The most popular Parlando Project piece for Summer 2019 is…

Before I reveal the most listened to piece during this just past summer, indulge me in a little “shop talk” as I report a few things about how the listenership for the audio pieces and readership for this blog have been going this summer.

Listenership on the audio continues to be somewhat volatile. June’s listenership was pretty good, July’s was excellent, and then August’s listenership fell to average at best, and early September followed that August trend.

This could just be “noise in the signal.” Or it could say something about seasonal variations in listenership. Spotify Parlando audio piece listenership (which I get broken out separate from those that listen on the player in the blog posts and those who catch the audio pieces on podcast services like Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Player.fm etc.) didn’t follow the pattern, rising throughout the summer. Spotify has just started allowing their podcast audio to be added to playlists with the newest version of it’s mobile app, and this could help in the future, as it’s a convenient way to collect favorites (or to be honest, skip the ones you don’t care for).

And that last factor could be part of it too. It could be that folks just liked the July audio pieces more. My series on Spoon River Anthology, performed particularly poorly in numbers of audio listeners, something I wouldn’t have predicted. I’m comfortable with the thought that the deliberate eclecticism of genres I use will lead to differing responses. Still, the abject listenership failure of what I think of personally as one of my best pieces: August’s “Fiddler Jones”  from that Spoon River series kind of bummed me out. Oh well, pieces sometimes get a second wind once they enter the long tail of our archives. Maybe that one will.

For a guy who likes data, the readership of this blog has a completely different trendline. That’s been on an upward slope ever since the launch of the blog, and then last April we had a huge readership jump during our U.S. National Poetry Month celebration, nearly doubling our best previous month’s readership. Readership held up all summer, and August, the same month that disappointed for listenership, set a new highest readership. There’s a week to go yet in September, and it’s already second only to that new readership high, and on track to surpass it before the month ends. Go figure…

So what was the most popular piece this past summer?

Back Yard by Carl Sandburg. Well this piece does sound pretty good too, and Sandburg is deserving of this level of attention. Not only does Sandburg not get enough credit for the Imagist integrity of his early 20th century verse, but this poem is lovely sounding. Sandburg’s “Back Yard”  is ready to take the fixative of the silver moon rain and change into a moment, which then changes into another moment—always still, always changing. Always still, always changing. Ah, life….

Carl Sandburg in living black and white

Americana artist looks to break through with his hip voicing of the Fsus chord

 

Things I find odd about how Sandburg has been judged: first there’s the judgement that he’s just not subtle enough, when I say those critics can’t see the subtleties—which if I’m right, proves my point; and secondly, the evaluation that his poetry is just broken up prose mislabeled as verse. That would be odd, Sandburg has an important secondary career as a popularizer of what we came to call “folk music” in the U. S. and was serious enough about developing his guitar chops that he asked Andres Segovia for a lesson. There’s music behind many a Sandburg poem, like this one, and composers more accomplished than I find it.

It may well be that the word-music of poetry and the music—of well, music—are two separate fields to be judged differently with different instrumentation, rules, and aesthetics. But until this is shown to be surely so, I tend to trust the judgement and tastes of musicians and composers over the judgement and tastes of literary critics and theorists on these matters.

Give a listen to Sandburg’s “Back Yard”  with the player below. If you’d like to follow along with the text, you can read it here. And really, thanks for listening and reading along as we encountered music and words here this summer in order to see what we find!

 

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Parlando Project Summer 2019 Top Ten part 3

Is everyone aligning themselves with autumn already? Here we’re looking back at summer and the audio pieces that the audience made their most liked and listened to, and we’re getting near the top of the countdown, moving toward the most popular single piece of the past three months. Today we look at numbers 4, 3, and 2.

4. Summer Silence by E. E. Cummings. Another one from our “Before They Were Modernists” series, “Summer Silence”  is an early E. E. Cummings poem published when Cummings was a college sophomore at Harvard. One doesn’t usually associate Cummings with constrained poetic forms, but “Summer Silence”  was written in 1913 in the Spencerian Stanza form, long before he could have learned from Hawk or Susan.

I try to do the best work I can with recording the music compositions here within the rapid pace I’ve accustomed myself to with this project. My equipment is modest, and my recording engineer’s skills are too, but I make the effort. That said, this one was recorded on a cell phone sitting in a cabin on the North Shore of Lake Superior: just me, an acoustic guitar, and a few summer birds that you can hear at the very end that wanted to enjoy July there too. The text of Cummings’ poem is available in the original post linked in bold above.

 

 

3. Higginson’s June by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. From another series, one that started before this summer but carried over into it: “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.” Higginson is essential to the Emily Dickinson story, the literary insider who Dickinson sought out in what I think was an attempt on her part to verify the worth of her unprecedented poetry. They met at least once, but the rest of the relationship was carried on via letters, of which we have only Dickinson’s side of the correspondence.

From Dickinson’s replies and Higginson’s later recounting, it’s been summarized that Higginson “didn’t get it,” thinking that her work needed some further polish to appeal to the mid-19th century public. Here in the 21st century we feel pretty smug about Higginson, thinking him like the infamous record exec who passed on the Beatles.*

Higginson had a highly eventful life outside of the Dickinson connection, as I’ve talked about in another post, but one thing I discovered this year was that Higginson at least dabbled in poetry himself. I can find no context for the poem of his I used here, but I speculated that it could be something he wrote in his youth. Whenever and for whatever reasons he wrote it, it is a good short summer lyric. And coincidentally it’s opening two lines could stand as the better judgment of Dickinson’s genius as it does in his poem for summer.

The music for this one is as electronic as “Summer Silence’s”  is acoustic. The text of Higginson’s poem to June is also in it’s original post bolded above.

 

Indian Pipes and 1st Edition of Dickinsons Poems

Higginson wrote the preface and helped edit and promote the publication of the first collection of Dickinson’s poems two years after her death. The flowers on its cover are usually called Indian Pipes and they were said to be a favorite of Dickinson’s. It’s a truly odd summer plant, which my living wife found and photographed in Northern Minnesota this year. The other common name for this translucent apparition: the ghost plant.

 

2. For You by Carl Sandburg. I kept going back to Sandburg this summer, and you the readers and listeners came along with me. Why? I frankly find him healing.

I started off this project in 2016 with a Sandburg-based audio piece which also served as a memorial for David Bowie; and for the 3rd anniversary of that launch I used this Sandburg poem as a memorial to my late wife who died near the beginning of this century.

That either of those Sandburg poems could be used as memorials does not make them passive elegies, and “For You”  is future-focused—just as it is full of ghosts. I’m not familiar enough to say how English speakers in the British Isles, in South Asia, the Antipodes, or elsewhere feel of the current times and challenges; but in Sandburg’s America when I read or listen to “For You,”  I too feel our ghosts and feel our future—close—even if each are unreal as we stand before the great door of a year with great hinges.

The text of “For You” is here if you’d like to read along.

 

 

 

 

*”Guitar groups are on their way out” is the famous rejection phrase, attributed to Dick Rowe of Decca Records. In Rowe’s defense, Beatles producer George Martin has been quoted that the Decca audition performance was not very good and that he wouldn’t have signed them on the basis of it either. A few months later, Rowe took a tip from George Harrison and signed another of those guitar groups, The Rolling Stones. Sometimes you get a second chance.

Parlando Project Summer 2019 Top Ten part 2

Continuing the countdown of the audio pieces with the most listens and likes over the past summer, we’ve reached numbers 7, 6, and 5.

7. O My Darling Troubles Heaven by Kenneth Patchen. I do wish I had more pieces with Dave Moore in them this summer. My summer schedule, my studio re-org, and various unscheduled things have conspired against us, and Rudy Giuliani has either not had anything to do with this—or has of course been involved. *

Still, it’s nice to see this piece getting a good number of listens. Patchen helped found the mid-century school of poetry read to Jazz backing, something now considered quaint, but at the time it was being done it was considered impossibly pretentious or inconsequential or narcissistically individualist by many.

Well, either judgement means you shouldn’t be listening to this, but some of you are anyway.

Another good reason to be glad for Dave presenting this is that it’s a further corrective to the Modernist Gloomy Gus tendency. Patchen’s critique of mid-20th century culture was plenty down-beat, and his personal life had enough depressing challenges to reinforce that. But! But! But! His statements of love, the necessity of resistance, and of the joy of art superseding some dreary cultural cod-liver oil pitches for it were about overcoming that—or at least fighting it to a draw.

Musically, this is an older recording where the LYL Band plays in its almost-Jazz mode, which fits Dave’s vocal where he told us last June that he was intentionally trying to recall Patchen’s own phrasing from when Patchen read his work in the post WWII era.

 

Floating Man-Patchen

“If you see no hope at all, isn’t it sort of, well, a lie—all your talk about how human beings must love one another?” Painting by Kenneth Patchen

 

6. Grace Before Song by Ezra Pound. I presented three series this past summer where multiple posts presented different aspects of something. This charming poem was from the series I called “Before They Were Modernists” where I looked at work Modernists wrote before they found their place in the 20th century revolution in art.

Pound of course was the indispensable fomenter, editor, and promotor of literary Modernism in English, known for both his generosity and dismissive opinions.**  But this early poem of his is a prayer written in metrical and rhymed verse, and it’s soaked with poetic diction and antique words. Still sounds fine when sung, and if sincere, the poem’s sentiment is admirable however expressed.

If you haven’t listened to it, go ahead and see if you agree.

 

 

 

5. Memory of June by Claude McKay. Speaking of graceful rhymed and metrical lyrics, this one by Claude McKay is full-throated and sounds great. In my post on it in June I wondered if the tantalizing line “for one night only we were wed” might have been an encoded cry of a gay black man who knew full well that marriage was out of the question. In each of these countdown posts, I start the listing with a hyperlink to the original post if you would like to read more about what I said about my encounter with the text at the time.

That’s still an interesting question, but no answer to it is required to appreciate the poem. As with so many compositions this summer I was meshing acoustic guitar with bowed strings and some of my sparse naïve piano.

 

 

 

*I probably should refrain from introducing the impossible to determine quantum state of an American political figure to this cultural discussion, as many of the readers here won’t even know who I’m talking about.

**and eventually, his active participation in Italian Fascism. If one decodes their way through all the masks, certain ugly prejudices and nutball ideals are present in the man’s art—and also beautiful distillations and perceptions that I can sit behind his eyes and share with him. This sort of thing is why I’m sometimes glad that I’m constrained to present here the work of the long dead. If Pound was alive, you and I might well feel it our duty to oppose him in total. As best as I can tell, Pound seems of little use to current English-language Fascists.

In the arts, Pound’s early 20th century Modernist opinions made him the Marie Kondo of poetry. “If it doesn’t spark joy, throw it out” was not one of the famous Imagist rules, but it could have been.

Parlando Project Summer 2019 Top Ten part 1

It’s that time again, when we look back on the past months and see what pieces were the most liked and listened to this summer. I do it countdown style, so here we start with the 10th, 9th, and 8th most popular pieces this season.

10. Pods (Neponset) by Carl Sandburg.  Do I say Sandburg is the forgotten Imagist too often? Maybe, but to my mind this is one of the finest short Imagist poems I’ve come across in my wanderings through early Modernist verse. Another thing I keep trying to counteract: the idea that Sandburg is simplistic and that his verse is absent the levels of ambiguity and ineffability that “great poetry” is said to offer. This 7-line poem about a small Illinois village with gardens and the train passengers traveling to see scenic wonders is an example.

My family has to put up with an amount of interruption by the focused and repetitive work of producing these pieces. Listening to the process of composition, when it involves (as it sometimes does with me) a lot of trial and error is  trying—but listening to the final mixing stages is excruciating. I mix at modest volume levels, but I’ve been told that headphones are not to be trusted in that work—so they hear these pieces sometimes being wiggled this way, and wrung out that way, over and over.  Not a good way to appreciate a piece.

So, it was a surprise this summer when my wife came in and told me this one sounded like one of the best ones I’ve done. Maybe it made it to number 10 because it stands to be listened to more than once?

 

 

9. I Saw a Peacock by Anonymous.  Long a leading composer in the folk music field, Anonymous can also craft a pretty good Surrealist poem with a humorous trick: the line breaks lead you to connect the thing previous with the last part of the line—when the “real” and much more mundane connection (as opposed to the wondrously apocalyptic thing you believe you’ve heard) is in the next line, after a breath pause of the line break.

I’ve read that this poem impressed Margaret Atwood in her early childhood with the wonder that poetry could create.

I seem to be working more and more with string and other orchestral compositions this summer. Part of that is that I’ve always been drawn to things that mix the attack-envelope of percussion instruments with the varieties of note length that stringed instruments, particularly bowed string instruments, can create—but it’s also because I was able to afford some additional orchestral instruments to play via my guitar’s MIDI pickup or with my little plastic keyboard this summer.

 

Here Be Monsters

Didn’t work? OK, try Black Mountain school with polka. No? Dubstep Hildegard von Bingen! Hard Bop Thomas Hardy! Still coming? Tell the gunner to give’em both barrels then. No, no! Not those barrels…

 

8. For Once, Then, Something by Robert Frost. Here’s an example of why I’m particularly grateful to the hardy listeners of these pieces. While I’m constrained by difficulties in obtaining permission to present writings still in copyright, I hope that you can see that I vary the type and the outlook of the poetry and other writing that I can and do use. I try too to mix Poetry’s Greatest Hits with deep cuts from esteemed poets, and more than a little of the lesser-known but worth considering.

Of course, for some (Many? Most?) the idea of poetry as an everyday thing that is not some mix of fearsome and intended obscurity, snores-ville decorative excess, and hoity-toity crap for those with nothing better to do has already removed them from reading or listening here.

Well then, as I’ve described this project from the beginning, I combine these words, mostly poetry, with various music. While people might just ignore poetry, they actively hate music that they don’t like. That disgust leads some (Many? Most?) to cling to a genre of music they find most able to please them, and to mark other sonic places as “here be monsters”—hideous creatures that disrespect what is right in music.*

Music doesn’t know what’s right and proper. It just wants to sound itself.

So how many people are out there who want to hear even the beloved, famous, respected American poet Robert Frost chanted to a pulsating Electronic Dance Beat arrangement?

Well, if you are the kind of people who read, listen, follow, and help propagate what the Parlando Project does, there are enough of you to make this the 8th most popular piece this past summer!

 

 

*By the way, if you don’t like some of the audio pieces that are presented here, that’s OK, even expected. Given that I’m pushing my capabilities as a composer and musician, you might even agree with my intent, yet not wish to negotiate my actualities. That’s part of why I like to mention that we vary things: you may like the next one that comes out, or enjoy taking a look at the nearly 400 pieces we have in our archives.

The Parlando Project audio pieces are available on Spotify. With the current Spotify mobile app you can even create playlists of your Parlando favorites—and exclude your “not so much favorites.”

More on that exchange published in the prologue to Kora in Hell

Did you find yourself agreeing more with H.D. or William Carlos Williams in Thursday’s audio piece taken from Williams’ Kora in Hell?  If I was to survey listeners, I’d be surprised if Williams wouldn’t win far more applause. Being that it’s his  book, and he controls what H.D. presents before he responds, it wasn’t really a neutral-site debate.

That sort of exchange could remind you of our modern political ads, where candidate A is quoted or shown in some excerpt that appears outlandish, and then candidate B is cut to saying that they think that’s just as outlandish as you think it is, and I’d never take that position, so vote for me. Except, it’s in reverse. It’s Williams, candidate B, who’s taking the more extreme position. Still I think Williams will largely win the audience.

It’s also easy to see this as a male/female dynamic. H.D. makes a suggestion, plausibly insightful, asking only for self-reflection on W.C.W’s part. Williams responds to her, in much more forceful rhetoric, defending his freedom, saying in effect when you say “sacred” I hear “heretic.” I think a great many observers of gender roles would see this as a stereotypical exchange. I agree*, but I could imagine this same exchange with the genders switched—less common, but possible. And it certainly occurs in a same gender situation too.

Something else that came to mind as I read this was a division that was made in an influential essay at mid-century, something that was still current when I was in school. This month I re-read that essay after Kora in Hell  and the telling exchange I took from its prologue. It’s by critic Philip Rahv, published in 1939, and its title “Paleface and Redskin”**  sets out the framework of its thesis, something that professors still thought relevant when I was being taught. The title is a distinctive dichotomy Rahv had observed in American literature. This paragraph from Rahv’s essay summarized the two types:

…the redskin glories in his Americanism, to the paleface it is a source of endless ambiguities. Sociologically they can be distinguished as patrician vs. plebeian, and in their aesthetic ideals one is drawn to allegory and to the distillations of symbolism, whereas the other inclines to a gross, riotous naturalism. The paleface is a ‘highbrow,’ though his mentality…is often of the kind that excludes and repels general ideas; he is at the same time both something more and something less than an intellectual in the European sense. And the redskin deserves the epithet ‘lowbrow’ not because he is badly educated—which he might or might not be—but because his reactions are primarily emotional, spontaneous, and lacking in personal culture. The paleface continually hankers after religious norms and tends toward a refined estrangement from reality. The redskin, on the other hand, accepts his environment, at times to the degree of fusion with it, even when rebelling against one or another of its manifestations. At his highest level the paleface moves in an exquisite moral atmosphere; at his lowest he is genteel, snobbish, and pedantic. In giving expression to the vitality and to the aspirations of the people, the redskin is at his best; but at his worst he is a vulgar anti-intellectual, combining aggression with conformity and reverting to the crudest forms of frontier psychology.”

Rahv ostensibly doesn’t favor either side. His observation, made by a man who could claim to be an immigrant, outside observer, was that American Lit was binary and divided with authors on one side or the other and no synthesis, and that this was a bad thing. ***

Palefaces and Redskin Potatoes

Pale faces and redskins, or 3 artists and some spuds.

 

It’s easy to see that divide in the H.D. and William Carlos Williams exchange. H.D. in the moment captured in her letter to W.C.W. is paleface, and Williams is redskin. Rahv expends most of his examples on novelists, and Modernist novelists like Hemmingway and Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson he feels all fail to a significant degree due to redman tendencies. But Modernist poets weren’t really in either camp as Rahv defines them. Ezra Pound could be claimed as either, and even in the two early pre-Modernist poems I’ve just presented here he tries on each personae: in “Grace Before Song”  a pious poet in service of art who will be personally forgotten and in “In Thus in Nineveh”  as an unheralded poet who will be remembered because the people value the lively if imperfect vitality of his verse.

Feel free to consider Rahv’s classification system as silly, outdated, or even distasteful. I myself consider it an amusing parlor game kind of thing, more subjective than Rahv thinks it is, and as subject to superficial oversimplifications as taking a “Which Disney Princess are you” quiz. ****

I wasn’t going to include any audio with today’s post, but after spending a day avoiding completing this post so that I could play with orchestra scoring, I figured I could read a couple more sentences also from Rahv’s 1939 essay backed by a short example of what I was coming up with. The player’s below.

 

 

*Even though Williams and English language Modernism in general coincided with the rise of women’s independence and citizenship, and even if women were participants in this cultural revolution, that doesn’t mean that Modernist men were invariably feminist—far from it. There are things to admire about W.C.W. for sure, but even in my limited reading of his work I keep getting this weird vibe from him where women are concerned.

**Yup, Rahv went there with the casual use of the racial slur. As literary culture goes in this era, totally non-remarkable and non-controversial. The first college I attended, where I heard of Rahv’s essay, had named its sports teams The Redmen, a just  more polite term. I had a tiny part in asking this name be changed. In Rahv’s defense I’ll say that he was a Jewish heritage immigrant from the Pale of Settlement. If life experience is knowledge, he likely “understood” ethnic slurs as deeply as any of us.

The kind of dichotomy Rahv lays out has analogues in modern discussions on just how street a rapper is, or debates on if performance poetry can be “real poetry.”

***From the luxurious wisdom of history, I found it fun reading the essay to see who of his contemporaries he thought was fatally damaged by this inability to join the strengths of both groups. He seems to give obvious paleface T. S. Eliot a passing grade, though noting that he had to leave America. Rahv says “Faulkner’s horror stories have long ago ceased to have any recognizable value.” History disputes Rahv there. Hemmingway is just a retread Natty Bumppo he says, an arguable case still today (even though I’ll take the other side on that one). Emily Dickinson gets an atta girl notice as a more or less successful paleface. No, additional reflection since 1939 has discovered that Dickinson is a redskin with paleface trappings.

****I’m Jasmine.

A few updates, and why fewer new audio pieces so far this summer

Between revising my recording setup and spaces and some travel, I’ve been away from being able to create new audio pieces for much of the past month. I’ve missed that, and I hope you have too, though I have  been able to put together a few new things in the midst of this.

I was hoping to bridge this gap by presenting some things I have from older recording sessions featuring writing still in copyright, but so far I have received no response from those that seem to be the contact points for that—the usual when I seek to gain permissions. I assume this is just the inevitable result of a publishing industry focused on those business and revenue things they may need for survival. In an ideal world there’d be another me busy banging on the door of rights-holding publishers until they at least told me no or “Go away, we don’t want any.”

For you constant readers, in place of new audio pieces, I’ll leave you with just two brief follow-ups.

I’m reading a couple more Emily Dickinson books so that I won’t be so embarrassingly blank on certain questions. One is Aife Murray’s Maid as Muse,  it’s fascinating premise to look at the lives and possible influence of the Dickinson family’s Afro-American and Irish servants. The book also doesn’t overlook the basic fact that it was the presence of servants exchanging their focus and time that allowed Dickinson to produce poetry that valorized independent thought.

If by chance you read that last sentence and think, well there’s your white privilege and base economic exploitation that I’m too aware of or otherwise inoculated to by family heritage or economic class to engage in, think (as I do) that it’s some Asian factory that allows me a cheap computer* to write this and to create and/or record the Parlando Project audio pieces and someone in another place built the inexpensive electric guitar you hear.

The other Dickinson book is Lives Like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon. Gordon seems to have a more polemical mood so far than Murray, though her wars are mostly laid in books. The book promises to help me understand the complicated way that Emily Dickinson’s almost entirely unpublished work managed to get published and find a considerable audience shortly after her death. Even early on in the book Gordon is presenting an understandable portrait of Mabel Loomis Todd, one of the producers of the first posthumous edition of Dickinson poems. Todd is often painted on cardboard: Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin’s mistress and nemesis of her brother’s wife, Emily’s intimate friend and often interpreted as lover Susan Gilbert Dickinson. A social climbing no-talent who glommed onto a real talent? Todd might be all that, but I’m already finding Gordon’s portrait of her illuminating.

As it seems it always is with Dickinson books I’m frustrated by a lack of chronological clarity. Murray’s book has a great deal on the life and influence of Maggie Maher, an Irish born servant who worked with Emily in the Dickinson house kitchen in the post American Civil War years just after Dickinson had already written the majority of her poems; and the admittedly juicy details of the Emily/Susan/Austin/Mable love rhombus are no doubt material to the way Dickinson’s poems emerged after her death, but the events of her brother’s “betrayal” of her friend/possible lover’s wife happened in the last years of Emily Dickinson’s life when she doesn’t appear to be writing or even collating her poetry.

Dr John Emily D

This is the place were you see pictures of these two together.

 

One last note: one of my personal favorite pieces over the past three years was “Blues Summit in Chicago 1974”  a short narrative of my reaction to watching a video a couple of years ago of a concert combining some pioneering “Great Migration” Afro-American blues musicians with some more likely white “Blues Revival” guys in front of an audience redolent of that titular year. In it I note that both the young guys and the old masters are all dead, and that some of the “young guys” died before their elders—well, except for one guy, Dr. John (stage name of Mac Rebennack) who was still living. “Can’t be the clean living” I remind listeners to that piece, as Mac had a long dance with heroin and other drugs. This year Dr. John in effect asked for a revision of that piece when life finally claimed him for death.

If you haven’t heard that piece, here it is as performed with the LYL Band a few years back, it’s available with the player below. And I’ve just got some good news on another piece that you’ll see here soon!

 

 

*I am moving to a new Macintosh computer for those “in-the-box” musical elements this summer as I want to use more of those tempting virtual instruments that allow me to work up to orchestral levels of scoring. My old computer was still working with occasional needs to account for its capacities, but it’s now nearly nine years old and eventually it won’t work. My hope is the new one will work as long as I do, but alas the “Apple Tax” is real and a few things about the new computer are frustrating despite its considerable cost. Still, I’m privileged to be able to afford it, and it’s so hard to find good help these days….

The Greatest Generation, or Thomas W. Higginson lands on Omaha Beach

I appreciate the attention readers here give to what I present, and so I’m going to warn you: this is a longer piece covering some historical topics that have not been as popular here as others. I plan to be back soon with a shorter post and  I promise a love poem set to music. Thanks for your attention and spreading the word about the Parlando Project. I value that!

Today is the anniversary of the WWII allies’ D-Day invasion of Northern Europe, and as each anniversary gets later the tributes to the sacrifices and courage of those who waded onto the beach amid the gun and cannon fire grow more glowing.

As one of America’s diverted poets once said, it is “altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.” And I say this knowing that this will likely be one of the least-read posts here. The audience for a blog about encounters with poetry and music is not a martial audience by and large. Even a poem like Slessor’s “Beach Burial”  recently presented here—a poem that is about war, though not really about battle or courage or warrior feats—will end up being one of the least noticed, read, liked, and listened to.

I speculatively assign that response—and the lessor response other stark war poems have received—to a number of things: that old battles are yesterday’s newspapers—or as we might say these days, just newspapers; that one of the things we might look for in the arts is a respite from, or at least a beautiful decoration for violent and horrific events. I’m casting no shade on you who have paid with your attention to what we do here for that—or your other judgements on the work we present. After all, I make those judgments myself all the time for my own reasons.

So now, having sincerely bowed to both those who were in the water on June 6th 1944 and you, dear reader and listener, I will diverge.

There is no Greatest Generation,* never was. Too much is assigned to generations, and if widely shared experiences and common events current to lifetimes has some glue to hold an aggregate together, extending “generations” to inner character and intrinsic resources of their membership, virtues and vices conferred merely from birth years is simplistic nonsense that should never be relied on.

I suspect wiser users of the term would correct me and say they do not mean that when they use the term, they mean the great things the WWII generation endured and did. Yes, I join them, there is value in noting that.

But one thing that literature teaches us, by doing its basic trick of letting us experience someone else’s life, is that the good and bad in human character and the challenges brought to bear on us are not unique to time and place. Are the challenges of WWII greater than the challenges of those of the trench soldiers of WWI that this project has featured? Are the privations of the Great Depression, followed by another World War and the following challenges of nuclear peace after great destruction worse than the challenges of 19th century American slavery followed by a Civil War followed by the continuing existence of a continent-wide republic after such trauma?

An Internet discussion mentioning these things often leads to claims and counter-claims of greatest evil: slavery, colonialism (which should include our “internal” American colonialism inflicted on our indigenous population), The Holocaust, Stalinism’s mismanagement, gulags and secret police, Pol Pot, and other evils whose incidental lack of notoriety should give them no cover. I’m sure there are appreciable differences in them, things philosophers could construct evaluative frameworks on. Don’t bother to comment or look for a poll feature to vote on the Greatest Evil or any generation associated with it. This will not be my point.

My point is: you, particularly the younger of those that read this, are the only generation that matters. If I need a silly name for you, a souvenir hat to show that you belong to this, then I’ll swallow my pendant’s pride and call you “The Greatest Generation.”

Do I want my own son, or you, to advance into shore batteries over an open beach or to try to hold Little Round Top without ammunition left? Do I wish it to be necessary to risk mobs, the bullies of privilege, or jail to secure basic freedoms? No, of course not. Nor can I be sure you will figure out what level of forgiveness and generosity vs. justice and retribution will succeed in the peace that all wars fail into. I would rather you figure out how to secure the things warriors were putting their lives in bond for without the war.

So why do I include these poems about war here? Here’s one reason, a personal one: I too often hear that arts and poetry in particular are a trivial activity, the first thing to be dispensed with when “reality” comes to call. And the arts in general, it’s said, aren’t they about vanity? Well, some of those warriors wrote, made and listened to songs. There were readers in foxholes. Call it pleasure, hope or need, some will hold onto poetry and music in any extremis.

And even the arts skeptics give us this: they pull those things out, music and poetry, for the funerals and anniversaries. Can we also realize that some of us hold to these things in life as well?

And here’s the more general reason: reading and listening to literature may remind you that those who pushed forward and those who opposed every good and bad thing are not historical figures, they have no powers or weaknesses because of the year they were born, no more than you do. They lived and died in their Imagist instant, just as you do, weighing duty, possibility, weakness, strength, love, hate, pretense, modesty, anger, resolve, justice and mercy. Seeing, doing, maybe not knowing. Literature shows us that all these things existed in each generation, gives us the evidence of what they feel like, how they exist, side-by-side.

That’s sort of like a poem may be. Those soldiers heading for the beach, like the words alone in a poem could not know fully what they meant. I do not mean by this a romantic claim that art or poetry equals their indominable authorial intent. There’s no measure of their last full measure, something we use art to teach ourselves. And anyway, as a working method our diverted poet settled that issue in his Gettysburg Address too, but chose to do it in his orated poem.

That said, now let me justify the post’s title. I’ve continued to read Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s writing this week, particularly his 1899 memoir, Cheerful Yesterdays.  Higginson is mostly known today as a footnote—kind of like the record company guy who passed on signing the Beatles—as the man in publishing who Emily Dickinson reached out to with a handful of poems and who then corresponded with her over a period of years when she was writing her groundbreaking poetry. Why didn’t he know right away what was on offer literature-wise with Dickinson?

I’ll confess I started his memoir in the middle, and I will now go back and read the start. From its “cheerful” title you may not have a good handle on its matter. It’s both breezy and polite and gripping and harrowing, a strange mix. I knew Higginson was (among other things) a slavery Abolitionist, and because of what he calls “The Sisterhood of Reforms” that he was involved in other social movements, including Feminism/Women’s rights. It’s in the middle, where I came in, that I learned about just what kind of Abolitionist he was.

Abolition included Fabian elements that sought to corral this basic evil legally and eventually end it, non-violent radicals and self-described “agitators” who put their lives on the line but would not morally take another’s life, and the “by any means necessary” crowd. The later was were Higginson lived, at least after 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act. He was part of (seems to have been a principle in, though he characteristically refrains from claiming leadership) the Boston Vigilance Committee that sought to prevent captured slaves from being returned to their masters as that law required, and he grippingly relates his first hand participation in trying to prevent the last government-assisted attempt in Boston to do that, which includes his plan for a lightning strike by a cadre including himself on the city jail, where the enslaved man was held. The plan counted on an agitated mob in the streets as cover—a crowd who would be motivated to cause a ruckus by his own rable-rousing speech at Faneuil Hall, from where he would dash to the jail to lead the break-in!

Following chapters detail his organizing and gun-running during the “bloody Kansas” guerilla war fought around a plebiscite to decide if the new state would allow slavery, and his joining the John Brown/Harper’s Ferry conspiracy that he says was portrayed to him at first as an armed extension of the Underground Railroad, where a coordinated “jailbreak” of slaves would be accomplished, but which due to lack of funds and organizational ability became what was to be the opening battle in a general slave rebellion which disastrously failed. Particularly in the Brown story, Higginson’s quick-moving/hit the highlights narrative style seems an odd fit with the material. He’s sometimes ambiguous about Brown, and from his vantage point decades after the Civil War and Brown’s execution, he remarks that Brown’s outlook and mental state may have been compromised by Brown’s years in the struggle—but the events say that at the time he was putting himself at risk of felony imprisonment or even a charge of treason with only the surety of his faith in Brown and the necessity of his cause. During much of these activities, Higginson mentions that he was armed, and though he never mentions firing at anyone, presumably he wasn’t carrying pistols for sport.

If your vision when you have read the tale of Higginson in the Dickinson saga is of a rarefied literary critic whose wars were “laid away in books” you’ve understood him too quickly.

When the Civil War breaks out in 1861, the 38-year-old Higginson is raring to serve. He begins working to recruit soldiers almost immediately.* Within a year, he’s tasked with leading the first Afro-American regiment in the U.S. Army, which he takes up gladly.

This explains the oddest part of his rambling, Polonius-like  1862 “Letter to a Young Contributor”  magazine article that is often thought to have inspired Emily Dickinson to write Higginson. Near the end Higginson launches into a discussion of war as a subject for writing and a vocation for writers.

No doubt, war brings out grand and unexpected qualities, and there is a perennial fascination in the Elizabethan Raleighs and Sidneys, alike heroes of pen and sword. But the fact is patent, that there is scarcely any art whose rudiments are so easy to acquire as the military; the manuals of tactics have no difficulties comparable to those of the ordinary professional text-books; and any one who can drill a boat’s crew or a ball-club can learn in a very few weeks to drill a company or even a regiment.”

This seems like a combination of distain for the difficulties of military command (from a man who had already risked his own life and engaged in concerted acts which led to the death of others) and a bit of a backhanded and Americanized version of “The battle of Waterloo was won on the fields of Eton” line. But at the time this article was published, that was what Higginson was preparing to do. He was heading to South Carolina to take over that regiment of freed slaves.** Read in that knowledge it seems a bit like he’s trying to psych himself up for the task, or that someone has told him those things to convince him to go forward with the commission.

So, the first thing my wife asks when I tell her I’m reading Higginson’s memoir, is one you may be asking too. “Does he mention Emily Dickinson?” In this 1899 memoir, he does not. Due in some part to Higginson himself, the posthumous 1890 original edition of a large chunk of Dickinson poetry was an unexpected, multi-printing success, but this didn’t make Dickinson what she is today: one of the giants of American poetry. The “unexploded bomb” of Emily Dickinson took almost a century to explode slowly. She’s just one author he worked with, and since he knew many of the literary figures of the day, Dickinson wouldn’t be the only notable to mention. He knew Longfellow and Emerson, spent a day with the reclusive Tennyson, all persons of unfathomable fame then.

Suppose a 20th century music figure who knew Bob Dylan, had met all the Beatles, and worked with Stevie Wonder, while also having run with the Weathermen, the Panthers, fought with Che Guevara and was a co-founder of Ms. Magazine, was to write a memoir in 1999. How assuredly must there be a paragraph in that imaginary book that started. “Oh, by the way, one time, Joni Mitchell*** wrote me some letters. I wrote back asking if all those open-tunings were really necessary?”

But even without hypothetical metaphors, it does say something about the attention Higginson spent on an unknown woman poet’s poems in 1862. We might say, with hindsight: too little. But with the above context, we may be surprised at the attention he did  pay.

Back to metaphor: instead of taking the usual story of the boneheaded critic and the revolutionary artist, we might ask if someone was training to parachute into occupied France in 1944 to work with partisans,**** why would he care about poetry? Higginson apparently did.

If you’re a buff about 19th Century American history and culture, particularly the Abolitionist circle around Boston, Cheerful Days  is a brisk read and is available in the books section of archive.org. As I mentioned in introducing it, its tone is somewhat incongruous considering the deadly American crisis at its center, but no matter how much Higginson may be trying to shape his story modestly and discretely, it still gives insight to the times. I say that even though if you don’t have a basic understanding of the events leading up to the Civil War if may be confusing to you in places, as Higginson assumes some common knowledge of things his cohort lived through.

 

*Military recruitment at the start of the American Civil War was a much more localized and “free-enterprisey” kind of thing, and his connections with armed slavery resistance and the Kansas war meant he already knew who was ready to take up arms.

**Not yet citizens, not yet even really “freed” as the compromise taken at this point in the war before the Emancipation Proclamation was to treat slaves who crossed the lines as “contraband of war,” a term, however dehumanizing, that prevented them from being returned to their masters.

***I use Joni Michell pointedly here. Like Dickinson, she was considered a niche artist held in limited esteem in the 1990s. and only decades later is she more fully recognized for the level of originality and effectiveness in her work.

****Once more, I’m making a considered point here. Officers of Afro-American troops were not to be treated as prisoners of war, but to be summarily executed by decree of the Confederate government. In his memoir Higginson says he didn’t think they’d really do that.