Somewhere in the early 16th century, a member of the English royal court Thomas Wyatt wrote a love poem, or rather a poem of lost love. Like Shakespeare’s sonnets, no one knows if it’s autobiographical, but ever since I first read it as a teenager I’ve thought it feels real. Maybe after this many centuries that’s good enough.
If so, then “They Flee From Me” is an example of the presentness poetry gives us. Begin reading (or listening), as I did decades ago, and one moves through the rich conceit of the poem’s first stanza where the poet fancies he’s feeding some animal, likely a deer kept for private sport hunting in some rich nobleman’s deer park. If one knows that situation, then the tender animal lured inside by the kind-seeming human offering it food may put one in a piteous mood. Poor thing. It doesn’t know what the situation is, what the structure is of a nobleman’s deer park. You’re there to show that nature can be purchased and ruled — and you’re there to be killed at will.
Although a later engraving, this is thought to be an accurate portrait of Thomas Wyatt. Wyatt also introduced the sonnet to English language poetry.
Poetry and its metaphors can do that, it can be clever, show us, if we pay attention, something we otherwise might have overlooked. What if we move on to the next stanza? The poem’s speaker seems to make a shrug at the first stanza’s piteous situation. Then three lines in, something else vivid happens. We may never have visited a royal deer park or lived in the particulars of Tudor royal prerogatives, but something occurs that we, now, here, may have exact sense memories of. It’s no longer a deer now, and the hands are no longer someone feeding the doomed deer kept in half-natural captivity. The hands are a woman’s. She’s embracing a lover, loosening her clothes. Anyone who knows desire knows this scene and may feel the ardor, today as in the 16th century. Like the deer being hand-fed, it feels tender, feels mutual — but that first stanza has warned us.
Last time we had Emily Dickinson bid goodbye to some fairy creature or garden animal under the stars with a line that would one day be used by Bob Dylan: “You’ll go your way, and I’ll go mine.” Wyatt’s final stanza — is that a shrug at the parting or a generous admission of non-ownership of the two lovers to each other? We are left with final lines after we know the lovers have parted ways. The poem’s speaker tells us they feel “kindly served,” and what does she deserve — as fond a set of memories perhaps? If so, we can leave this poem casually and think kindly of long-separated loves in our lives with good wishes for theirs.
But the poet went to the trouble of setting up the captive deer in the first stanza. Do they mean to go beyond a pun of deer and hart and dear and heart? Are we still to liken the poet’s situation (or the woman’s) to that hand-fed deer as they wrap things up. “Nice park, nice grub, and they bring it right to you!” that deer might have thought, but we know why the deer are kept. If we leave the fancies of poetry and move onto the lives that give it blood, I’ll end with one supposition that’s been made about “They Flee From Me” — that the poem is autobiographical for Wyatt, and that the woman is Anne Boleyn. Boleyn, one of King Henry VIII’s doomed queens, was executed explicitly for, well, slipped gowns and how like you this. Wyatt was also arrested and imprisoned in this matter, but his connections with the King’s fixer Thomas Cromwell trumped the charges.
Accept that, and the final two lines are then not so much a graceful farewell, but a deeply bitter assessment of deadly political power.
My music today could not be made in Wyatt’s time. I used acoustic guitar while the lute was more Tudor style. Then there’s a conventional cello part, but on top of that is an unusually articulated viola part which I meant to sound more like South-Asian bowed strings. To match that viola, there’s a tambura and harmonium underlayment in the music. To hear my performance of “They Flee From Me” you can use the player below, or if you don’t see that, you can use this highlighted link that will open a player if you don’t see one.
I said, when I was listening to the Tell It Slant Festival’s marathon reading of all of Emily Dickinson’s poems, that I was jotting down lesser-known Dickinson numbers which I might perform in the Parlando Project manner. Well, here’s one of them.
If you’ve followed my various Dickinson performances over the years you may have seen me emphasize Dickinson’s visionary aspects, her outlooks gothic and satiric (often combined), and sometimes her abstract poems of philosophic thought. One thing I noted again during the marathon was that she can be a very acute and intimate poet depicting pain. She’s all that. But sometimes she’s more at playful. Today’s piece, “A Murmur in the Trees,” for example.
It’s glancingly a nature observation poem, but fancies have taken it over by half-way in, as a fairy tale seems to break out. The opening stanza sets things at night, and perhaps we are in the Dickinson garden (where Emily, predicting an REM song to come, sometimes did gardening tasks at night). There’s a noise, the title’s murmur, in the trees.
The second stanza breaks with a line of alluring consonance that remains a mystery to me, the “A long — long Yellow — on the lawn.” Sunset’s last light beams or dawn’s first ones? Filtered moonlight? And then we are told, something like little footsteps are heard.
The third stanza portrays little fairies or gnomes trooping home, the fourth, robins that could be strange birds who wear nightgowns and sleep in “Trundle beds” or Robin Goodfellow with wings. The poet’s speaker, presumably Emily herself, reminds us these are not metaphors in this moment for normal animals, since what she observes “would never be believed.” She finishes by saying that she won’t test the credibility of her observations anyway because she’s in league with those she’s observed, she’s promised “ne’er to tell” what her night garden contained. The final two lines return to mystery — if nightgown-wearing birds or gnomes, or the both of them hanging out together aren’t ambiguous enough — by saying “Go your way — and I’ll go Mine — No fear you’ll miss the road.” What’s the road? Are they birds seasonally approaching their autumn migration time where Dickinson is famously staying put? If we take that aspect, Dickinson appreciates they know a road away where she may not. Or is the road that other mystery, the “long Yellow on the lawn?” Fairies* are said to have paths (not to be obstructed) that are often difficult for regular humans to detect, but sometimes different colored grass or vegetation is said to be a sign of fairy roads. Is that the long yellow in the grass?
Actual photograph of enchanted birds attempting a marathon reading of all 1789 Dickinson poems. Meanwhile, tiny gnomes have paths and “houses unperceived” if you look hard enough in your night garden.
The little song I made from Dickinson’s “A Murmur in the Trees” can be heard with the graphical player below. No sign of the player? No fear you’ll miss the road, there’s this backup highlighted link that will open a player to play it.
*This second reading assumes some understanding of Celtic or British Isles folklore on Dickinson’s part. I’m not sure what is known of that possibility. There were Irish immigrants in Dickinson’s Amherst, eventually some as domestic workers at the Homestead.
Long time readers may recall that I’ve made a personal practice of pausing and noting on each September 18th the anniversary of the day that American guitarist Jimi Hendrix died. This observation has taken various forms over the years, though plugging in and playing electric guitar has usually been one of them. Playing music would seem to be an appropriate way to observe the passing of player that we wish was still able continue playing and composing music.
The Stratocaster I’ll play later today is heard at the very end of today’s story audio. The original lineup of Television rehearses circa 1974, Lloyd is the guitarist in the center. On either side are the two poet/musicians who founded that band: Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine, Billy Ficca is the drummer. Hendrix in the lower right.
However, today I’ve decided to do something different, a bit opposite really. There’s a story I’ve heard in interviews and through various tellings that includes another guitarist whose playing I admire. That guitarist, Richard Lloyd,* while still an uncelebrated teenager and nascent guitarist, met Jimi Hendrix. I’ve always thought it was one of the great rock’n’roll stories, so I decided to tell it to you in my own words. No music this time, just me telling the story, audio-book style.
You can hear it below with a graphical audio player. No player visible? This highlighted link will play it.
*Lloyd was a guitarist in a great New York City based rock group Television, whose debut album Marquee Moon stands toe-to-toe with Patti Smith’s Horses as an expression of the remarkable originality that launched what we now call Indie Rock. He went on to record solo records and contribute to other records, notably Matthew Sweet’s Nineties landmark Girlfriend. Lloyd has a 2017 autobiography Everything Is Combustible ISBN: 9780997693768 (or ISBN10: 0997693762). One line I remember from a Richard Lloyd guitar tutorial went something like this. “So the student said, I don’t know much, I’ve only been playing for a few months.” Lloyd replied “No, if you’ve played guitar for a few months, that’s over 2,000 hours! You should be able to develop a lot of skills in that much time.”
I’m usually not very articulate about my own work, and part of the benefit of this Project’s aim to largely present other people’s poetry is that I can better express my experiences with others’ work than my own. This may be why I am envious of those who can speak effectively about their own art.
More than a dozen years ago I was reading an interview with a novelist Willy Vlautin who also wrote songs and performed with an Americana/Indie rock band called Richmond Fontaine. In explaining his art this is what Vlautin had to say:
It’s sort of a gamble, one’s life. Where will you fall, what are your weaknesses, will they kill you? If you’re hurting, will people help you or take advantage of you? Will the people you love, love you when you need them to? The mistakes you make, they could ruin you, set you off on a bad run. Hell, I think about all that all the time. Nothing makes me sadder than someone hurting and then being done wrong or worse by someone who’s aware of that.”
As you might imagine, Vlautin was not writing cheerful stuff,* but the observation about the human condition, its fears, and the dangers of how others can react to failings in ways deserved and undeserved seemed honest. Humankind differs somewhat on what constitutes crimes and failings, and the hierarchy (lowerarchy?) of such acts and outcomes, but we seem constitutionally subject to the reaction that the bad or unlucky person deserves their fate — or here’s the odd intensifier — deserves more and more bad outcomes, stacked on in order to prove or instruct them in how bad their choice or fate was.**
It seems to me that Vlautin takes this internally as well, or at least wants us to consider that. That’s something I resonate with myself. The fear, much less the result, of failing someone I care about is nearly disabling for me. I fear this enough that I will the not do things for others, little things, things others find routine, because I fear doing them badly.
Reading Vlautin’s interview answer soon caused me to write this sonnet all those years ago, combining Vlautin’s thoughts with my own on these matters, the result merging sins of omission with sins of commission, confronting the fears of both as honestly as I could.
Just as with the last piece here, I found that sonnet among the thousands of song-sheets I went through late this summer from my studio space. Unlike the last one, I think Dave and I attempted to perform this poem as a song years back to little success. After finding the song-sheet, I did a revision of the words and changed the music a little bit. This afternoon I had just over an hour in my studio space to record it. I focused on simple accompaniment, just acoustic guitar to maximize my chances of getting a completed performance, and that worked well enough that you can hear it below. Because the piece’s outlook is stark, the spare music may help reflect that.
There are direct quotes from Vlautin in my sonnet, also some subtle changes to his phrases, and then too my own interpolations.
A player gadget is below for many of you, but some ways of viewing this blog will suppress that, so I also offer this highlighted link which will open a new tab to play it.
*In another interview he says he had pictures of John Steinbeck and the Jam on his childhood bedroom wall. His brother bought him his first guitar and told Willy to “Write about what hurts and haunts you. That’s pretty much what I’ve done ever since. Along the way, I somehow forgot to write about the girls and the parties.”
**Perhaps a small part of the choice to pull this piece out of the pile today has to do with the bizarre news that a couple of governors have decided that some folks suffering from poverty, fear, and abuse should be secretly trundled off in busses to other states in the course of increasing their suffering or insecurity — and with the further aim of using their arrival to instruct other governors or mayors to do what, I’m not sure. Articles indicate that one beef the two governors have with the other jurisdictions is that they aren’t making others already there from similar situations in these other states more fearful and uncomfortable. Am I to infer the theory here is that making folks more uncomfortable, less secure, and more confused will improve their luck and the wisdom of their choices? Or that the other governors or mayors will by this action understand that the two “put’em in busses and dump them outstate” governors are demonstrating their better administrative acumen?
I’m presenting a song of summer desire today even as that season ebbs away, but first a little catching-up on the status of this Project for those who follow it regularly.
I planned to produce fewer Parlando Project pieces this summer for a number of reasons. It’s become harder to find composing and recording time, or to focus when it can be found. Audiences drop off markedly every summer anyway, and I had some long-put-off tasks that I thought needed to be attended to. Those tasks? Not even half complete, but a couple of things got done.
I felt I needed to replace the nine-year-old computer I use to write what you read here as well as the final audio mixing and polish for things recorded in my studio space.* I wanted to keep to a reasonable cost for this replacement, but I also wanted to spec it so that it could last in the roles I use it for, for the rest of whatever this Project’s lifespan will turn out to be. To accomplish this I stayed with my usual tactic over the past 30 years in selecting parts and assembling the replacement computer myself. I did a Ship of Theseus build using some old parts I had, which reduced the cost.** This new machine is now in service once I installed, configured and re-registered a whole bunch of software that this computer needs to run.
Another task? For more than a year I’ve wanted to deal with nearly 3000 song sheets that had accumulated in my studio space where I record with others as well as my own acoustic instrument recording. Poet, keyboard player, and alternate voice of this Project Dave Moore has been amazingly creative this century, and when I record with him I most often get sheets of lyrics with some hand-written chord symbols. You’ve heard a smattering of his original compositions here, but over the past two decades we’ve attempted hundreds of pieces of his. I’ve nearly matched Dave, as the more than 600 completed pieces I’ve released here show. With orchestral instrument scores I don’t notate by hand, working instead on the computer — but my guitar-based pieces tend to be not-unlike Dave’s, except that my paper sheets usually have neater printed chord symbols. Still, there’s my marginalia of chord voicings and capo positions etc. Thus, the thousands of sheets of paper. Late this summer I sorted through the whole bunch, determining the half or so that would be good to convert to computer storable files, and then scanning them.
Today’s piece is a result of that second large task, as I was often running into pieces on the paper sheets that I hadn’t thought of in years — and even a few that I don’t recall even attempting to perform. “Summer She Has No Lover” was a sonnet that was written in 2010. I’d written it as a literary page poem but seeing it in the studio space pile of papers made me think that I must have once considered creating music for it — and so that’s what I proceeded to do. The recording was quickly done (studio space time is still limited), but I think the results convey something of the flavor of the piece as our summer ends.
Sonnet means “little song” and so why not sing it? “Bechirp” is my own word.
You can hear my song performance of “Summer She Has No Lover” with the graphic player gadget below, and if you can’t see that, with this backup highlighted link. I can’t say what level of productivity I will be able to wring out of this autumn for the Parlando Project, but my present intent is to increase the number of pieces and posts from what I was able to do this summer, so look for new pieces soon. Another question remains to be answered: will I have time to do more complex compositions? We’ll just have to see.
*The old one was still working fairly well, but some components on computer motherboards can start to fail after a decade or so of service. I’d intended to accomplish its replacement early in the summer, but to show that expected service life is worth considering ahead of failure, I had to replace an aging water heater and washing machine that both stopped working in June and July.
**Given that this Project is assuming a Venn diagram audience that has interests in poetry and often non-commercial musical genres, it’s probably pushing it to think that anyone reading this is interested in computer parts too, and choices here are just as controversial as music and poetry can be among the cognoscenti. I decided it would reduce costs and still be safe for future roles by using an 11th generation Intel I7, and an ASUS Z590-Plus motherboard which uses the inexpensive/widely available DDR-4 memory and PCIe 4 solid-state-storage drives, and for video I bought a Nvidia Quadro card which is not worthwhile for gaming that I don’t do, but which can drive up to 3 QHD screens if I ever upgrade to those in the future. I went for 32 gigs of RAM and a 1 TB PCIe 4 SSD. The one truly “lux” component I bought was a Seasonic power supply, based on good experiences with them over the years. Total: $785.95. I was able to use an existing Antec Silencer case that weighs as much as an e-bike, an existing CD-DVD drive, and a year-old mechanical hard drive used for audio and video project storage which I simply moved over from the incumbent computer. My keyboard, mouse, and screen remain unchanged.
The Temple of Summer is guarded by two pillars:
Memorial Day for those who gave up their lives in war,
And Labor Day for those who gave up their lives in peacetime.
This Monday is American Labor Day.* What constitutes a laborer, a worker? Someone who works for someone else, who doesn’t own their own business? Are poets and musicians workers, or small businesspersons? These things are not simple — after all, that musician-derived term “the gig economy” shows that grants of independence can be superficial. Anyway, let me defer that discussion and say that poet and musician Carl Sandburg was a worker, knew he was a worker, and understood work. It should be no surprise that I’ve chosen to present three poems from his 1916 breakthrough collection, Chicago Poems for Labor Day — or for any working day if you read this later. They’re observed and written in the situation of their time, but let’s not dismiss their concerns and experiences as outdated this Labor Day — at least, not without hearing Sandburg out.
How many times, even today, when someone seeks to portray the working class, is a white male presupposed? Sandburg doesn’t make that mistake as his “Working Girls” will show. My wife, a nurse, came home this week concerned around a strike deadline, and it’s safe to say that women have carried proportionally more of the stress of the past few years in the workplace. She tells me her coworkers are riven by this announced possibility. Some of the most stressed, see this as adding to their stress; others see this as an attempt to remedy some of what’s wrong in their field. Sandburg sees a dialectic in his river of working women, though his poem’s more about the general wearing-down of a life of work.
“Happiness” is probably the best-known of the three Sandburg poems in today’s piece. It’s significant to know that Sandburg is a 1st generation immigrant, and he writes continually of the immigrant experience in his poetry. I don’t think it’s too hard to translate from Sandburg’s immigrants to today. My weekend summer nights here in my neighborhood feature accordion music as this poem mentions, though the singing is in Spanish for my ears. Oh, my wife and teenager sometimes have trouble sleeping, and then there’s this noise. I have trouble sleeping too, but I also hear this Sandburg poem in my head, accompanying from his time the Mexican songs from the yard three houses down the street.
Consider this on a holiday: no one feels leisure like a working person.
“Muckers” may take a little translation. When I was growing up, closer in time to Sandburg’s than today is, a ditch digger was not a job description so much as a derogatory term. It stood for someone who had no ambition, no skills, no ability to advance. If you lacked those things, you might be cursed to become “a ditch digger.” It was essentially workplace hell — and the inhabitants, damned by their sins of omission. My father once preached a sermon I can recall from my youth in which the dignity of a ditch digger’s work was proclaimed. The detail he spoke of then, the part I can remember, was that some care as well as muscle was required to carve out a stable and straightaway ditch.
Sandburg’s poem takes a red-wheelbarrow to the job site, writing (as he would often do) an Imagist poem concerned not just with concise precision in the observation, but more at why so much depends on what is observed. And he’s got a punch line, one anyone who’s ever suffered through the worthlessness of unemployment will understand.
Together these three poems I perform today celebrate those who give up their lives in peacetime. “You dreamy poet,” some may be saying now, “That’s the way of the world. Don’t you know?” Oh, Sandburg knows. He went to work at 13. I was self-supporting at 18. The difference between us and some other poets is that we’ll write and sing about this. It’s as universal as love and heartbreak, near as universal as death, and it’s the mundane ground upon which poetry and music and all the arts are stroked upon.
Carl Sandburg: proud to be the guitar strangler, rockin’ maker, stacker of tracks of wax, hex-string player, and folk-rock maven of Modernist poetry.
My musical performance is longer today than most Parlando pieces, but then it does present three poems and asks for a quantity discount. After working out and executing the acoustic guitar and “punk orchestral” setting of Emily Dickinson last time I wanted to plug in a Stratocaster and wail a bit, and so what you’ll hear today is a live electric guitar performance recorded then. One production oddity I’ll note: I recorded the two chordal “rhythm guitar” parts after the lead melodic part. The player gadget to hear the performance is below for many of you, and I provide this highlighted link for those viewing this blog in ways that cannot display the graphical audio player.
*My teenager reminds me that “Labor Day” is not the international workers day that is May Day. I remind them that American Labor Day came out of the labor movement too, and no matter how you parse things, having two days to celebrate work and workers is not too much, no more than we should be embarrassed in America to have a Veterans Day and a Memorial Day.
How much did Emily Dickinson want her poetry to be understood? I can’t be sure, but I suspect she wanted it to be both puzzling and understood.* While she didn’t publish to any extent in her lifetime, she did send by mail or otherwise share poems with friends. The conventions of Dickinson’s 19th century America may be different, but it’s possible that not everyone understood each poem, or even welcomed the arrival of those poems’ enclosure, but these acts indicate that she had elements in her poetry that asked for a public place for her work.
The posthumous publication of a large selection of her poems in a series of books at the end of the 1800’s did find ample volunteer readers though. Selected from her handwritten manuscripts by outside editors and somewhat regularized, they were also presented with tacked-on titles and within subject sections like“Time and Eternity,” which however criticized by current scholars helped frame her work for her first posthumous readers.
There’s a certain kind of Dickinson poem, often with a touch of gothic whimsy, that most easily attracts a general readership. Others feature proto-Imagist observations that continue to delight readers. While there were other American poets of Dickinson’s time who had a substantial non-academic readership, now more than a century-and-a-half later, few read any other than Dickinson and Whitman.**
Having a general readership should discount no one’s literary merit, but snobbery may ask to have its say. If Dickinson is a poet admired and even read by those who are otherwise unattracted to poetry, this can be introduced as evidence against her worth as a true poet.
Given that, I have been noticing someone on behalf of the Emily Dickinson Museum has been regularly posting short Dickinson poems on Twitter asking for those who come upon them what their interpretation of these poems are. Few of the Dickinson poems this Twitter docent shares are the well-known “Greatest Hits” of Dickinson. Many are eight short lines, and those lines are often full of Dickinson’s oddest syntax and metaphysical musings. Being asked for an on-the-spot interpretation freezes many a reader as much as an armed robbery would — but at least in such a street encounter one likely knows where one’s wallet and valuables are. While I’m old enough to have grown accustomed to my own misreading of subtle poems that my fears of embarrassment are diminished, even I am hesitant to offer a Twitter reply. And this is true even though I’ve already performed some of Dickinson’s poems of that sort. What this series of Twitter posts demonstrates most vividly I think is that a great deal of Dickinson, though a time-tested popular poet, verges on incomprehensibility. So why did Dickinson write such poems?
My theory is that Dickinson was seeking to record in these cryptic short pieces certain moments of personal insight. Why take the time to versify them then? There’s evidence that Dickinson had a musical mind, and containing them such may have been a combination of the matrix of natural “music of thought” and the practical mnemonic virtues of verse. Dickinson was known to write short poems down on household scrap paper, indicating that thought was going on during domestic workdays. Perhaps I’ve come up with this mentally-drafted commonplace-book theory in that I spent some of my ordinary working life composing poetic stanzas in my head that were informed by things I was seeing and thinking while my hands were occupied. Such work is not necessarily “public poetry,” though in Dickinson’s case it now can be viewed by us strangers far removed by Dickinson’s time and place. Here’s her poem. You can be one of those strangers.
In memory of my feelings. Dickinson’s austere compression here.
So what was Dickinson on about with her poem known by its first line: “From Us She wandered now a Year?” I’m not sure, and I’m sort of comfortable with that. What is clear? It doesn’t have the attraction of imagery. “Wilderness” is totally undescribed, not rising to the level of an image, and “feet’ and “eye” are the only other concrete nouns in the entire poem. There’s no clear sense of where or when this poem occurs. While there’s some sense of separation or change as of the first phrase, the poem evokes no clear-cut emotional tone. “She” and “Us/We” are vague characters, though I read the latter as a general evocation of humanity. Dickinson’s eccentric capitalization invites us to consider many words as philosophic entities, not a “wish you were here” note about a traveling friend.*** Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, her posthumous editors, put this poem in that “Time and Eternity” section, and invented a title “Invisible” for it, which indicated they didn’t know what she was on about either.
Do I have an impression? I think the poem’s “She” is Transcendentalist Nature, which as I understand Transcendentalism is essentially the revered manifestation of the true universe and any Creator. “Wandered now a year” is the unstoppable progression of seasonal time which goes forward over any barren obstacle that might stop a corporal creature (Wilderness) or without any memorial break for death or state of nothingness (Ethereal Zone). The second stanza says we cannot not fully understand this, though we may have some autumnal intimation at some part of this cycle, where we “took” (in) this “Mystery.”****
I could be wrong, but a worthy enough meaning. Still, the overall effect remains its stark unsensual expression. Few of the normal pleasures of poetry are found in these eight lines. No imagery, no statement of the senses meant to invoke feelings in the reader (other than mystification perhaps). Word-music alone is there in Dickinson’s hardwood-seat pew hymn-meter, the thing she used to write her own hymn book. This is a highly intellectualized and discorporate poetry, but as I said at the beginning, I don’t know if Dickinson intended us to read it. If not, then Dickinson’s feelings and experiences being left-out are beside the author’s point. After all, she herself may have sufficiently felt them, and this artifact is meant only to evoke that memory for herself. I, this other human today, have this overall emotion evoked: awe at the dexterity of her mind.
Today’s performance has music I composed and played in my “punk orchestral” style along with 12-string guitar. I’m using simple musical structures for the orchestral instruments, but I tell myself I can do so in the same way that guitar combo bands using a few root-V chords can none-the-less communicate something. It’s a brief poem that I represent in a short musical piece you can hear below with the graphical player, or in its absence this alternative highlighted link.
*This is a common, if not always acknowledged goal of poets: to be worthy not just of a reading, not just of some understanding, but to be worthy of a deeper and more careful and caring reading. That’s a lot to ask for words, even beautiful sounding words.
**I considered adding Poe to this exceptions list. Despite my own efforts, I doubt I could make a case for Longfellow retaining 21st century readership.
***Possible that there’s a specific lower-case “she” and this poem is more simply a “missing you” poem? I’ll offer this aside my theory, that if Dickinson felt that toward specific shes then it could occur to her to personify a manifestation of at least a conceptual Godhead as “She.” It’s possible to be thirsty and thoughtful.
****Sandy Denny’s song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” would be an example of a more elaborate and sensuous expression of the same sort of thought. It’s also a feeling I tend to get each fall, which may help spur my Septober Energy, where I set out to harvest what creative energy I have.
I hear that today is something called National Radio Day. I read that on social media, which I suspect in turn will be a strange artifact to be explained to unformed young people of some yet undisclosed future. After all, as I write tonight I have doubts I’ll be able to convince any current young people of the romance of radio.
I grew up midcentury in what was supposed to be the TV age, but TV was a very constrained and arid thing then. TV was usually one set in the living room with maybe 3 or so channels receivable. It signed off in the evening, came back on with the dawn, and presented one thing at a time under the control of a schedule that could be memorized by its viewers. Radio may have been the old tech, but it was richer, stranger, more able to surprise with chance. Kids had their own radios, cars had radios, and the talking/singing boxes continued all night — and radio was never stranger than at night. Small local stations were required to dim their watts and disappear at sundown, and then certain stations would appear like the night stars, receivable across the countryside with varying reception. In my tiny Iowa town I ran an antenna wire out my window to an apple tree branch outside. The radio’s tubes glowed and Chicago and WLS were certain. KOMA in Oklahoma too. Detroit and Tennessee sometimes.
To be honest, I don’t recall hearing the famous super high-powered mid-century Mexican X stations. Maybe I did for moments — listening to the radio at night meant that stations would sometimes drift in and out, so I might not have heard every call sign. One of those stations, XERB, had a DJ and program director who was too unremarkable as his given name Bob Smith, and so became Wolfman Jack. At XERB he had an on-air compatriot named Fat Daddy Washington.* But today’s piece isn’t about the Wolfman. It’s about Fat Daddy Washington.
You see it’s not just those night-time radio signals that jumped around and changed with the stars. Just as Wolfman Jack had been Bob Smith, and “Daddy Jules,” and “Roger Gordon and the Music of good Taste” as he bounced around formats and jobs; Fat Daddy Washington was not some longtime hepcat, but a kid just a few years out of St. John’s University, a Roman Catholic affiliated college tautologically located in Collegeville Minnesota. “Washington” had worked at the college’s radio station under his real name Arthur Hoehn.
Now let’s zoom in on the “Summer of Love” in 1967. For some reason Hoehn headed back to his old school in north central America from its southwest corner, driving in a sharp new Thunderbird. There’s a story there I’m not privy too. Was he going to impress old schoolmates with his newfound flash — a not uncommon move? That doesn’t sound like the unassuming Arthur I later knew a bit. Was he possibly out of a job at the X? Plausible. When he arrived back in Collegeville, he ran into one of those schoolmates, a guy named Bill Kling who wanted to expand and professionalize the college radio station.** Kling later told the story that Hoehn unilaterally offered to help out. Kling joked years later that he wasn’t even sure he paid him at first. However, Hoehn was also recalled as what became Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media’s “first professional DJ hire.” Since the Collegeville station played classical music with news breaks, I’m not sure that Hoehn’s Fat Daddy Washington mic-time at the heavily R&B oriented X was much featured in their early pitches for funds.
Earlier in this century, MPR/APM employees tried to ID all the people in this early staff picture posted at our headquarters. The only ones I knew from my time were Michael Barone (2nd from left), Arthur Hoehn (3rd from l) and Gary Eichten (5th from l)
By the time I worked alongside Hoehn his regular gig under his given name was working the overnight shift as the host of a classical music program “Music through the Night.”*** If nighttime is the right time to maximize that romance, I’ll still tell you that when I’d actually run into Hoehn it wasn’t romantic. Radio in the flesh rarely is, and nighttime shifts are no place to dress for success or to put on a show of supercilious professionalism. Hoehn would likely be wearing comfy wild-print Zubaz lounging pants and a nondescript open collar shirt. We’d likely nod at each other knowing we each had a job to do.
When broadcasting live (as Hoehn did) the radio host is near alone even in larger stations and networks, and they can expect that most of their listeners are also sameways singular. There might be someone in the next room asleep or another driver in some light-pool car transiting the passing lane, but the listeners are each alone with the host and his record’s vinyl voices, like-black pianos, and sleep-breathing strings. They may be listening to you to try to fall asleep, they may be listening to you because they just don’t want to go to sleep right now, they could be in love full of bright energy, or just out of love and wanting company, they may be working a night shift like you, they could even be — as I watched my father-in-law one night — in a hospital bed awaiting death with the radio murmuring the needle-dancing angels of this side of life.****
Though some old folks reading this will remember this with me on Radio Day — young people, you likely didn’t/don’t live this. Yet I’m writing this more for you. I’ll allow that this is likely as imaginary as any fantasy world for you. But this went on once upon a time. The feeling of the romance of radio, intensified by nighttime, was as real as any current or future fantasy is, and so this has the value of any fantasy tale, as an exercise for imagination, and as a demonstration that shared fantasies can dissolve into air like dew after dawn.
When my coworker Arthur Hoehn died in 2011, I thought: there are a number of songs about DJs, but the music these song-celebrated DJs play is inevitably jazz, r&b, or rock. What about the man alone playing orchestral instrument music, likely in recall/remembrance of those classical “dead guys” compositions, while most of the world sleeps for a few hours in the little analog of death. Is that goth or what?
A performance of the song “Arthur Hoehn” I wrote is below, recorded soon after Arthur’s death. You can play it with the graphical player if you see that, or with this alternative highlighted link.
*Wolfman Jack the nighttime DJ was featured as a romantic mentor to the kids in the movie American Graffiti, and parlayed that role into a larger TV and radio broadcasting career in the 1970s. It’s a point too large to deal with in a footnote, but some white DJs in this time-frame took on portions of Afro-American argot and signifying. Given that American popular music in general has done likewise before and after Wolfman Jack and Fat Daddy Washington, I’ll leave this as a footnote.
Here’s a link to blog post about XERB, with a contemporary flyer saying of Hoehn show “’Fat Daddy; Washington, one of the heaviest swingers in the world, presents 9 tons of soul and is a real “mama’s’ man.”
**Several other Collegeville student-station alums were part of the early MPR/APM core. Longtime news program host Gary Eichten was another. Pipe organ enthusiast Michael Barone too. And another who cut his teeth hosting classical music only to break from that into a unique combination of oral story-telling mixed with musical variety: Garrison Keillor.
Coincidentally, I’ve just realized that I believe my High School English teacher Terry Brennan who introduced me to Keats, Frost, Donne et al in my tiny Iowa town was just out of St. John’s too. If so, it’s highly likely that he was an overlapping classmate of some of those folks. Odd to put that together decades later!
***Eventually this program with Hoehn hosting was syndicated live around the country via satellite (yes, they used satellites, not the still nascent Internet, to do that then). One of the national listeners who sent a fan letter: Joan Baez. Baez also worked in the Sixties with Peter Schickele, who I met in my first month at the network headquarters.
****Other famous overnight DJs? Alison Steele “The Nightbird” was the overnight FM rock DJ in the late 60s-early 70s on NYC’s WNEW-FM and had no-less than Jimi Hendrix as her recorded praise-singer. A British guy in the American southwest conned his way onto the air as an experienced DJ (he wasn’t) during the early days of the British invasion in the early 60s. He broadcast on “KOMA in Oklahoma” one of those “clear channel” stations that I could reliably get in Iowa at night, though he had the early morning shift there. His air name was John Peel, and he went back to the UK and worked for pirate Radio London with the “London After Midnight” show which in 1967 became “The Perfumed Garden” launching many an underground rock group in England with his eclectic playlists before a subsequent long and influential broadcasting career. I’ve never even heard air-checks, but musician/writer Tony Glover had an overnight “underground” rock show on KDWB in Minneapolis during the Sixties that some recall with fondness.
Here’s a little story, about a one-eyed man named Leonidas, who you might think at first is not worthy of telling here at a place that talks about poetry and music. Was Leonidas an artist? Well, he started off an accountant. That’s important. Alas, the Great Depression happened, and even accountants were made redundant. Next, he opened a radio repair shop, since he’d been handy with electric circuits since he was a teenager. Better to repair a radio in those days, so he was able to make a go of that.
So, when does the art come in? Patience. Perhaps you know how revisions, pentimento, second drafts work in art? Then too, do you know the old saying about the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.? That’ll apply too. There’s musical elements coming up, and we’ll end up in the Museum of Modern Art.
It wasn’t just families’ home entertainment radios that came into Leonidas’ shop. Musicians would come in and ask him to repair or construct public address systems. Leonidas’ region was bustling. First with agriculture, and soon with manufacturing. Workers wanted music at dancehalls, bars, and roadhouses, and the small affordable music combos with growing and sometimes rowdy audiences needed to be heard. Leonidas could make things loud.
Some of these musicians played electric guitars, a newish invention. The big hollow reverberant wooden boxes that had formerly needed only to be loud enough to provide a discreet chop of propulsion to large brass and saxophone led bands were now equipped with magnetic pickups which drove amplifiers so that one or two guitarists could replace that horn section. Simple accounting — the venues wouldn’t necessarily increase pay for larger, more elaborate groups. Slim down, but get louder.
One catch. The louder noise these big hollow guitars now made with pickups mounted on their surfaces reacted with a hellish howl from their resonate bodies’ underground cavities when the volume got loud enough. Leonidas’ amplifiers could make them loud, but the guitars couldn’t operate well in that loud environment.
Leonidas was the one-eyed man who knew nothing about guitars, but he’d been wiring electric pickups for a particular kind of electric guitar that was going through a bit of a fad: the “steel guitar.” A steel guitar wasn’t a guitar made out of steel, it was a simple flat piece of wood, like a small, narrow end table, with some strings and an electric guitar pickup that was played with a steel bar slid by one hand up and down the strings while the musician’s other hand plucks the notes the bar’s position has stopped on the length of the strings.
Leonidas got the notion to make a guitar that could be played in the regular way, with fingers fretting the notes, but still with a solid wooden body. He made a very practical instrument out of this idea. It was cheap to make, using inexpensive wood with an ingenious neck that could be removed in a minute with a screwdriver. Some musicians loved it, while guitar makers thought it crude. The simple plank of wood that made up a steel guitar wasn’t all that visible, being played flat like a table. This unadorned plank guitar was hardly more sophisticated, yet it would be hung around the musician’s neck for all to see. A musical end table is one thing, but hanging one around your neck while you sang or performed on stage? That’s just not right thought the existing guitar makers.*
Turns out musicians cared less about that incongruity, because Leonidas’ guitar was so practical, affordable, and it sounded great.
Soon other guitar makers responded to this success — but with fancier, less spartan iterations. The competitor’s responses might have golden paint or hardware and the same graceful arched tops the hollow guitars had, though now on top of solid bodies. Others had metalflake sparkle or fancy sunburst two-tone paint.
Leonidas may have been a non-guitar-playing accountant turned radio repairman, but he and his associates figured out how to fancy up his next design. The guitar he came up with next was curved and wrapped like a flowing scarf, shaped like an abstract painter’s asymmetric amoeba in the moment of forming itself into or away from the classical shape of a guitar. It would come in a variety of new-car-show colors. It had not just one, not just two, but three whole electric pickups. And it had a whammy bar, a spring-loaded vibrato device that let one easily swoop whole chords up and down in pitch. It was named like a Strategic Air Command bomber or the upper atmosphere verging on outer space: the Stratocaster.
Telecaster: like hanging an end-table around your neck and calling it a guitar vs. the colors and curves of the Stratocaster. A big Super 400 guitar forcing an arm akimbo.
Leonidas “Leo” Fender was born on this date in 1909. He never learned how to play the guitar — but he helped a whole lot of other people make music with one, by making his guitars affordable and durable like an accountant watching the logistical details. And as a repairman and tinkerer, he made his guitars easy to repair and modify. By choosing a modular design with interchangeable parts he made it possible for infinite variations of his original design to flourish. One could fill a store’s walls with a hundred variations of his Stratocaster — and eventually that is what happened. It’s the most popular electric guitar ever.
*Leonidas named this guitar that superseded his radio repairman line of work after the entertainment device that was obsoleting his radios, the Telecaster. I make the Telecaster sound crude because just like an Imagist poem that Modernists suggested could replace more elaborate and sufficiently “poetic” poetry, it did seem incomplete to many then. As an instrument however it’s surprisingly versatile to those who know their way around it. Despite the greater and continued popularity of the Stratocaster, there’s a solid cadre of players who give the secret handshake and declare “Leo got it right the first time.”
Here’s a second part of my short series marking August 6th, Hiroshima Day, the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on that city, killing tens of thousands.*
Did the previous post’s intentionally odd linkage of personal grief with the deaths of thousands seem thoughtlessly, even offensively, narcissistic? Or did that consideration never occur to you? Not to make a show of putting on the hair shirt, but that sort of question does occur to me.
I’ve come to an acceptance that with poetry that charge is hard to avoid. A poem — one performed to an Internet audience like this project has, or to one spread over time on a silent page — works as a connection between one voice and the audience of one, as one. We may talk usefully of inspirations or conceptually of muses, we may choose to represent causes of multiple voices, but in the end a poet, or any writer, is asking for your attention with a claim from their attention. It’s that simple.
So, must what we put in our poems’ attention field be important, generally important? That’s a heavy burden to put on a few singing words, perhaps making also a claim to be novel, beautiful, even a source of pleasure. The bombing of Hiroshima passes any test of consideration surely, but today’s piece by Sadako Kurihara (translated by Richard Minear) makes choices in portraying this epochal event.
Imagery beyond poetry. The intense flaming light from the Hiroshima blast burnt shadows onto walls.
Although short, it’s a narrative poem, and its story has power as story, so I’m not going to summarize it here today, asking instead that you take the 2 ½ minutes to listen to the performance of it. Let me instead tell you a little bit I’ve learned about its author.
Kurihara was an anarchist poet who grew up in an increasingly militarized and authoritarian Japan before the war. Living away from her country’s cultural centers and holding unpopular ideas, she and her family lived a life of poverty and obscurity, marked only by occassional run-ins with the authorities. Throughout the war, she continued writing poetry, though publication was out of the question. On August 6th she was at home in Hiroshima when another country’s military dropped an A-bomb on it. The poem I perform today was completed by September and was published early in 1946 after the defeat and occupation of Japan. It predates by a few months John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” article that helped form widespread attention to the particulars of today’s event. It therefore is likely one of the first poems written or published about the bombing.
The poem reads like an eyewitness account, though from what I’ve read in the past few days about it and its author, it’s based on events she heard about from those who had sought shelter in the basement of her city’s central post office.** So, there’s a choice here. Kurihara used someone else’s story, a vary particular one, to portray one aspect of this large event, one small enough to fit into this short narrative poem.
In the last post, I talked about how near grief can seem larger than massive suffering. This poem uses that effect to do its work. My performance of Kurihara’s “Let Us Be Midwives!”*** has a player gadget below so that you can hear it. Some ways this post can be read will not show that gadget, so I provide this highlighted link to also play it. I’d originally thought I do a more complex musical setting for this poem, one that would somehow (that I’d have to figure out) express the massive horror and scale of destruction. But I lacked anything like the time, focus, and opportunities to do that. Instead, the music has a simple and entirely major chord guitar part that I performed live in one-take, and I spent most of the compositional time making the drum part. In the end I decided to add nothing else, as I think Kurihara’s poem is powerful enough to earn your attention without further elaboration. If you’d like to read the poem yourself, here’s a link to four of Sadako Kurihara’s poems including this one.
*There will be no ethical discussion today about the decision to drop the bomb, nor any attempt to adjudge and weigh the evils of any side in World War II. Not that that isn’t important, but it’s nothing I want to try to summarize in a few hundred words. Any reflexive “How many American lives were saved, so spare us the stories of Hiroshima” take should pause and consider that Kurihara opposed that war and her country’s militarism. That would be like accusing Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five as cozying up to Nazis.
**This may bring to mind stories of others sheltering in the largest ruins of their cities today.
***The poem was further subtitled, in the translation I used, “An untold story of the atomic bombing” but it is also referred to under another English translation of the title as “Bringing Forth New Life.”