Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service

For some time, I’ve disliked the way the idea of “generations” has been treated by the culture at large. Not the nugget of thought that’s in it, that cohorts of people in a particular time and place will share certain experiences, some of which will shape their outlook—but the nutty, pseudo-scientific way it’s been used. The balderdash that’s been added to “generations” includes the nonsense that there are some sharp and agreed on borders to them and that everyone inside of these sharp lines in time not only shares the same experience, but reacts to these things in the same way.

The crap labels we use like “Generation X” (Billy Idol and Richard Hell may have a lot to answer for, but let’s not hang this on them) or “Millennials,” (who could just as well be perennial grinders of grain for all the meaning I assign to that word) have become like unto the Sixties’ penchant for astrological signs. “Oh, you’re so Millennial” or “Members of Gen X think this way” have become the Moonchildren and Fire Signs of our age.

And of course, the borders of these deterministic generation containers are natural and inviolate—no, don’t look at them, as they will seem arbitrary and varied if you look too close. Are generations 12, 20, 30 years long? Don’t ask, as we don’t agree. And is someone born in 1946 exposed to the same set of experiences as someone born in 1963? Don’t look too close.

I bring this up, because this week I wrote a parody. And as humorists have been known to do, I went and used some generational stereotypes. I was pressed for time, those sorts of things are ready-mades, one or two people found it funny, if I use it humorously I’m making fun of it—Oh, I’m giving up. I’m ashamed.

Look, one of the good things about considering the experiences conveyed by writers whose words I use here, is that most have been dead for generations, no matter how long we define that term. Seems like they are each their own people, not clichés like “Victorians” or “the Lost Generation.”

New start. I had a serious thought as I started this. Earlier this month I revisited the well-known yet too-little-reconsidered Robert Frost poem “Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  As I thought about the experience Robert Frost was describing (if an actual country winter buggy ride, some think it occurred in 1909), I considered how different the night and the rural roadscape would have been then, compared to how we have informally remembered Frost’s poem. I thought the opening stanza of that poem, starting with Frost’s line that’s fallen into too-famous-to-think-about status: “Whose woods these are, I think I know,” could be describing a person who was lost in a darkening, rural pre-electric light, night—instead of a poet some of us remember as irresponsibly stopping to look at a well-lit Christmas-card pretty sight of a woods in snowfall.

I was thinking then: “Now I’d have not just the possibility of bright headlights, but a cellphone in my pocket that should tell me just where I am, no matter what poetic truth I’d be trying to express.”

And then I thought again about that phone. There are still areas, even in North America, without cellphone service. GPS signals don’t penetrate everywhere. Those maps in our apps are not without errors.

Cell Coverage vs Drake in Coat

Drake’s from Canada, but Minnesota and New England need cell coverage and warm coats too.

 

So, today’s piece, which I call “Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service”  is actually a serious piece of winter travel safety advice, not a scurrilous piece of generational stereotyping, which I would never stoop to doing here.

Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service lyrics

Here are today’s words, but you want to listen to the music don’t you?

 

But when you think of scurrilous, I hope you think of the LYL Band. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a piece that wasn’t created by that scrupulous and well-behaved group of musicians that is myself—recording it instrument by instrument, a track at a time. The LYL Band is an organization in the same way that a hockey fight or litter of kittens is organized, which is to say, barely, though we attack things with abandon playfully or otherwise. To hear us, use the player below.

 

 

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A Dust of Snow

Here’s another winter poem by Robert Frost to put to our uses. Writing about my last piece here, Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,”  I wondered about the actualities of the scene the poet was describing: a New England winter road in a dark snowy evening before the coming of rural electrification. Frost would know, of course, that it would be quite dark in those conditions. But did he use that knowledge when he wrote the poem? Did he, the author—like I did as a reader once (despite knowing too the darkness of rural night)—visualize a well-lit snowfall on trees, an alluring and beautiful sight that might tempt him to stay and watch for a while?

I can’t say for sure.

Frost’s “A Dust of Snow” is even shorter, and the accepted meaning of its images has been a settled thing for some time. Last time I wondered if “Stopping by Woods”  was more a poem about a man who was lost in the dark in both levels of meaning rather than a man who was tempted by bright beauty. I could have been wrong, but I think it’s worth considering. With “A Dust of Snow”  certain images have been determined by most academic readers to be, well, symbolic. What if we consider them as real, natural objects and not as handy metaphors?

Robert Frost with axe

Let’s cut down on our use of overdetermined symbols with Robert Frost

We start right off with a crow. “A symbol of death” it is said. Perhaps it doesn’t hurt the poem to think that. I think it’s a crow. A dark bird, darker yet against the snow, and no crow would let the poet that near without a racket of loud caws. The poet doesn’t let us hear the caws though. Instead, like the uncanny sound of sifting snow in “Stopping by Woods,”  Frost wants us to feel just a dusting of snow falling from the branch as the bird flaps off. He wants the main action in the poem to be almost microscopic. He could have written that the bird’s takeoff “dumped a pound of cold slush down my collar”—but that wouldn’t be the poem he wrote. Is the dust a symbol of death too? Or is it an image of a tiny action of little weight? I hold to the later.

Oh, and symbol alert! The tree the bird left is a hemlock tree. Or as the movieReal Genius  reminds us in “the immortal words of Socrates, who said: ‘I drank what?”

How aware was Frost that the American Hemlock is a pine tree and the European poison is a completely different, smaller plant? If this were written by the avid amateur botanist Emily Dickinson, we’d know the poet would know this. Even William Carlos Williams M. D. might have need to know about the derivations of poison. Like the crow being “death” or a bird, “hemlock” could be a reference to death or suicide—but the evergreen is also a symbol of life in winter too, if it must be a symbol. Frankly I think either taken in a one-to-one direct simile way may overdetermine the poem. In the book of nature, having a black bird against white snow causing the small, light amount of snow to fall from an evergreen tree is sufficient.

And this snow falls on the narrator of the poem, and the small sprinkling of snow lifts the rueful mood. I think that’s the essence of the poem: the smallest action of nature, a flighting crystalline snow sprinkle that may not have weighed an ounce, can lift a human out of their dense internal fixations. I think that’s a more graceful poem than the leaden march of death-crows, grave-dust snow and poison trees. I could be wrong, but I like that poem better.

Musically, a much simpler arrangement than last time, just a bass and 12-string guitar. I’m trying to carve out time to prepare for some more recording with the LYL Band tomorrow. Even if we are successful, you won’t hear those pieces for some time, so use the player below to hear “A Dust of Snow.”

Thanks again for the likes, comments, and the sharing of these pieces on your blogs or on social media.

Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening

Today I’m presenting a piece that is extraordinarily well-known, by an American poet whose work is still read and remembered outside of academic settings, Robert Frost.

In such cases it’s easy to think we know the poem, perhaps we’ve even memorized it in whole or in part, and we then say we know it in that special way. If we studied it in school, perhaps we learned or apprehended some deeper meanings for it. If this is so with you, I’ve had those experiences with “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”  too.

Yet, sometimes, when we look at something with intended freshness, things step out from our remembered poem and introduce us to things we didn’t realize were always there. Let’s start with just how I (and perhaps you) have visualized the setting for this poem.

Currier and Ives Sledding in Central Park

In the rural winter of Frost’s time, things would be considerably more dark

Is Frost in a woods, a bright high-contrast Currier and Ives scene of crisp white snow and colored accents? Not as he wrote it. The title and a line in the second stanza tells us he’s on (presumably) a road, and that he is between the woods and a frozen lake. Is there a full moon and clear sky? No clear sky, it’s snowing, so overcast. He says “the darkest evening of the year,” so the moon isn’t adding significant light. In the rural New England of Frost’s time, it’s probably dark and getting darker, in a way that few of us know darkness today. There are no street lights, no farm yard lights, likely no headlights. One might see villages spotted with oil-lamp-lit windows from the crest of a hill, but he’s told us no village is in sight.

When he says he only thinks he knows “Whose woods these are,” he probably means, “I could tell you if it were noon, but not in this dark.” In the rural area of my youth, even forty years after this poem was written, directions were still given by knowing who owned (or once owned) a piece of land. Is he lost? Possibly. At the least, he wants us to know that he’s not exactly sure where he is.

At the end of the first stanza he says he stopping to watch the woods fill up with snow. If he accomplishes this, he doesn’t tell us. There are hundreds of good lines to describe snow falling on trees visually, and Frost has written many of them, but he doesn’t do it here. Is he leaving us to visualize it ourselves, from our own rich storehouse of memories? That’s possible. And if you and I remember the poem as having images of falling snow drifting through tree boughs in moonlight, that worked. My current guess is that Frost’s narrator could “see” this too, but like us, only in their mind.

It’s a testament to how thoroughly we prioritize visual imagery in poetry that we think those images are there, even if we’ve memorized the poem. Frost was especially proud of the poem’s third stanza, and justly so. It’s all sound images. The dark and solitary nature of being in the middle of un-occupied rural space at night allows sounds to take the place of what our eyes would lord over otherwise. It starts with the horse sounding his harness bells, bells not merely a decorative pretext to sing “Jingle Bells,”  but a useful method of letting other narrow-road users know someone’s coming around a curve or hill-crest, particularly in the dark. And the snow image that’s really there? It’s so quiet and he’s so focused in the darkness, that he can hear the sweep of the top layer of snow blowing across the surface of the rest.

The infinite depth and darkness of the woods in the final stanza is not just a metaphor. It’s dark out, and it will not get lighter until morning. Its loveliness, invisible in the dark, is conceptual art at this point for Frost.

In this view, the decision about staying or continuing the journey is not a temptation of a seductive external snowfall-on-the-woods scene, nor is it a thought of embracing death or a contemplation of suicide, though those elements may be there as subtext. The situation is “I’m not even sure where I am on this road in the falling dark. The momentary beauty I sought here is elusive and mostly in my head. Keep following the road, though I don’t have sure landmarks and don’t know for how many miles. Better the finite, even if not quantifiable, promises of the rotating wheel of my buggy than the depth of a forest I cannot see.”



When Frost reads it himself, he doesn’t sound like he’s tempted to linger either.

And the sleep he ends the poem with? Frost always maintained it wasn’t death in metaphorical disguise, despite what professors in electrically lit rooms might think. The story is that he wrote “Stopping by the Woods”  at end of a long night of work on another, longer poem. Any writer would recognize that it’s actual sleep he now desires, rest that we only allow after exhausting our attempts to see what is lovely, dark and deep despite the night.

Musically, I sought to combine the familiar with a few twists for this one. There’s a reassuring folkie acoustic guitar part and even a cod banjo motif I played to my rusty ability. But then a cello and viola part carries throughout. Instead of bass guitar, I decided to play tambura, a traditional drone instrument of South Asian music, on my guitar using a MIDI interface.

I liked how it came out, maybe you will too. The player gadget below will let you hear it.

Rosemary

It’s been awhile since a new post, what with holidays and family occasions, but here’s another piece, “Rosemary,”  using the words by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Millay was one of the most popular, most often read, poets of the first part of the 20th Century, but the later part of the century gave her less consideration. A contemporary of the Imagists and other poetic Modernists that we’ve featured a lot this year here, and while connected to their world, she didn’t sustain favor with the rise of the “New Criticism” that became the dominant academy in the English-speaking world after WWII.

Reasons? Well, there’s gender. One must assume that played a role. And popularity of the general-readership sort would not have been an asset either, as perhaps only Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson survived being read by a general readership in the mid-century without losing their high-art cred. Why couldn’t Millay have joined Frost and Dickinson in these critics’ esteem?

Millay with books

Millay at work. Other than the lack of guitars, just about the perfect décor.

I think it’s largely a case of her poetry not seeming to have the subject of their criticism: fresh, complex, allusive and illusive, imagery. Frost and Dickinson may have used homey sounding language, but in the end those funerals in the brain and snow, roads and woods added up to something to talk about in critical prose.

The New Critics were an inflection point. Before them, poetry was largely considered musical speech, a container that could hold a variety of subjects, after the New Critics, poetry was about the imagery, how you portrayed things with it. And unless one aimed for satire, such complex rhetorical structures must be in service to serious matters.

And so, there’s subject matter too. Millay’s great subject was love and affection, it’s presence, absence and all the shades in-between. In doing so, she addresses much of life and its condition, but did she receive enough credit for that? Is a heartbroken man a tragic philosopher of fate, and a woman merely a spurned lover? Narrow-mindedness can’t be ruled out.

“Rosemary”  allows us to examine these issues. This looks to be a poem about the death of a passionate love or the death of a dear one. I’m not sure which of those two possibilities is standing for the other, but for an audience, it does not matter as both events are common to our hearts.

I think there is an intent here to conjure a complex world of timeless folk magic. Though written in the 20th Century, it could have been written anywhere up to five centuries earlier. In the title we have rosemary, an herb associated with remembrance even in Shakespeare’s time (Ophelia’s mad speech in Hamlet for example), and in the first stanza we have rushes being scattered on a room’s floor, a custom from medieval times to hide the stink and mess of a less hygienic age, a strewing of reeds that may have included rosemary because it was thought to be something of an insecticide. Bergamot is another fragrant plant. Stink, rot and pestilence are all inferred subtly in this verse that on the face of it seems only a short catalog of flowers.

The second verse adds a rain barrel to catch rain, or is it tears? And what’s with that iron pot. Is it a cauldron? The poems last two lines are in quotes on the page. I was suspicious that the “An it please you, gentle sirs,” line was a quote, and finding out what it was from might be important, but I can’t place that line—if any reader knows, please clue me in.

And at the end of this timeless lament: “well-a-day,” which might sound to you or me like “have a nice day,” but is instead a word that harkens back to Old English, meaning woe-is-me.

What I think we have here is a poem, that read quickly, seems to be a trivial verse about some flowers with a bit of a kitchen scene, but it’s stated with deliberately archaic specifics so that the attentive modern reader might notice that time cannot heal this loss. And each thing in it is an image, though they don’t loudly announce themselves as such.

I’m reminded of my distant relative Susan Glaspell’s famous play “Trifles,”  where the domestic clues hide all the information the dense men seeking important information miss.

The Pentangle

The Pentangle. It’s not fair to compare. There’s 5 of them, and only 1 of me. Oh, and talent.

Musically, I went with bass, drums, two acoustic guitars and my voice for this. I was aiming for an impression of the sort of thing The Pentangle did many years ago. They were better at it, but it was good to try. Use the player below to hear my performance of Millay’s “Rosemary.”

Love Song for a Woman I Do Not Love

One joy of this project’s exploration has been coming upon poets I know nothing about and acquiring their words in my bloodless version of that conqueror on the “peak in Darien.” Writing about Frost, Pound, HD and Eliot in England early in the 20th Century lead me to T. E. Hulme, an Englishman of pugnacious artistic pronouncements and surprisingly modest and moving poetry. And T. E. Hulme led me to F. S. Flint, another British writer and literary theorist in this circle in the years just before WWI.

Last month I introduced readers here to Flint’s amazing rise from Victorian poverty. In the interim I’ve been reading more of his work, including his 1920 collection of poems (he called them “cadences”) titled “Otherworld.”  Since Flint is not commonly studied or anthologized, each poem as I encountered in the collection was a fresh experience, no different than reading a new poet’s chapbook published this year. I could start a poem of his in “Otherworld”  about a confused midnight awakening, and come to find it’s a first-hand account of a deadly London air-raid by a German Zeppelin.

Today’s piece, in the same collection, held another surprise. It tells you it’s a Love Song, but contradicts that before the end of the title. What it is instead is an unstinting examination of the corrosion class and gender inflict on the grail of love. The singer of this song lays bare a combination of disgust at how he’s judged as a poor man, with an undisguised desire to own the things he does not have, including this other human being, the woman of the title.

Bright Coloured Cretonnes!

“Bright-coloured cretonnes…” What is the erotic despair of draperies and upholstery?

I can think of dozens of popular songs that deal in some variation of this, but it’s harder to come up with 100-year-old poems, much less ones as good as this one, that talk of this. Ignore a handful of references to the interior decorating trends of Flint’s time, and this poem could have been written yesterday, except few writers of any time would be as acute as Flint is in observing this.

What new poets of the Modernist movement do I get to discover and share with you in the upcoming year? I can’t be sure, but I noted that Flint’s “Otherworld”  is dedicated to Herbert Read, and from what few poems of his I can find online, Read seems just as fresh and fascinating.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Musically I’ve been telling myself I want to utilize some of the methods of hip-hop records, and yet each time I set out to do this, I get side-tracked by my own idiosyncratic musical muse. The melodic top line is my appreciation of early 1960s hard-bop organ playing. The bass part is a combination of a left-hand organ part with electric bass. Two bass lines shouldn’t work, but I think it does here. That’s not the only duality in this: the drum machine beat is augmented by some percussion which keeps the drum machine from ruling the groove “correctly.” The hip-hop rhythm flow eludes me again, though maybe I recall some predecessors like Dr. John the Night Tripper?

To hear my performance of F. S. Flint’s “Love Song to a Woman I Do Not Love,”  use the player below.

Merry Autumn

Over the years I’ve developed a tough-enough way to be cheerful and productive, my own “grant heart” to myself. Though on the face of it, it sounds glum, I’ve learned it by reading about artists or from artists talking about their work, and it goes by this cheerful motto: “All artists fail.”

All artists fail more than they succeed. Every. One. No artist is so broadly popular that everyone likes their work. Even those that might gain a plurality of some kind, for some time, that likes their work, will find most of that group “ignoring” them most of their lives, because our attention is so precious and limited as audiences. One’s privilege as an artist is to get to fail again. If you don’t like how you’re failing, fail better, or fail differently, fail more often.

And even those artists we think of as succeeding sometimes, sometime find themselves succeeding in misunderstanding or misapprehension.

How can this knowledge help us, grant us heart, and not crush us? Anyone who makes things should carry in themselves the conviction that the world needs more of what they do, even if they or the world don’t know it yet. We are making more of what needs to exist, though that may fail when the world doesn’t know what to make of it. It may fail because we are wrong about its necessity. And it can fail because of how we choose to manifest our art.

Are we good enough to manifest our art so that it will not fail all the time? If our desire, our artistic conviction, is somewhere around helping heal the world and cleanse it’s perceptions, you may take that as beside the point. Decades ago, in the early days of the modern emergency medical system, I once helped receive a patient in cardiac arrest as they arrived at an ER, delivered by a volunteer ambulance corps. The man in the back of the rig, still in the human heat and confusion of the moment, said that he would have performed CPR, but that his certification for CPR had expired.

Well, you have to try, even though CPR then, as I suspect it does now, mostly fails. Art, even good art, usually changes our perceptions for only moments, leaving us nearly as deaf, blind and numb afterward. If art can heal the world, it’s a long course of treatment, and its healing is imperceptibly slow.

So, if you want to make art, want to write or make music, take heart and make sure your goal is to cleanse perception or heal the world. Add to your goals one more precept, to try to not bore the audience when it grants you it’s precious attention. If you want to create art because you want to succeed, consider a lottery ticket instead.

What a roundabout way to get to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Thanksgiving poem “Merry Autumn.”  How did the poet Dunbar “fail?” The child of two enslaved African-Americans, raised by a mother who learned to read to help educate her son, Dunbar was able by the age of 21 to gather some appreciation for his poetry, which spoke in three voices. Voice one was that of an accomplished 19th century poet who spoke like the East Coast “Fireside Poets” such as Longfellow, using a middle-Atlantic diction that may sound slightly old fashioned to us, but was the established voice of poetry in America at the time. We in the 21st Century may hear the peculiarities of that voice from our vantage point in time, but it would probably have not seemed like a dialect at all to his contemporaries. He also wrote in two other American dialects, and dialects were a great American literary fad of the late 19th Century. We might rarely encounter the remnants of this fad in Mark Twain or some other regionalist writers nowadays, but the idea of using written English to represent the different pronunciation and syntax of a big country before broadcast media was an artistic and commercial success of the time. Dunbar’s poems, then, also “spoke” in an informal, less-educated Midwestern dialect, and in what was considered as the southern black dialect of the time.

Dunbar Live!

Ich bin nur einer meiner vielen Munde und jener, welcher sich am frühesten schliesst.”

 

It’s hard to say how accurate this black dialect was. Dunbar’s mother likely would have spoken in it. Even though we’re speaking about speaking of just a bit more than a century ago, it may come down to the same informed guessing that allows actors to perform Shakespeare in “original pronunciation” productions. And Dunbar’s transcribed accuracy aside, how it would be read by fellow African-Americans and how it would be read by Americans of European extraction would likely have differed greatly. On the page, his Afro-American dialect poems can look/sound like the black-face makeup minstrel-show dialect performed by successful white entertainers who perfected cultural appropriation for laughing audiences. The humble-brag of the Afro-American dialect poems may be abstractly similar to the tropes of the his Midwestern regionalist dialect language, but in the end, it was not “read” as similar by the predominate culture.

What did a young Dunbar think of all this as he wrote his poems in either of these languages? I do not know, but his dialect pieces were something he was praised for by the cultural critics of the time, and they no doubt aided his marketability. He eventually expressed despair at the concentration of the attention on the Afro-American dialect poems. Perhaps he had wanted to say that he’s all of these things: a black man, a Midwesterner, and a man who could sing a middle-Atlantic song as sweet as Longfellow or Whittier, and instead he was seen as the man to represent only the borough of his race in the eyes of those who did not share his experience. He had to try. He “failed.” Today we may be grateful for his failure.

Today’s piece “Merry Autumn,”  doesn’t show Dunbar’s later despair. It’s largely in the “Fireside Poets” mode, though he drops into informal Midwestern idiom once or twice. And following the precept to not bore the listener who lends their attention, he takes a contrarian stance toward the old poetic trope of Autumn symbolizing death and a fall to winter.

I sing it here with a folk-music type melody, an acoustic guitar, and some strings for accompaniment. Use the player below to hear it. Thanks for taking the time to listen!

 

 

Arrival

Today’s words are from William Carlos Williams. Unlike our last post, I wouldn’t call this a love poem. Oh, I believe there’s an assignation between two people in the opening section of this poem, but affection seems missing and the desire, if present, seems to be questioned—no, that’s not quite right—the questioning of desire is silent, present in its absence.

William Carlos Williams 1

Poet and physician William Carlos Williams casts a cold, clinical eye on desire

 

This is another poem I came across at the Interesting Literature blog, where it was included in a round-up of seduction poems. We’ve visited a few of that type of poem here as well, with shepherds, nymphs, a merchant’s wife, and Williams’ fellow physician-poet Thomas Campion making invitations—but this isn’t really a proposition, any more than it’s a love poem.

Williams’ poem is not titled something like “Come Live with Me and Be My Love”,  it’s titled “Arrival.”  So yes, an assignation, but one with a schedule like a train or airplane flight, or as we’ll soon see, like a season. Is there desire in the unhooking of the dress? In modernist, Imagist style, that emotion is not stated, but the passive voice and sparsest of descriptions argues that it’s there and is not there.

After the poem finds itself, as many of us have or will find ourselves one day, in a “strange bedroom,” a sea change occurs. The woman in the dress has disappeared. In her place: an autumn tree, disrobing its leaves because the season is felt arriving. Again, desire is not mentioned—it wouldn’t be mentioned, this is an Imagist “show not tell” poem—but this image is also passive and rote.

I’ll let you feel and figure out the image of the final few lines yourself. The now naked woman as bare winter tree? Or is her presumably male companion’s body being synecdoched?

Merlin Dulcimer

“A dulcimer in a vision once I saw” The Seagull Merlin dulcimer I played on this.

 

What of the music today? The instrument that sounds something like a mandolin is an Appalachian dulcimer, a simple American instrument; but one, like the sitar used in the last post’s audio piece, that has drone strings. The music is modal too, based around D Dorian. On the percussion side I remain attracted lately to little instruments, so there are shakers, maracas, a cabasa, congas, a chime tree, even some finger snaps in this. I could say that this is a connection to William Carlos Williams’ Puerto Rican heritage, but really, it’s something that is pleasing me musically this month.

Here’s the piece, use the player gadget below to hear it.

 

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