design was enshrined in the Museum of Modern Art got a good amount of response.

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7. The Dick and the Dame by Dave Moore. Alternate voice and keyboard player here Dave Moore says some of this is adapted from Robert Coover, but this really holds together as a poetic liturgy for pulp noir. Also I got to wail on guitar.

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6. Let us be Midwives by Sadako Kurihara (translated by Richard Minear). This was my piece for past August’s Hiroshima Day, a short tale of the huddled human aftermath of the first atomic bombing. Is there a word for sad/hopeful? If so, that’s this poem.

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don't underestimate 800

Getting ready to lock up my bike late this summer, and my attention is drawn to a message on top of the post.

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Now let’s move on to the top 5 and say just a bit more about each of them.

5. From Cocoon forth a Butterfly by Emily Dickinson. We’ve done lots of Dickinson poems here over the years. Though we did this one in summer, it talks about harvest time. While poetically condensed, Dickinson observes harvest workers and the proverbially productive bee and contrasts them with a no doubt lovely, but also somewhat unoccupied butterfly. Is Dickinson, the poet, the butterfly? I’m not so sure. My understanding is that Dickinson’s domestic duties in her mid-19th century household, while less than those of poorer families, were also not insignificant. Is the butterfly then poetry, or the poem she’s written, or a fancied life of a full-time artist which she wasn’t? Dickinson ends with this point: at the end of it all, however joyful or laborious, is the Sundown, which is Extinguished. Like the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, I’m thinking she sees vanity in the whole scene.

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4. To Whom It May Concern (Carry Them Away) by Kevin FitzPatrick. Dave and I both admired Kevin’s poetry and outlook, even if neither of us wrote like him — but then as I said elsewhere here this summer, too few poets write like Kevin. Here’s a short poem written entirely in another’s voice, whose words Kevin the poet recognizes deserve repeating, deserve attention, deserve concern. If I don’t write like Kevin, that essence, that principle, is part of what I do here with the Parlando Project.

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3. Palingenesis by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Poets today read Dickinson (should) and Whitman (must), but few literary poets will admit to reading Longfellow now. Dickinson and Whitman are great rebels, geniuses of make it new. Longfellow worked in traditions, replanting them in America. If you want to rebel with your attention and consider Longfellow, I’d suggest the shorter lyrics. Was this lyric referencing Longfellow’s wife who died too young in his arms? I can’t say for sure, but I used it to reference my late wife who also died too young more than 20 years ago.

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2. Generations by Frank Hudson. This is a tiny poem in a tidy setting. I’ve been noting recently the lack of perspective in many older persons’ views of the young. Old people are supposed to supply that perspective, to know from intimately observing things over longer time that stuff thought new is just a variation or a carrying forward of the flow of society. Instead, I see all too many who want to proclaim some past got it right and the present is a decadent signal of end times. So, in this short piece I cast myself as the sage of advice to the young, but with a twist.

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What was the most popular piece this summer? Come back tomorrow for the answer.

Parlando Project audio listen count set to reach 100,000

100,000. Compared to some things on the Internet, a small number. Yet it would have seemed impossibly large to me when I started this Project. Today I checked stats and I see that it now looks like we’ll reach 100,000 listens for the Parlando Project audio pieces this week.

I won’t have time to write more tonight about this, but if you have just happened upon The Parlando Project, this is what we do: we take various words (mostly poetry) and combine them with original music we perform. This blog allows me to write about the experiences I have with those words (usually written by others) and what I felt as I performed them.

The most popular Parlando Project piece for spring 2022

One unusual thing I did this spring to celebrate National Poetry Month was to re-release 31 pieces from the early years of this project. This was a way, despite reduced time and opportunities to create new pieces, to still celebrate and demonstrate the various poems and music combinations of the Parlando Project.

That April batch does show something of the range of words I’ve used. Famous poets? Shakespeare, Dickinson, Yeats, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Frost, Pound, Millay, Cummings, Eliot, Sandburg. Foreign poets less known in America than in their native countries? Edward Thomas, Tristan Tzara, Du Fu. Afro-Americans less-known to their fellow Americans: Fenton Johnson, Raymond Dandridge, Jean Toomer, Anne Spencer.

As part of this April celebration, I spent more time that I thought I would creating “lyric videos.” I figured I would just put in a couple of pictures in a video file and place the words to the poems on the screen in time with their appearance in the music, but they got a little more elaborate.

How popular were they? It doesn’t look like YouTube counts as views any plays of those videos from the inside-the-blog-posts thumbnail images, but it does count those who found them on YouTube itself. Given that sub-set it does count, the most popular of the April Poetry Month videos was our Parlando version of Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.”   No surprise there: William Butler Yeats’ poetry is welcome to so many ears around the English-speaking world. If I was to look at most viewed posts (a metric I don’t use in these Top Ten lists) four out of the top ten most viewed posts so far this year are concerning Yeats’ poems. Yeats is a Poetry’s Greatest Hits poet.

The most listened to and liked piece this past spring was an Irish poem, but it wasn’t by Yeats. It was one of the April Poetry Month re-releases though, “Night, and I Traveling”  by too-little-known Belfast-born poet Joseph Campbell (who also published under the name Seosamh MacCathmhaoil).

I’m partway through a biography of Campbell that was an Anniversary gift from my wife. From it I’m getting more of a sense of the young man who wrote this poem — a poem which is remarkable not just for its tightly compressed and effecting scene, but for being published in 1909 so that it might be counted not just as the work of the first Irish poet to use free verse, but also as one of the earliest published examples of Imagism. It wasn’t until 1913 that F. S. Flint and Ezra Pound published their A few Don’ts by an Imagiste”  and laid out the three famous Imagist suggestions/rules, but before that in London Flint, Pound, and T. E. Hulme had been working out how to radically strip back poetry to a fresh, precise, and direct essence in the months before Campbell published “Night, and I Traveling.”

Night and I Traveling

The chord voicings I used for the 12-string guitar part here are bit unusual.

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I now know that Campbell was in London and meeting with those incipit Imagists in that first decade of the 20th century. Alas I don’t know how junior a partner he was in their meetings, but “Night, And I Traveling”  is to my judgement as fine an early Imagist poem as the more famous and anthologized ones, arguably a more worthy example because of its empathetic attention to the isolated rural woman in a still-colonialized Irish hut in place of Pound’s  damp impressionistic leaf-faced Paris Metro riders published four years later.*   The biography, Joseph Cambell Poet & Nationalist   by Norah Saunders and A. A. Kelly, reminds us that Campbell liked country walks at night. Campbell wrote: “Night walking — all my best thoughts, I find, come to me that way. Poetry, like devilry, loves darkness.” Devilry? Campbell did write some of the supernatural, and would mix Christian and pagan mythologies —but in this one, this night, he stays in our earthly plane. Am I reading too much into the poem to note the poem’s only simile has the lone woman crooning “as if to child” when there is no child depicted? Is that child dead? Or perhaps emigrated to America?


Not as popular as Yeats on YouTube, but here’s the “lyric video” I did for this piece

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You can hear my performance three ways. The “lyric video” is above, an audio player gadget should be below, and this highlighted link is a backup for those ways of viewing this blog that won’t show the player. Thanks again for reading about these encounters and listening to our combinations of music and words.

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*Make of this connection what you will: Pound and Campbell would both eventually be imprisoned by their own countrymen for acts during wartime.

Synchronicity: Spring 2022 Parlando Top Ten numbers 4-2

Sometime before The Police made it an album title, this project’s alternate voice and keyboard player Dave Moore took to using the term synchronicity to explain some things that going forward cause significant effects where there was no pre-existing reason or even connection. Maybe me seeing Dave read a poem in a church while we were both teenagers would be an example. Or here’s another one: an American poet who had generated no interest in America travels to England and creates not one but two poetry careers. And then that runs together with the next three pieces in our countdown to the most popular piece with listeners over this past spring.

Robert Frost went to England largely unpublished and un-heralded in 1912. He was 37. If you were thinking of starting a fantasy draft league for poets in 1912, Frost could not be your pick. I’m not enough of a scholar to know all the reasons for this move, but it might well have been because some of what Frost was writing chimed with poetry that had been published and reached an audience in the UK, poetry that used a rhymed/metrical lyrical voice to portray unpretentious countryside settings. While living in England Frost met another writer, the 35-year-old Edward Thomas. Thomas, also not your fantasy poet draft pick — he wasn’t even writing poetry. The two took a liking to each other.

Frost rather quickly found an English publisher while in England, and published two book-length collections containing many of the poems he’s still best known for. American Ezra Pound took to praising Frost to Americans, and Frost’s career was launched!

4. The Aim was Song by Robert Frost.  Coming in at number four in our spring countdown this year we find the now successful Frost with a poem published first in America. It’s a natural text for this Project because it uses music as a metaphor in a very musical poem. It’s been popular here over the years since I first presented it, and it was one of the most popular pieces among the 30 I re-released for National Poetry Month this April.

You can hear my performance of “The Aim Was Song”  with a player many will see just below this paragraph, or with this alternative highlighted link, which is here for those that won’t see the player.

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So, what happened to our Edward Thomas? Thomas’ writing was focused on work-for-hire, the scriveners gig-economy of the time set to fill column inches in magazines and newspapers. Thomas’ personal interests were present in some of those works: he was an avid walker, bicyclist, and amateur naturalist. Like Emily Dickinson, no plant is encountered in Thomas’ writing and is not given a specific name or description. And likewise birdsong. Thomas kept journals, and they too have passages filled with the countryside carefully observed.

Frost saw Thomas’ writing, declared to his friend that he already had the stuff of poetry, and analyzed Thomas’ situation as a “suffering from a life in subordination to his inferiors.” Thomas subsequently took up writing poems with the now published and becoming-known Frost’s encouragement. However, time was marching up on the pair with a large surprise — a world war was about to break out.

Thomas’ non-militarist outlook, his middle-age, and his family for which he was the sole support non-withstanding, Thomas seemed drawn to military service for his country. Frost moved back to America to further build on his growing reputation there. He put forth a standing offer for Thomas and his family to join him in the United States.

3. Gone Gone Again by Edward Thomas.  Here’s a poem Thomas wrote during this time, and it’s a wistful evocation of war’s absences. In England Thomas is often thought of as a war poet, and there are reasons for that. But one of the uniqueness’s in his poems set during the time of WWI is that they avoid tableaus of the battlefields and the action set thereupon. “Gone Gone Again”  is a poem of what’s not there: people, workers who are now soldiers.

Thomas enlisted, trained as a lieutenant, a most dangerous job in the warfare of the time. After duty in England (he helped make maps, an apt job for a man who so well knew the countryside) he shipped overseas to the battlefront, where he was shortly killed.

Like for some young poets and musicians, death was a good career move for Thomas. Friends posthumously published a collection of the freshly-written poems that Thomas had crafted in only a couple of years writing verse. Attention was paid in the UK to the “war poets” and everything Thomas wrote was read in the context of that cataclysmic event for Great Britain.

One poem Thomas wrote, based on a journal entry from a train ride he took on this very day, June 24th in the summer of 1914, became his best-known and loved poem in his home country: “Adlestrop.”   You can hear my performance of “Adlestrop”  here.

Or you can celebrate “Adlestrop day” with this “lyric video” from earlier this year.

.Most Americans don’t know this poem or Thomas. I didn’t, until 2016 when one summer day of unwonted heat the train I was to make was subject to what became an hours-long delay in arriving at Kingham. The heat was such that trains had been stopped for fear of track failure. I can recall the trees and foliage swaying in the summer breeze at the little station, some small bird activity, a station caretaker who arrived to drip a watering can into some hanging plants on the platform. It was only afterwards that I learned of this poem, set in the very next town on that trainline, the even littler town whose trainstop had been removed some years back. Rod Serling should have come out the station door with a skinny tie and a summer-cut suit to quip on that synchronicity. Did I miss him because I wasn’t looking for him, because I didn’t know any of that until after I had been in Kingham that afternoon? Thomas’ poem was, and to some significant degree still is, loved because a few days after Thomas was stuck in Adlestrop, an Archduke got assassinated and the slow-motion trainwreck of WWI broke out over the ensuing summer. Thomas wrote his most famous poem afterward, referring to his memory and journal entries, and so he likely intended this poem to be read, like “Gone Gone Again,”  as a study in absences, a summer day with a peaceful nothing-urgent before “the guns of August.”

To hear “Gone Gone Again,”  there’s a graphical player for some — and you others? This link.

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2. Cock Crow by Edward Thomas.  So, is Thomas only  a war poet? Could he have been something else? I think it’s highly likely. He was a troubled man, some other calamity less nation-shared than a World War could have taken him early, but the more I read, even his slightest poems, the more I see why Frost was taken with him, and why even Americans who may not share the cathedral-plaque reverence given UK war poets might still discover him. When I read “Cock Crow”  in a 1920’s anthology of Thomas’ contemporaries this past spring I was struck by how much fresher and less puffed up with ineffective references Thomas’ writing was set against the field. And Americans, whose culture received a 19th century dosage of Transcendentalism, love our closely observed nature poetry perhaps more than Brits. Maybe I feel a connection from that afternoon in Kingham, and that prejudices my reading?

Bird song occurs in “Cock Crow’s”   title and text, and in reply I was pleased I was able to end my performance of it with a choral part. You can hear it with the player, or its backup, this link.

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“Cock Crow”  got a lot of listens. I thought it might be the most liked and listened to one, but when I totaled them all up this June, another piece beat it out. I’ll be back soon with the most popular piece this past spring. It’s a surprising one.

May Music Find a Way. Spring 2022 Parlando Top Ten numbers 7-5

Tonight is Jazz Night here at the Parlando Project Top 10 countdown. I’m going to ask the folks who come here for the talk about words to murmur down quietly today as I speak about the music.

Funny how these quarterly counts sometimes become nice little “sets.” Both today and tomorrow’s segments as we countdown to the most popular piece this past spring are as good as any planned ones I could have devised. So, let’s get the musicians on stage!

7. Sonny Rollins, the Bridge, 1959 by Frank Hudson.  Remember that the bold-face headings at the start of each entry in this countdown are links to the original post presenting them, where you can read what I had to say about it then. I had a lot to say about this one back in January, and so even though this is a piece where I wrote both the words and music, today I’m going to talk about how this (and many of our Parlando Project musical pieces) was realized.

With significant accuracy I hesitate to call myself a musician. My home instrument is the guitar, but even there my knowledge is not something to brag about, my skillset a bit unusual, but limited, and my consistency not up to a professional (or even many dedicated amateurs’) level. But I have a secret weapon: I can choose to compose or improvise (spontaneous composition) the things I present here. My Jazz guitar chops are not strong, but the chordal part was something I was able to execute. Listening back today to the second guitar part I improvised for this I think it was a good day with the wind at my back for me.

In another world I’d more often use other musicians who could add their skills to this enterprise, but logistically and financially the one-man-band approach is what makes it possible for me to express the variety of different musical ideas that I present.

To hear this or the other musical pieces here, use the player that may appear below, or this highlighted link.

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6. Lenox Ave Midnight, an Extension by Langston Hughes.  Another little miracle pulled from my limited, if a bit unusual, skill set? On a good day I can do a passible impression of a guitarist, but my keyboard playing is always naïve. The advantage I can find? Modern MIDI lets me use my mind where my fingers don’t know what to do. In a piece like this I figure out some kind of harmonic flavor by trial and error and my sketchy knowledge of music theory. I played that part and then improvised a right-hand part, editing on a MIDI “piano roll” to correct bad dynamics or altering notes I didn’t like. To an actual pianist this could be called “cheating.” To a composer, it’s called “composing.” You see, I use the term composer protectively, because I really do feel ashamed sometimes that I couldn’t play in real time with two hands the keyboard parts that to casual listeners make a sound like I could. And I think: to a real pianist realizing this simple composition would be a trifle. To me: achievement!

Near the end of this piece, to open up its musical world before I speak the two lines I added to Langston Hughes poem (the reason I call this piece “an extension”) I did something I rarely do here, which I personally try to avoid, because it really does feel like cheating to me. I used a couple of small loops of recorded melodic material from Apple Logic’s free-to-use loop library. My composer’s need here was that my simple and not very convincing saxophone part, that I did play on MIDI guitar, needed something to camouflage those issues.

Why does this bother me to do? After all sampled loops have been part of popular music since the hip-hop DJ’s started dropping riffs from vinyl records. Because I use “composer” as my excuse, my get-out-of-pretender-jail free card, I believe I (or at least some human present in the room with me in the creation process) should have played or scored the notes. I think the two short horn section loops used here sound fine, helped make this piece successful for listeners — but that’s why I feel guilty for using that tactic. Whoever played them, devised those short motifs, didn’t know what I was doing, wasn’t working in concert with my aims.

Now look, I don’t generally mind when other artists do this. Returning to words briefly now: I spent many an April here performing the words of Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  which includes — even more than I imagined — squadrons of quotations and paraphrases from pre-existing works. Selection, curation, recombination, and recontextualization are easily defined as creative acts. Maybe my qualms and self-imposed rules in this have a most self-interested reason: I worry that the casual listener here will think I’m just reading poems over pre-recorded music, when I’m proud that I had to write and play and record the majority of the music on this Project, one track at a time.

Player below, or link.

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Sonny Rollins, inspiring to me, yet my distance from that discipline shames me

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5. Autumn Movement by Carl Sandburg.  I stopped writing this post here yesterday, because what I had written so far seemed embarrassingly solipsistic, pretentious, and uninteresting to my audience, and yet also because some of the things I’m feeling as I write about my musical work are hard to condense into a reasonable length post — to be better, it would be even more. And so here we are at this, my presentation of a short nature poem by one of my heroes Carl Sandburg, illuminated by lovely music I made for it. How am I to feel about it tonight? Amazed that I, a non-musician, was able to make it? Or something that feels almost like shame or embarrassment that I present it publicly, when there are days I can’t play anything of any value? Knowing enough to know that what I know as a composer (little) and what I can bring to the composer as a player (limited). Knowing that at my age (old) there isn’t much lifetime to remedy those things.

This, though I cannot say I have sufficient understanding or skills, is where Jazz comforts me as no other art does. Jazz is always confronting the empty sky. Always a critique of silence — and able to the fears inside silence, now, not later, and with surprise and failure. There can be no surprise without failure. I’m a small man, it’s a big sky and a big silence. There are better musicians, better composers, but it’s a big sky and a big silence. This the musician’s and composer’s prayer: may music find a way.

Player below, or link.

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Spring 2022 Parlando Top Ten numbers 10-8

It’s time to look back at the last quarter and see what pieces were the most liked and listened to during those months. I released (or re-released) 51 pieces since March 1st here, more than enough to return to our regular multi-post Top Ten countdown format, so let’s present numbers 10 through 8 today as we move toward the most popular one this spring. As usual, the bolded titles are links to the original post in case you’re new here and want to read what I said when I first presented them.

10. “Blackberries” by Kevin FitzPatrick.  Kevin, who died last year, was a contemporary and fellow poet to Dave Moore and myself, and this charming poem about his early experiences as a life-long urban dweller (and reader of Irish poetry) getting used to his life partner Tina’s small rural farm is a fine addition to our Top Ten today. This audio performance is a live take, and in honor of our mood of remembrance that day, I decided to leave our longish instrumental prelude in place for the version you heard here.

This poem was often a highlight when Kevin would read it, displaying his dry wit. I read it a little differently than Kevin might, but of course Kevin isn’t here to do that anymore. I will leave a reminder that Kevin’s poetry collections are available through this link run by his people.

The player gadget to hear the performance is below for many, and this highlighted link is a backup way to play it.

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9. Sonnet To Beauty by Lola Ridge.  While reading Lesley Wheeler’s new book about encountering poems in the context of one’s life, Poetry’s Possible Worlds,  I was pleasantly surprised to find some poems there from modern New Zealand poets. If I had world enough and time, I’d like to be even more various here with the countries’ poets I present, even though most of what I know about New Zealand is from scholarly works: The Flight of the Concords and Wellington Paranormal.   Despite sharing a name with an Australian settler poet, I’ve only presented a couple of emotionally riveting and under-known poems by Australian Modernist Kenneth Slessor as part of the Parlando Project — and what, not a single New Zealander? Oh, wait. There’s Lola Ridge. Ridge was born in Ireland in 1873, moved with her family as a preschooler to New Zealand. After a brief marriage, she left for Australia and then finally to America where she spent most of her life, though her early poetry does reflect her times in the Antipodes.

“Sonnet to Beauty”  is likely one of those poems. Though Ridge soon became known early in the 20th century in the US as a staunch advocate of social reform and radicalism as well as knowing and interacting with many of the NYC area early 20th century Modernists, “Sonnet to Beauty”  is a regular sonnet about the radical appeal of the artistic life — even while life may present buzzards misapprehended as if swans. Ridge lived that twin social and artistic radicalism thoroughly from most short accounts I’ve read.

When I presented Ridge’s poem this March it was easy for me to pair that twinned dedication with another contemporary of Dave, Kevin, and myself: Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan. Ethna died this past winter. Yes, somedays it’s hard to see the swans instead of the certain buzzards.

Same deal, player gadget if you see it, highlighted link if you don’t.

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Kevin Lola Hilda

The 3 poets whose words I use today: tilt, tilt, and look away. The light turns a buzzard out a swan?

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8. The Pool by H. D.   I said, re-released above, and here’s the story. Roughly a third of the listeners to this project’s audio pieces never read the posts I put up about my encounter with the poems or any thoughts I write on composing and realizing the original music. Instead, they find the recordings via podcast directories where I present only the musical pieces without the usual talking and joking that fills the running time of most podcast presentations. Having seen radio production done at a high level close-up for a couple of decades in my day-job life, I suppose I could have attempted a talking pod show about music and poetry — but if only for myself I see an appeal of these 5 minute or less podcasts that might serve as a palate cleanser between main courses of talk-talk-talk.

I’ve noticed that some of my most popular early episodes, ones that racked up a lot of listens in the early years of this Project, had rolled off the “last 100 episodes only” offering lists of most podcast directories, and so for April’s National Poetry Month I decided to “re-release” 30 of them. Even for the blog readers like you, I think many of them would be new to current readers here as well. Coming in at number 8 this Spring then is early Imagist Hilda Doolittle’s “The Pool,”  a mysterious very-short poem about a tidal pool encounter. It’s so short and compressed that even at one and a half minutes of run time I had to creatively elaborate the text a bit to reach that length. I rather like the music I composed and realized for this little piece. A lot of listeners did too.

See a player gadget? You can use it. Otherwise, this highlighted link plays it too.

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Back with the next three pieces in our spring Top Ten rundown soon.

Thoughts on Juneteenth: Jazz was born free, and everywhere is exchanged

I have no new musical piece for today’s American celebration of freedom’s restoration, Juneteenth. I made moves toward one, but things didn’t move fast enough. In my wayward search I’ve been spending more time thinking about the Mid-20th century period 1940-65 that I wrote about a few posts back. During that period the Afro-American art form Jazz moved from being a predominant popular music style (though often performed by non-Afro-American musicians) to a multi-valent art music that intelligently reflected young Black artists, their concerns, and their adaptations.

That transformation is a complex thing, and this’ll be a short post. Early this century Ken Burns’ Jazz  made the simplified case that this was a tragic arc.  Art-music is something a smaller portion of people listen to, live with, care about. I don’t buy that singular tragic summary any more than I buy the companion theory held by others that the audience’s advancing stupidity is to be blamed instead. I suspect these theories are subject to the downhill-to-hell-in-a-handbasket generational syndrome that is ever repeated throughout time. Not that there aren’t things worth observing, worth reviving attention to, worth taking back out of the toolbox for reuse in these sorts of reverence for the past! After all, I’ve spent a good deal of time in this project drawing attention to and finding worth in early 20th century Modernist poetry. So, moldy figs, check.

I’ve spent a good deal of time this month listening to mid-century Black American Jazz, some of it from the end of that mid-century quarter when “free jazz” was the new thing. It’s not everyone’s cup of expresso-in-a-small-club. In Burns’ Jazz,  several of the talking critics had it that these were the vandals that sacked Rome. Last night at dinner I tried to explain Albert Ayler to my spouse, who loves me enough to forgive that.*  Want a simple blurb from me now on Ayler? Most people will be unable to listen to many of Ayler’s recordings with pleasure without significantly understanding something of its intent and context. There’s an argument to be made that art should never resort to that. My belief: sometimes one needs to be baffled, needs to ask questions on the parade from ear to heart. In the Jazz  documentary, Stanley Crouch (the initial G is silent) would say of a player like Ayler “the emperor has no clothes.”  I’d say he’s stripped naked.

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Mid-Century was also an era when LP liner notes could be saying something. Here’s a bit written by Steve Young on 1965’s Black Arts/Free Jazz live album “The New Wave In Jazz.” I’m unable to find anything about what happened to this Steve Young.

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So, it was Free Jazz in my ear as I approach this month’s American’s celebration of the restoration of freedom. Soon it’ll be American Independence Day. We Americans abundantly like the word freedom. Conceptually freedom is inherently a broad thing. People tore into the Capital crying freedom from votes they wished to disenfranchise. People were beaten on the Pettus bridge crying freedom to cast votes.

So, Freedom’s a broad thing. Freedom is like the meaning of life, self-evident and elusive. I think it’s to find your joy and to help others.

Here is today’s returning meeting of my original music and someone’s poetry, from one of the too-overlooked Afro-American artists of the last decade that was called The Twenties: Gwendolyn Bennett. She just called it “Song,”  as broad a title as freedom for a complex thing that is Black American music. You can play it with the player below if you see that, or with this highlighted link.

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*I told her I’d just spent the day reading LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and listening to free jazz from 1965. Poetry and 50-plus-years-ago free-jazz combined will interest a few people, less perhaps than even the small crowd for either of those things by themselves — that’s you folks reading this far — and she’d just spent her day helping sick people. Sing heavenly muses: that I clearly have a higher calling.