Given the everything I’d rate between losses, troubles, and mere distractions I’ve gone through since late last autumn, I’m not in a mood this week to do the traditional Parlando Top Ten list for the past season. These are the same issues in repertory that have reduced the number of new pieces I was able to present here during that time. You, the audience for this Project, have stayed with this: readership to this blog is growing, overall listenership to the audio pieces is slightly up. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. There’s more than three of you — I mean to thank all of you three times.
I know some of you do like these quarterly Top Tens, and I enjoy them myself — if only just to see what pieces from the variety presented here got the most response. That said, let’s rush through the numbers 10 up to 6 for the record:
You can see in those five pieces two from my memorial observance for the Irish-American poet McKiernan who I had the privilege to know and examine poetry with, and one from my February Black History Month celebration of Langston Hughes’ first poetry collection The Weary Blues. There in the middle, there’s one by long-time Parlando Project favorite Emily Dickinson. And my own piece in that group talks about the loss of Ethna and also my March memorial subject who Dave Moore and I also knew and worked with: Kevin FitzPatrick. If you missed any of these, each of that above list is a link to my original blog posting and the audio performance of it, just as the following ones bolded titles are.
We join the countdown to the most listened to and liked piece then at number 5.
Spring, a rebuttal.
5. Velvet Shoes by Elinor Wylie. A lovely, graceful winter poem by a too-often-overlooked poet from “The Last Twenties” in our previous century. I like the music and performance I created for this one just as much as I did when I created it back around the beginning of 2022.
One would think I’d be through with snow experiences this far into spring, but my morning bike ride today was in big wet flakes and a cold enough north wind. Wylie’s velvet snow is more the dry January sort, but then appreciating snow for its beauty qualities may be best done in past-tense. If so, you may enjoy listening to this one in what I hope is a pleasant spring.
4. Lenox Avenue: Midnight by Langston Hughes. “The rhythm of life is a Jazz rhythm” says the first line of Hughes’ poem. I did my best to honor that injunction from one of the first Afro-American poets to unabashedly celebrate that musical form. Although I’m a vary unskilled keyboard player I was able to compose a satisfying two-handed part using MIDI as a scoring tool. I wanted a saxophone solo too, which you can hear a bit of in this performance, but I just couldn’t score or execute enough articulation to “make it.” The piece’s final horn section flourish is one of my rare surrenders to using a sampled musical phrase.
Of course, motif sampling is now an oft honored tactic in the ongoing Afro-American musical tradition, so perhaps I shouldn’t view it as a failure on my part. On the audacity front: I decided to extend Hughes’ lyric which ended with “And the Gods are laughing at us” with a newly written affirmation from after the poem’s time of 1926, one that says that the young art of Jazz and of young writer Langston Hughes’ has answered those gods.
3. Sonny Rollins, The Bridge 1959. Staying with Jazz for this one, though with my own words straight through. There are beliefs — some sincere, some insincere — that Afro-American history is but a sorrowful tale, a grievance and a pandering response. If you can heartily do so, I ask you to improvise your own expletive response to the call of that fearful theory, one with as much eloquence and melodic force as you can deliver. Now our response may not be Sonny Rollins level improvisation. That’s not a reason not to — after all, Sonny Rollins wasn’t sure his improvisations were Sonny Rollins’ level improvisations. That’s the story in this piece.
I seem to lack the concentration, or the assured concentration of blocks of time, to do arrangements as full as the one I created for Frost’s poem right now. But you can still enjoy this one.
1. Stones by Ethna McKiernan. One answer to lack of compositional time is to write solo instrument pieces, which for me usually means acoustic guitar. Of the several pieces I did to introduce more of you to McKiernan’s range of poetry, this was the one that by far got the most listens this winter — in fact, more listens than any piece has received for more than a year during its first season after posting.
Before I leave you to listen to it, I want to say that beyond soothing my grief at Ethna’s death, that performing those pieces which used her words this winter made her seem closer than our too casual life connection sometimes had us. Wherever we voyage, the same waves lap the same sounds on the walls of our boats.
I started this inconstant month calling it “Unrequited March” — and I had this desire: to pay a more complete tribute to a recently departed poet I knew: Kevin FitzPatrick. In that task I wanted to see if I could rejoin with another voice and poet you’ve heard here: my friend Dave Moore.
Dave’s had some reduction in his ability to play keyboards, and he wasn’t sure how well his voice would hold up, but he was able to join me late last week as we took our usual “live in the studio” approach to doing some new pieces together, including a number of ones using FitzPatrick’s words. This requitement was doubly appropriate because Dave knew Kevin even longer than I did. Dave and I managed fine, and had a good time.
In the normal course of things those pieces would get worked on in the following week, but life has interrupted our singing back at death.
We are all racing forward and melting.
How? Even if one of this Project’s mottos is “Other People’s Stories,” I have qualms about telling other living persons’ events, so I don’t feel right discussing more details here today, but there have been hospitals involved, and some pretty long hours in the last two days in those places.
The outlook, best as I can predict it now, is that beyond my concerns with these other matters, my ability to work on audio pieces will be restricted for a while. If time allows, you might still hear some of the Kevin FitzPatrick related stuff yet this week.
Does it seem odd to work on art and our experience of it, even when other things must take precedence? That occurred to me too. Well, when I visited our newly hospitalized patient, they had two needs: music and Jacques Derrida. Go figure.
This winter readers of this blog got to follow my own celebration of the work of Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan. That was my memorial to her fine work, by which some of you now can know her. I realize that the Parlando Project has a world-wide readership, but for those of you that are in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area there’ll be a live event to celebrate her and her work featuring a number of her Twin Cities area poetic peers.
This will be a bittersweet occasion for me and some others, as Ethna and Kevin FitzPatrick used to do a poetry reading around every St. Patrick’s Day in March, and now of course both of them have died., turning them into memories and their words.
I assume McKiernan’s selected poems collection Light Rolling Slowly Backwards will be available at the event. If you’re not local, here’s the publisher’s listing.
Here’s one of those pieces I did this winter with Ethna’s words and my music. Player gadget below for some ways you may be reading this, or this alternative highlighted hyperlink if you don’t see that graphical player.
I was talking to Glen at the café I rode to for breakfast this morning. “It’s President’s Day. Did you get him anything?”
Glen has a pretty quick mind, but he thought for a moment and countered “Well, it’s one of those vestigial holidays. We’ve got a tailbone, but how many million years since we’ve needed it? It’s on the calendar and that’s about it.”
I think he’s right. It used to be more at Washington’s Birthday, and in some states Lincoln’s Birthday was also celebrated this month. And then one of the reasons February is Black History Month is that this short month also includes the date celebrated as Fredrick Douglass’ Birthday.
No sub-text here: 19th century celebrating heavenly Presidential bromance
My celebration, my observance was taken up with the ubiquitous modern American civic act this weekend, watching things on a screen alone — which is kind of sad, but the others in my family have more proximate concerns nearer to them than my fiddly interest in musty histories and art.
I started by watching Lincoln’s Dilemma, a four-part, four-hour documentary mini-series produced by a number of Afro-Americans that is available on Apple TV+ now. It covers the time from Lincoln’s entry into state politics until his burial, focusing on his evolving and politically and war charged relationship with American chattel slavery and the Afro-American’s subjected to that. I was a teenager during the centennial of the American Civil War who read avidly about it, and between that and my interest in American Black history there was a lot that was only refrain and time-line refreshment for me, but like any well-done extensive overview there’s a power in putting things together and linking this and that.
Two things discussed fairly early in the documentary were stories I hadn’t known. One deals with the Christiana Incident, something I’d heard nothing about. It’s easily as gripping as my own city’s Eliza Winston story, or the Emily Dickinson adjacent stories of Angeline Palmer or Dickinson’s “Preceptor” Thomas Higginson’s armed assault on a Boston jail. The other was its accounts from the under-covered period between Lincoln’s election, his subsequent spring-time inauguration, and the firing on Fort Sumter that started the Civil War. I would eagerly see entire documentaries or “based on a true story” depictions of either. For example, did you know (I didn’t) that during this period, as a last-ditch effort to placate southern states that were issuing their declarations of succession based on the Federal Government and its soon to be leader’s insufficient devotion to slavery, that a proposed 13th amendment that would constitutionally prohibit the ending of slavery was put forward? It passed the House and Senate with the required 2/3 majorities. Although the Civil War would soon be raging, five! states ratified it.
If this sort of thing sounds interesting to you, and you have access to it, I easily recommend Lincoln’s Dilemma.
I took a break halfway in on Lincoln’s Dilemma to watch John Ford’s 1939 Young Lincoln staring a startlingly well-made-up Henry Fonda as Lincoln. For good and ill this well-made film hits all the John Ford tropes* and is very inconstant in a “print the myth” way regarding historical accuracy. I suspect Young Lincoln’s emotional content no longer communicates, and more the same, it’s earnest civic lessons would be lost to most audiences today too. But it’s Ford, so we’re left with mise en scene and striking tableau frames that contemporary film makers might still copy. For humor’s sake I could try to hype its contemporary value as “The story of the trial of a pair of accused cop killers who are surprisingly defended by a lawyer reverently devoted to the law.”
Before I leave you, let me touch on George Washington, the man who posthumously gave up his birthday for President’s Day. The story of the Civil War and the end of slavery is but one example of a dictum often taken as absolute by revolutionaries: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” And of course, as the leader of an armed revolution, Washington would seem to be an example** of demand backed by guns. But the singular greatest fact about Washington, a thing we should be grateful for beyond other things, is that after the American state got independence and he became its leader, he willingly, and without demand or struggle, gave up power. That’s rare.
Love of the thing one is struggling for, not for personal power, or opportunity, or mere revenge and expiation, is a hard thing to find — perhaps even more so in those who win some part of their struggles. So, let me leave off this Presidents Day not with a piece about a President, but about the man who stated that revolutionary’s dictum above, Frederick Douglass. Written by poet Robert Hayden,*** with my music and performance, you’ll can hear it with a graphical player below if you see that — or if you don’t, with this highlighted link. If you want to read Hayden’s sonnet about Douglass as you listen, you can find the text here. Back with new pieces soon.
*Although I’m reasonably familiar with why Ford is viewed as an important foundational cinema artist, I actually haven’t seen all his best-regarded films. Only last year I saw his The Searchers for the first time. As to that film: I found it highly compelling, significantly because it’s a film about racism made largely by men that could be fairly judged as patriarchal racists, and yet it’s not Triumph of the Will, some sharply focused mirror of evil, either. Somehow, Ford and fate made it multivalent.
As I mentioned as January ended, this February has been challenging for me to keep up with this Project and it’s associated tasks. I still hope to have new pieces soon. In place of a new encounter and performance with a poem or other text, let me do one of those posts where I pretend this is a normal blog
I know nothing other than what I read in the news about the situation in Ukraine — and that news with Ukraine now is, in short, mostly about what is feared to be an imminent invasion. I’m sure this Internet is full of folks with takes and information and policy positions if you feel the need for that, but instead I’m going to tell you a little story from my youth.
Back in the 1970s I was working the overnight shift in an urban hospital’s Emergency Department. Overnight, those 11 PM to 7 AM shifts, are probably not good for one’s health or social life, but I rather liked them. Staffing is much lower, and there was in my day almost no administrative or support presence. No crowd of attending MDs looking for proper deference to their priorities, no administrators to set or enforce policy in between meetings. Therefore, hierarchies were radically flattened at night, and I got to see and participate in a lot of different medical things.
My ED then was staffed with myself, a registered nurse (RN), a clerk who typed in information to print up a chart and the handy labels that would be pasted on lab requests/samples, and a family practice resident* Just down the hall from our suite of four treatment rooms was a door with a buzzer where anyone from the ambulance patients we’d expect after incoming radio calls, to those who’d called their doctor and clinic and were told to drive to the hospital for further evaluation that couldn’t wait until morning would appear. And then too, the walk in.**
I worked nearly 20 years in hospitals, most often in Emergency Rooms. This stock photo looks about the right vintage.
On the night I remember, the buzzer rang and there was an older man at the door. He had apparently walked up alone, and I usually was the one who went to the door to see what was the matter. And that was the issue from the start: he was speaking some foreign language, and he seemed to have only a scattered understanding of English and almost no English words to reply with. He looked to be in his seventies, had no obvious injuries, no severe distress. He moved slowly, but was walking.
Our door had a big lit-up Emergency Room sign, we could only assume he’d come in for treatment, but for what? You might assume that any 1970s urban hospital would have multiple language interpreters on hand, but that was not the case in ours then. And frankly, we wouldn’t even know what interpreter to call because we couldn’t figure out what language the man was speaking. Some words sounded a bit like German to me, so we called up a nurse working that night who spoke some German to come down. The RN and I hooked our mystery man up to the cardiac monitor, and the resident MD did a quick exam to see if we could figure out why this man had come to us. I think I may have even done an EKG on him, with no obvious issues found.
We looked for an ID in his clothes once we’d put him in a hospital gown and on a stretcher. There was none.
The nurse who spoke some German arrived. She got to her first preliminary question, which might have been “What is your name?” “Or why are you here?” and the mystery man exploded. At least some of the reply was in German. And our volunteer nurse interpreter said his angry words were that Germans had killed his family. How much German did he know? Made no difference, he wasn’t going to answer questions when asked in German.
I next got a bright idea. One of that class of residents was a young doctor who had a great facility in European languages, speaking at least a half-a-dozen of them. He wasn’t on call, and it was 4 AM, but I thought we should call him in. Given the infamous hours that residents worked in those days (maybe still do) that was asking a substantial favor, but he agreed to come in early. I was busy with something when our multilingual resident MD arrived. At one point he thought maybe Russian, and tried that. Later, I heard that once again the mystery patient became angry. Our resident didn’t know the man’s native language, but he got back something that was similar to our German speaking nurse — Russian was not a welcome language to our mystery patient.
Our multilingual resident was a smart guy though. One of the old-guard attending doctors on the hospital’s staff was Ukrainian American and had written a book dealing with Ukrainian culture in Ukrainian, a copy of which was on the shelf in the hospital’s medical library. Our resident showed that book to our mystery patient he later told us, and there was a quick realization that that was his language. After the regular day got underway, the older Ukrainian American doctor found that the man was one of his patients who was somewhat confused and had wandered to the hospital thinking that his doctor might just be there in the middle of the night.
So, as I said at the start, I know nothing about Ukraine — but I do think of that man who appeared in the night at the door of my Emergency Department and demonstrated how little I knew of him and what his country had been through.
Long guns, a poetic example.
What to bring forward for a musical piece today? How about this one about war and violence that combines a line or two of language expression from Afro-American singer Howlin’ Wolf with second generation Swedish immigrant Carl Sandburg’s poem about countries that pack those long guns. Player gadget below for some of you to play it, or you can use this highlighted link otherwise.
*Family Practice was the improved modern evolution of the old school “General Practitioner,” and the program that our hospital had treated that generalism like any other specialist residency to give the doctors who went through it a great deal of practical experience in things they would encounter. Almost every one of the residents I worked with there and then were fine people, who would come in some degree of unsure in the Emergency Room and leave after three years as the kind of doctor that I would want for myself or my family. Doctors and regular medical educators ran that program, but experienced nurses were so important in that too. Each June brought in new residents who really needed the steady hand of nurses at night to guide them in practical medical logistics and solutions.
**There was an indoor hockey rink across the street that had a fairly full set of bookings that ran until midnight. Yes, we needed to keep a lot of suture kits in stock.
This month I’ve been doing a series of pieces based on poems from Langston Hughes’ first book-length collection The Weary Blues of 1926 — but maybe it’s time to mention that I have already presented two early pieces that were included in that book.
Here’s Hughes “Dream Variation” which also offered its title to a section of the 1926 book. “Dream Variation” is an example of Hughes offering a quickly understandable surface message with a plausible deeper intent beneath that surface. The surface reading will connect easily with anyone stuck in a February northern location winter: “To fling my arms wide / In some place of the sun” is something most of us in Minnesota would be ready for, but are only dreaming of right now. Many here like to talk about our enjoyment of the outdoors even in our cold climate, and yes there was some sun when I rode out at 16 degrees F this morning on my bike. I was happy to get the exercise and to watch the crows big as black chickens and the binary oblivious to flurious* squirrels — but I’m tired by now of pulling on leggings and making sure my hands have enough covering to keep my fingers from the cold stiff numbness.
The Weary Blues has another section that takes its title from one of Hughes’ best known poems “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” I was talking about this poem this morning to a fellow I sometimes meet in a café I ride to. I was saying this is a remarkable poem written by a 17 year old, one who literally crossed and looked at America’s Mississippi River on his way to New York City in furtherance of a compromise with his father on college education.** Maybe this won’t seem remarkable to you, if you’re here already reading this far down about a poet who died in the last century, who wrote it generations back.
Hughes might have written about the exact details of his current life. He could have written about how he felt, what with the bargain he’d been forced to strike with his father. He was 17, and forming his own autonomous self is the task of any young person. His father probably didn’t know what the rest of the 20th century would be like for Langston, much less what we’d think of things now in the 21st. What would young Mr. Hughes have known? More, or less?
I was recently reading some jokes observing what are considered the perennial follies of youth. One of the zingers was “It’s best to hire young graduates while they still know everything.” Queue the laugh track.
I don’t know if 17-year-old Langston Hughes thought he knew everything. I didn’t think so at that age myself. But as we consider why we might want to read or listen to poetry by long-dead poets, we might want to consider what Hughes’ poem asks us to consider: that we are the accumulations and results of our ancestors and neighbor’s ancestors. That doesn’t mean we are them, we are the sum on one side of the equals sign from a lot of figures to the left of it; and so the possible extensions, solutions, fulfillment and remediations of them.
That’s what’s remarkable about the young Mr. Hughes’ poem, its approachable impersonality and insistence on the distances yet salience of the past. It’s not “A Negro…” even, but “The Negro….” In it, the current of the past is longer than any history of oppression, injustice, or any stories of conquest. Endurance yes, but beauty too. So, despite age-related-stereotypes, at 17 Mr. Hughes may not, and doesn’t have to, know everything — but it helps to know some things that came before you. Rivers flow. Rivers move. Langston Hughes wrote this moving to New York City — the place where he eventually lived most of his life, but not before changing what he did on the banks of another river.
That’s why we have Black History Month,*** and why I’m talking here to what I suspect is substantially a white audience about Hughes and that observance. Some of you may be nodding off by now, whatever color — “We know all this.” you may be muttering. Facts are not the soul, but poetry and music can speak of that.
I’ve always rather liked my electric guitar performance on my setting of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” that you can hear with the player gadget where seen below, or with this highlighted link.
*Yes, there wasn’t a word “flurious” until now. You are present at the creation!
Once again a variety of things we call life is keeping new material from being posted as part of this project. So, why not do what a lot of bloggers do this time of year and give a short rundown of 2021 traffic for this blog and the associated audio pieces? That might be interesting. What do people come here for?
In general, this blog traffic continues to grow, as it has every year so far. Over the five plus years we’ve been active, there’s been an expected yearly pattern sweep: rising in the fall and carrying over until spring, then dropping off in the summer. This might indicate that some of the traffic here is related to schoolwork assignments or interests lit around that, or that even in our always connected age, that more are outside reading the “book of nature” in the summer than inside curling up with a poetry-related blog by the glow of a crackling screen light. We had 43,621 views last year, modest by political or lifestyle blogging standards, but rewarding in the context of poetry event attendance.
To my personal disappointment, listens to the audio pieces are close to flat in contrast to increased blog readership. The continuing Covid-19 epidemic has put a damper on my ability to collaborate or even to work as extensively on the audio pieces in other ways, and over the past two years I sometimes fear that the quality and variety of the audio pieces could suffer from that. That fear aside, as “The place where music and words meet,” says, these pieces were the real spark that led to all this.
Here are the ten most viewed posts here during 2021. This is the 754th post here, and all of these posts are older posts made over the years since we launched in 2016. I made them hyperlinks in case you’re curious, as a few of them are quite old, and could be from before you started following Parlando.
The popularity of the Pablo Neruda translation from Spanish I did in 2020 shouldn’t surprise me. Love and its ornery cousin lust are attractive subjects after all, and this early collection of Neruda’s is a poetry best-seller in its original language. I myself prefer the final poem in the series to the opener, but they are both part of the story told in the series. Posts on Yeats make two high-placed appearances. I suspect the posts on “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “The Pool” get hits from those looking for homework help on what to say about these enigmatic short poems that appear in many anthologies. The puzzler for me is Edward Thomas’ “October,” which is a lovely poem by a poet better known in the British Isles than in America, but I can’t guess how that post got so popular. My post on Emily Dickinson’s well-loved “Hope’ is the thing with feathers “ may be attractively controversial. Many read that poem as motivational poster simple: praise for plucky hope. I took the idea that the “Hope” quoted in the title may refer to a lesser known poem by Emily Dickinson influence Emily Bronte that makes hope something of a taunting flirt.
None of these top ten for page hits this year was written and posted in 2021. Even though total blog traffic increases smartly year to year, most days I find older posts are among the most read — or at least loaded into readers browsers in hope of finding out something — proving the notion that poetry is news that stays news. The most hits for a 2021-written post was Rimbaud’s Dawn (#21), followed by William Carlos Williams’ Thursday (#26), and my memorial post for Lawrence Ferlinghetti (#36).
Sure, I’m the composer and sole performer on 4 out of those 5 pieces, but not a bad grouping of Parlando music performances, even if none of them have more complex arrangements (harder to get done this year). Listening to them again reduced my fears about the 2021 audio pieces not being as good as in the years past. I was surprised that “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” had made it to the top by the end of the year, but it’s one of those “long tail” audio pieces that continues to attract listeners long after it was first posted. “Escape” was another surprise, because both my vocal and fiddle performance was aiming at “not pretty.” I didn’t expect that one to be so popular.
What more can I say in my defense? T-Rex before they had a hyphen and then Swinburne. Bongo Fury!
Least listened-to new piece last year (excluding those from end of the year that probably haven’t risen to their eventual level)? “Love and Sleep.” Maybe I just couldn’t pull off a fusion of Algernon Charles Swinburne and early Tyrannosaurus Rex — even with a line like “Glittering eyelids of my soul’s desire…” dictating that attempt.
I really hope to have more new pieces here soon, but since it’s not one cause that is preventing things from progressing, I can’t be sure how quickly we’ll get to our 600th audio piece combining various words (mostly poetry) with original music (as varied as I can make it). Thanks to everyone who read and listened here last year. I appreciate your time and attention — and then even more so the likes, reblogs, mentions, Tweets and Facebook posts. I want to reward all of you with more encounters with new stuff. I really do. Wishing all of us a productive New Year….
Happy Birthday poet, performer and rock band leader Patti Smith! We’ll get to her, girls basketball, Arthur Rimbaud, and studying French in Iowa before we’re through today’s post.
There’s a lot of things that go into this Parlando Project existing. One thread of that origin begins: I came to admire poetry as a teenager and a couple of years later I started to write it. I did those things sensuously, without deep understanding of connotation or denotation. I loved poetry and I wrote poetry as music: organized sounds that attracted and pleased me.
Let’s follow that thread, barely woven. I took French in high school in my little Iowa town. The teacher was an interesting man, full of iconoclastic thoughts and some experience in France itself that I don’t recall the particulars of. He seemed rather bold in my little farm town mostly settled by Swedish immigrants some 80 years before, and I suspected then he felt immune to criticism because he was a fairly successful girls basketball coach.* French was the only foreign language offered in my small high school, but I was both aware of Iowa’s history as a French colony** and with bilingual French and English labels and signs from fishing trips deep into Ontario Canada. I was not even a middling student in the class. I did fine with vocabulary, reasonably well with the language rules and syntax, but I was bad at conversational French, both being slow to pick up the knack for spontaneous expression using the words and grammar, and abysmal in pronunciation. I was entirely incapable of making the mouth sounds required. I suspect this is neurological, I have a general problem with mimesis in music or speaking. People are often shocked at how bad I am at that kind of thing.
I did even more poorly in my freshman French class in my attempt at college. This was so even though by then I had an additional motivation: I had learned that French poetry was an important influence on Modernist English poetry. And then, after the Bob Dylan revolution in popular songwriting, French poetry was often cited as an influence on Dylan, and so then by one remove from Dylan, a reflected influence on others who sought to write unusual lyrics using expanded forms of expression.
Let’s skip forward to the fall of 1975. I’m living in a trailer in the middle of Newburgh New York, a small descending city beset with racism and mid-70s industrial ennui, working in the busy E.R. that served as the last resort of the uninsured sick and wounded of the area. I eagerly snag the first LP by a poet who has formed a rock band, and who has been performing 68.2 miles away down the Hudson river in Manhattan. A bootstrap magazine down there would put a label for her band and the bands that were performing around the same time and place: “Punk.***” Like most genre labels, that’s too reductionist, but there you are.
The album “Horses” by the Patti Smith Group presented something important to me, then, and from the uncoiled, frayed thread that unravels from there to now. It’s highly audacious and retains a considerable level of originality even today. I’ll allow that audacious may be the friendly way to say pretentious — the difference may be how much the results work for a listener. I can somewhat understand those that down-rate or even dislike the record, for even though some reject it for ignorant or stupid prejudices, others have valid reasons from their experience and ways of looking and doing. This is the nature of art, and it is almost required of art that breaks new ground. One must go on one’s nerve to be different — and nerve is another way to say that you fully risk pretending to validity and worth.
Horses is halfway a rock song record, and the other half is something else. Yes, Smith sings on the record, but often words are chanted, spoken, prayed, reduced to sound collages halfway between puns and scat singing. If one was to compare it to the singer-songwriter records of it’s day or to a hip hop record closer to now, it’s closer to the later but still its own thing. In the context of then and now, Horses is less likely than records of either the 1975 or 2021 poles to represent itself as a first-person narration of the singer. For much of the record’s running time Smith speaks as fuzzily defined protagonists that however lacking in biographic detail don’t seem to be herself. Rappers may like to put on exaggerated and boasting personas, and lately gender fluidity has found its way into hip hop, but Smith is male or of indeterminate gender for almost the entirety of her first record. Sexualized violence and unilateral lust occurs in a state between fantasy and reality. Visionary states of consciousness are entered into extravagantly, yet this never seems much like a psychedelic record of a few years before. Is it more gothic than many of those? Perhaps — but too Horses seems more consequential, and less a novel pipe dream.
Around this time, following my own thread, I began reading in translation and slowly translating to English a handful of French poems. I still “understood” little of that poetry, and didn’t even like all of it. I gravitated to the Surrealists mostly, but I had paperback volumes of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations and A Season in Hell, and I knew that the Surrealists thought him a Surrealist before their time. Yet to this day, I’ve not really come to grips with Rimbaud. Translation is one way to deeply understand, and that’s a route I’ve taken in the past couple of years with him.
From left to right: the most well-known photo of Rimbaud while he was still writing poetry, Patti Smith’s iconic Horses cover photo taken by Robert Mapplethorpe and a photo from the time of the Paris Commune in 1871 that has been identified as likely of Rimbaud.
Even superficially one can see the linkage between Smith and Rimbaud in the most hermetic piece on Smith’s record, “Land.” A protagonist character that may persist throughout this more than nine-and-a-half-minute piece, Johnny, seems to be a melding of one of William Burroughs’s Wild Boys**** and Chuck Berry’s persona of Afro-American guitar-playing crossover success, Johnny B. Goode. In place of Berry’s refrain of “Go go, go Johnny, go go” Smith substitutes “Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud.” But Smith’s Rimbaud influence seems to be even deeper, merging somewhat too with her partnership with the young Robert Mapplethorpe. If decades of exposure to Rimbaud hasn’t greatly increased my understanding and/or appreciation for Rimbaud, I’ve oddly been able to appreciate Patti Smith from the first words I read of hers on the page, and from the first words on Horses.***** It was famously said about the first Velvet Underground record that few bought it, but everyone who did started a band. Horses sold a bit better, despite its originality and outsider stance. A lot of Horses’ listeners started bands too, and more than a few of us found it more than a demonstration of how to express unusual things within the context of an irregular rock band — we remember it helped us survive and find meaning in that survival. Does that sound sappy to say? Sound like late-adolescent hero worship? Examining myself I don’t think it’s as much of that as it sounds like. Maybe I’m wrong? I’m beyond caring this late in my life what that was, or why — I’m more at grateful I survived and can do this Project now.
Those who know Rimbaud’s biography or work from its appearances here or elsewhere will know how unique and audacious he was too. The most famous single fact about him is that he stopped writing poetry as a teenager, so his entire collected works are the works of a minor. Some of it conforms formally and shows a careful versifier, and some of it out-Whitmans Whitman in free expression of physicality and sexuality.
I awoke at 3 AM this morning, deciding I had to do something today for Patti Smith’s 75th birthday. My sleepless mind half-dreamed and solved that it needed to be something by Rimbaud. Despite reduced higher brain functions, I downloaded a collected works and began searching. Life situations will not allow me to complete any piece started as late as today by end of the day. So, this is Part One, all I can complete. Below there’s an audio piece containing my translation of one of Rimbaud’s best short, rhymed lyrics performed with a little Patti Smith Group feel to the music. The piece is Rimbaud’s “Eternity,” and it’s been one of the most popular ones the Parlando Project has presented. If you’d like to read my translation of the lyric or my original thoughts on the process of creating it, you can find that here. To hear it, you can use the player below, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*Girls basketball was a big thing in Iowa outside of its largest cities who were uninterested in girls sports at that time. In those days it was played with special rules using 3 on 3 teams separated in each half of the court. This meant that girls that didn’t have shooting talent could play only defense and rebound, and girls whose talent was shooting could be very effective and dominate without having to be quite the all-around athletes that modern women basketball players are asked to be. This allowed good coaching and gritty players from small towns to beat many larger schools in the single-class annual state championship tournament which was broadcast live and covered extensively in the newspapers.
**Like snooty Parisians, even rural un-degreed Iowans of my time would know to discretely sneer “out-lander!” at anyone who pronounced our state capitol with un-French final “s” sounds. Beside that historical French connection, my aunt and associated pair of cousins had been posted with her husband in France with the Army, and those cousins were bilingual as they learned speech. She herself spoke French with a decided American southern accent, a little like American Creole. I loved that aunt so much, this might have also been a factor.
***I keep reminding my contemporary teenager that “punk” at its American inception didn’t mean a single style. It was more at the “irregulars” —those whose lives had not necessarily been as musicians — being pressed into service as the more exclusively musical Sixties predecessors died, became depleted from drugs (cocaine in particular gave too many a “best consumed by” date), or just became regimented in a new record industry that understood how to constrain musical artists into commercial money-makers. Speaking in the context of Rimbaud, I could note that “punk” originated as slang for a less successful/powerful criminals and by extension into less-powerful young men in homosexual relations.
****I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of those labeled “Beats,” but for some reason I’ve never really wanted to read Burroughs. I have no idea if that’s my loss. All I know about him is what others have said, but Smith has spoken of Burroughs’ influence, so I don’t need to draw the connection myself. “Land” itself was the hardest song on Horses for me to appreciate and enjoy. I’d been through some incidents of sexualized violence in my teen years and Smith’s use of that motif, while not exactly “triggering” in the modern parlance, wasn’t easy to appreciate.
*****I do own a copy of the indie single that preceded the LP, but I bought it after the LP came out. I first ran across Patti Smith on the page as a writer, before Horses. One early example I recall was a prose-poemish piece of hers called “Dylan’s Dog.” And I knew from notices that she and Lenny Kaye (another person I knew as a “rock critic” before I heard a note of his music) had been mixing electric guitar with poetry. By 1974-75 in Newburgh I was far enough away and far enough poor that I was disconnected from New York City, and so I missed out on the NYC CBGB’s scene.
I fear this is going to be one of those bad elegies, one where the writer goes on too much about themselves and not about the person who has died. I’ve already mentioned that I find myself unacceptable and self-absorbed when I talk about myself, and saying that again only digs the self-dug hole I’m going to speak from today deeper.
In the mid-1970s when I moved to Minnesota from New York I connected back up with Dave Moore who I knew from a year in my aborted attempt at college. Through Dave I fell in with a literary group that varied in size and was herd-of-cats led by Kevin FitzPatrick. The group had just started a little magazine they called the Lake Street Review, Lake Street being a long commercial and industrial street that ran east/west through the center of Minneapolis: bars, gendered barber and beauty shops, warehouses, grocery stores, used car lots, a high-towered Sears linked to a rail-freight line and distribution center behind it, neighborhood movie theaters and former such theaters now grinding porn, the recording studio where “Surfin’ Bird” was recorded, a small attempt at a non-suburban shopping mall built on the tract where tractors and tanks were once factory-built, a “hardly a foot we can’t fit” shoe store whose upstairs apartments housed Robert Pirsig when he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Literary magazines generally preferred foreign words, or landscape landmarks like rivers, lakes, or mountains for their names. Yes, there were lakes at the west end of Lake Street, a self-improvement plan for nature dredged out from what had been swampy wetlands as part of a series of landscaped urban parks that circled Minneapolis — but let me be clear to those who aren’t from around here: calling an artistic enterprise The Lake Street Review was something of a provocation. This was a group of working-class writers with a non-academic outlook toward poetry.
The groups earliest meetings were held at a bar, and Dave noted to me that a large portion of the informal membership was made up of bartenders. Let me also set one other demographic fact: this was a group of men moving from their 20s to their 30s. Eventually the membership thinned out, and the remainder continued meeting in rotation in the members homes and apartments.
As the clan leader, Kevin was generally gentle and accepting. A high-school graduate, working in an urban ER, the again’er in me was attracted to the outsider stance, but Kevin also wanted the magazine’s public work to be acceptable to the parents and grandparents of us young men. The 1970s had still extended the “generation gap” of the 60s, so the “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television” you also couldn’t say on the pages of the Lake Street Review. Feminism was mysterious, like women generally were to these young men, but those women were talking about it which made the mystery unsettling. Anything gender-queer was probably beyond the pale.
I liked those folks, but some of this rankled me. Kevin’s desire to speak across the generation gap as a poet was more noble than I appreciated at the time, but I wanted to go much more radically into discussions of sexuality and sexual roles than Kevin did, and what work I shared with the group privately I thought was underappreciated and misunderstood. I skipped off to two other groups sometime in the 80s, only to return to the Lake Street Writers Group after more than a decade away.
By this time the group had become smaller and more fixed in membership and was no longer concerned with the discontinued magazine. Four or five others, interesting writers and persons in their own right, were regulars, and then not; until by the last few years it became a quartet that would meet every month to share and discuss work in progress.
So when that group ended, it was Kevin FitzPatrick, Dave Moore, Ethna McKiernan, and myself. I’m not sure exactly when Ethna became one of the group as it was likely during my sojourn away from it. At one point she was one of two women generally attending, but as we contracted into the quartet, she was the only woman. As we aged it’s possible that this was less of a filter or division, even if it didn’t disappear. Another thing that happened as we condensed: the group had become predominantly Irish-American. Ethna’s father had been a force in the Irish cultural renaissance, something I was almost entirely ignorant of,* and Ethna’s speaking voice retained a distinct Irish pronunciation undertone. Kevin and Ethna took it upon themselves to establish an annual Twin Cities St. Patrick’s Day poetry reading, a reminder that non-descript leprechauns, green plastic hats, sham-shamrocks, and ever-filled and spilled red cups and flushed faces were not the sum total of Irishness.
Will I ever get to Ethna in this post? To my shame, I will speak more in silhouette, about myself. In many ways I felt the junior member of this group. Kevin and Ethna has several collections published. Ethna got arts grants, had an MFA. Kevin and Dave had degrees from fine private colleges, I was a High School graduate. I gave up trying to publish shortly after my temporary leaving of the group, and it would have been understandable if it irked Kevin and Ethna sometimes that here was this opinionated yet apparently non-professionally serious person taking up their time. I retained a close friendship and collaboration with Dave outside of the group throughout the decades, and grew to understand and appreciate Kevin’s artistic goals, but no such closening happened with Ethna. I knew much less about the details of her life, and what bits I picked up second hand, sometimes from the poetry itself and not from her own conversation, indicated a life with more than it’s share of staggering life events. I also got a not-unexpected sense that men had been part of some of those staggerings, something that she didn’t express much directly in our group of three men and herself. Here’s a statement: I know more about the life-details of Emily Dickinson than I know about the life of a poet, my own contemporary, who I shared a few hours with every month.**
Kevin’s mature poetry never seemed to aim at beauty as such. It is a beautiful thing to find beauty were it isn’t. Ethna indeed aimed for beauty, sometimes comforting and sometimes fierce, and as the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there. Ethna got there some of the time, which is all we artists can do. Looking through her recently published Light Rolling Slowly Backwards, New and Selected Poems it is easy to find that she was the most skilled poet in our little group, which sounds like fish-in-small-pond praise — but if you (who don’t know us) were to read her, I think you might find similar achievement to whatever other poets you read. When I read Kevin and Ethna’s last books during my yurt retreat early this fall I observed that while I had heard almost every one of Kevin’s published pieces in Still Living in Town in early draft form, I hadn’t heard many of Ethna’s. I know she attended more than one group sharing works in progress, but the amount of work new to me was surprising. I do plan to share one of her striking poems with you soon, but let’s wrap this long introduction up and get to the final part of my countdown of the most listened to and liked Parlando pieces from this past fall.
Three Irish poets: Yeats, McKiernan, and Campbell.
2. The Folly of Being Comforted by William Butler Yeats. Ethna never simply said something like “Read Yeats!” but before I encountered her I didn’t think much about him one way or the other. Now over the five plus years of this project you’ll have heard the fruits of that influence from her in my many well-liked presentations of Yeats. As I said when I presented it, Yeats was making a very specific point in his poem relating to his own life. I chose in my performance to stubbornly ignore what Yeats intended his poem to be about, and to instead sing it remotely to her on her hospice bed with my own intent. If I snub Ethna in this eulogy, I’ll ignore Yeats too. No respect.
It’s a challenge for me to work out my approximations of Jazz when I’m playing all the parts one pass at a time while being far from a master of any instrument. When it succeeds, as some thought here, I try to combine my simplicities (unimpressive I’m sure to a skilled musician) into something that still pleases when heard together. The highlighted title above will link to my original post on this where I discuss Yeats’ intended meaning, but you can hear my performance dedicated to Ethna with a graphical player (if you see that) or this highlighted hyperlink.
1. Reynardine by Joseph Campbell. Before the depths of their illnesses, I asked Kevin and Ethna if they’d heard of this early 20th century Irish poet, and they both drew a blank, which I’ve now found is generally true about this overlooked and worthy of more study poet. If Ireland is thought known for exuberant and willing to risk excessiveness expression, Campbell is never more masterful than when he’s compressing things to a handful of words.
Reynardine is a supernatural story in three short verses. From what I’ve been able to determine (see the original post on this) the supernatural element may have been introduced by Campbell, who took an existing long-winded run-of-the-outlaw ballad, and boiled it down with a shapeshifter element. After he’d done that, the resulting folk revival song, one sung by many of the best revival singers of the British Isles, always includes at least hints of that element. My presentation uses Campbell’s original lyrics, which I think are superior to those usually sung.
As far as it’s popularity here this fall, this is an odd one. The blog post presenting it wasn’t read much at all, and the likes for my explanation there of how Campbell transformed the Reynardine story were low in number. But the listens to the song (as with all the audio pieces here, available via Apple Podcasts or most other podcast directories) were easily higher than any other recent piece. To hear it now you can use the player gadget if your blog reader shows it, or this highlighted hyperlink.
*I once joked, confessing my cultural ignorance there, that my idea of an Irish writer was Frank O’Hara. Joke or not, someone somewhere must have addressed what connections O’Hara’s poetry had with Irishness, but I haven’t found it.
** It was only a year or two ago, after my interest in Dickinson intensified that I found out that Ethna too had a deep appreciation for that genius. Of course, I have my portion of blame for this, just as with this inappropriate eulogy, but suspect she believed that I wouldn’t understand or have any sense of her experience or sensibility. I’d estimate she was wrong, but saying that only adds to my inappropriateness here today.
It’s that time again when I present our quarterly countdown of the pieces most liked and listened to here at the Parlando Project during the past season. We’ll proceed from the 10th most popular and move up to number 1 in the next few posts. The bold-faced heading for each piece are links back to the original post that introduced the pieces here, in case you didn’t see them earlier this autumn.
10. Cobwebs, Steel, and Moonshine by Carl Sandburg. Longtime readers here will know of my admiration for American poet Carl Sandburg, and so it may be no surprise that this is actually the second time I used parts of a single Carl Sandburg poem for a Parlando Project audio piece. The Sandburg poem is “Smoke and Steel,” a poetic celebration of labor and laborers from a collection of the same name published in 1920. I used that whole poem’s title for the piece I created out of the beginning of it for May Day in 2019, but for this past American Labor Day I used the conclusion of “Smoke and Steel” and gave the result this title. I dedicated it to another American poet, Kevin FitzPatrick, who was suffering from a serious and unexpected illness that killed him later this fall. This is the first of three poems in this fall’s Top Ten dedicated to poets Dave and I knew and exchanged work with who were suffering mortal illnesses.
I’m thankful that long-time reader of the blog rmichaelroman submitted a good guess as to what the steel might be in Sandburg’s short ode to workers and work: rebar.
9. Bond and Free by Robert Frost. It’s been a while since I mentioned it, but Robert Frost bugged me when I was young. He was still alive, and omnipresent in anthologies one might find in school, which caused me to treat him like other 20th century poets and critics treated Longfellow: as a square preaching platitudes who stood in the way of younger and fresher voices who’d question all that with a more unruly poetry. I was misreading Frost of course, but through that error I did find others I thought in opposition to him that I found rewarding back then. Eventually I came around to love the word-music in his shorter lyric poems, and from that attraction found a starker and more divided meaning was there.
“Bond and Free” is Frost in his more metaphysical and frankly philosophic mode, which isn’t my favorite Frost, setting out here a cosmic stage where Love and Free Thought conflict. He sounds more like Shelley or Keats in “Bond and Free” than the more modern diction he was able to make sing in other poems, but sing the words do.
Three young poets at work. One played in the LYL Band.
8. They’re All Dead Now by Dave Moore. One of the most popular of my Halloween series this year, even though it’s a longer ballad form story that put my singing strength to the test. Longtime listeners here will know Dave as the most common alternate voice here at the Parlando Project as well as the keyboard player you’ve heard in the LYL Band.
He’s also a fine writer of poetry and songs. For reasons too complicated to deal with now, I fairly often sing Dave’s songs here rather than having him sing them himself. There’s a factor when someone sings another writers’ song. While they may bring a different kind of talent and musical craft, they may also somewhat misunderstand the song — or misunderstand (maybe more at “re-understand”) it in a valuable mutational way. Though I’m not a great singer, I do try to bring something to Dave’s songs when I present them here.
Every song stands to gain much more than one more life when sung by someone else. From time to time I’ve encouraged others to sing some of the Parlando Project songs. Anyone have their own cover of one of our Parlando Project pieces you’d like me to hear?