As if the Sea should part

Emily Dickinson didn’t mind at all being strange or odd in her poetry. For example: today’s poem, which after an opening line quickly goes off to a strange place and then stops at eternity in less than 40 words. In one of her best-known poems, “Because I could not stop for Death,”  she saunters at a mid-19th century horse-drawn pace to eternity. But with today’s poem, rocket ships couldn’t leap as fast. Here’s a link to the text of “As if the Sea should part”  if you’d like to follow along.

It’s not only pace that separates Dickinson’s mode of expression in these two poems. On the face of it, “Because I could not stop for Death”  begins as a somewhat friendly and homespun gothic, a tale of a clearly metaphoric trip told with homey touches in its imagery: children playing at recess, harvest-ready fields, the early chill of oncoming autumn night. “As if the Sea should part”  starts with a miracle which might draw us in, as if we’re to be following Moses across a divinely separated sea. But it’s not exposed seabed and astonished crabs we’ll see as the sea parts. It’s “a further sea.” And we’re off!

And then that further sea parts, and reveals another sea. This is all beyond the speed of even these few words, it’s almost beyond the speed of thought or revelation. Li Bai’s mental presumption conjured up some drinking pals here a few posts back, but Dickinson’s poem progresses too fast to present itself as mere fancy. Dickinson had a famous two-factor definition of poetry: a goose-bump chill that would make any clothing as insufficient as a gossamer nightgown outdoors in autumn—or the top of one’s head being taken off. This poem intends or portrays the later.

I get the impression, the three seas are only a start, this first parting of the waters to reveal other waters which also then part. Why does she stop at three, other than it being the minimum to establish the pattern? I found one reading that thought the capitalized “Three” in the poem may be intended as the Christian Trinity,*  the three-form God-Head. Many of Emily Dickinson’s family and cohorts took to revivalist Christianity, something that Emily specifically resisted. We also know that she knew of and may have had an affinity for Transcendentalism, an American movement that sought a more immanent, first-hand spirituality based on the soul of humanity and the revelations of the book of nature. The experience in this poem seems more the later than the former, but “presumption” is a key word at the center of the poem. After all, the poem begins with “As if…” telling us this is imagined, not direct observation. This entire poem is her mental flight, and not a meditation on the seashore, which after all would be a hundred miles from Dickinson’s Amherst.

The final stanza is extraordinarily difficult to follow. “Periods of Seas” starts out gnomic, and the best I can extract from it is that Dickinson’s mental traveler is now also seeing not just the measure of oceans’ surfaces, but the measure of time when seas might dry up or form—but all those eons are being seen in a measure of three words. Even at the speed of her vision she realizes that there is no way to reach all the shores of seas in this infinity, for at the greatest speed of mental travel they will part and show new seas.

Am I reading too much into this? And is this just so much mystical “Oh, wow man, I just realized the universe is like infinite,  ‘cause even if you reach the edge of it, what’s beyond would be just more different universe still forming, you know!” Well serious cosmology and humankind’s sobering spiritual awe at nature, or its foggy analog of too many bong hits, Electric Kool Aid, and cups of Chinese wine, it’s all a little too much. Dickinson had a garden to keep, food to prepare, poems to write and sew into little books. Why did she write this down? To briefly remind herself of what happens when the top of her head lifts off perhaps. She may never have intended it be something for us to read and understand, though we might still hear it, somewhat muffled, over the roar of parting seas.

Amherst Emily and the Sea LP cover

“I believe I’ll go out to the seashore, let the waves wash my mind, Open up my head now just to see what I can find” are not lines from Dickinson’s poem. Also kids: drugs and vinyl are both overrated. Sarcastic political activism is too, but which of these are necessary?

A tip of the hat (or is that the top of my head?) to the Fourteen Lines blog where I came upon this Dickinson poem for the first time. Today’s audio performance of Emily Dickinson’s “As if the Sea should part”  relates to the particular foggy analog of mid-1960’s psychedelic music, a little like something that Country Joe & the Fish would fry up back then. The player gadget to hear it is below.

*This reading then has the “presumption” as the poem’s speaker scoffing at the presumptive idea that the God-Head could be limited to merely three manifestations.

The Angry Percy Bysshe Shelley: England 1819

My teenager asked me what I’m doing, overhearing me test-shouting the text of today’s piece Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “England 1819.”  Here’s a link to that text if you want to follow along.

“Shelley, the perfect English Romantic Poet, might have been the most radical poet of his time. In matters of sex, religion, politics, aesthetics and philosophy he was explicitly in opposition, and he was chased out of England for it. But still he was capable of being driven to a new level of outrage by events.”

“The ruined statue in the desert guy?”

“Yeah, that’s him. And some readers forget that as beautiful a poem as Ozymandias  is, that there’s real anger behind it—but you can’t miss the anger in this one.”

So, once more I’ll write today about the process of translation. Not from some other language to English, but from perfectly fine English and a past you may not know, to our time. “England 1819”  is 201 years old, and some superficial particularities could make it seem a little antique. It wasn’t so when it was written—and it just so happens that the rhymes of history may make some other specifics in the poem ring out to a reader or listener today.

What was it that set Shelley’s anger to a new heat point? In August 1819 a large meeting was planned by reformers in Manchester England. The organizers seemed to take care that it be a powerful but peaceful demonstration. Chief among the subjects of the event: the granting to ordinary people the ability to vote.* On the appointed day, tens of thousands turned out, including whole families. Many were dressed in their “Sunday best” to hear speakers in St. Peter’s field, an open space in Manchester.

I’ll summarize the brutal details of what happened. Given that it’s 1819 there are no photographs, no bystander cell-cam video: one has to read and use imagination to picture it. Mounted police were sent to arrest the speakers and organizers on a temporary stage in the midst of the large field while the event was happening. Their horses were slowed and tangled in the crowd (described as so dense, that the hat brims of the attendees touched one another). This led to additional mounted militia and eventually regular soldiers that had been held in reserve to be sent against the crowd. Sabers were used as the horsemen struck out at those surrounding them, and of course the horses themselves were trampling on those who fell or were in the way. In some ways it seems miraculous that “only” eleven were killed. Hundreds were injured: men, women, children. The organizers were arrested, convicted, and jailed.

Peterloo_Massacre

Wikipedia says the banner the woman on the left is holding that day would say “Let us die like men and not be sold as slaves.”

One of those who was injured, and who died a few days afterward from his wounds, was a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo, the famous British victory of four years earlier. With bitter irony this event was called “The Peterloo Massacre”

It took a few weeks for the news of this outrage to reach Shelley who was in Italy. That September he wrote today’s sonnet, along with a longer work “The Mask of Anarchy”  and a third poem in a song form. Despite that he was already a self-exile abroad, none of them were published during his lifetime. There was a reason for that: merely publishing an account of The Peterloo Massacre was considered sedition and libel. He asked his friends to not publish them, for there was a real risk of imprisonment for them to do so. The poems were circulated informally, and finally published over a decade later after Shelley had died.

“England 1819”  then has some specifics. The stabbed in line 7, the army in line 8, and the sword in line 9 aren’t only metaphors—they are, albeit second-hand, reportage. Adjusted for the speed of communication in Shelley’s time, they are roughly as immediate as a blog post, just in the form of a sonnet.

What about the possible correspondences of history/rhyme I mentioned? I could write how in some way that the charges laid out against the 1819 English government power structure and the insidious way they used their power could be compared to my country in 2020. I almost wrote just such a section—but anyone who remains in my audience can likely do that for themselves. I personally found some of them as bitterly ironic as the decision to call the 1819 event Peterloo. You may think otherwise. Feel free to do your own translation today. As to prophetic Shelley’s concluding “glorious Phantom,” the Phantom that may emerge from the graves created and filled by those that then recognize they are dying themselves: what tempest will that day bring? A cleansing, nourishing rain, applauded in the leaves of trees, or a hurricane?

The player gadget to hear my performance of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “England 1819”  is below.

*For over half-a-century in my life, voting is something that would seem uncontroversial—at least since the heroes of the Civil Rights movement, some of whom died to make that mundane. Indeed, how many radicals have I met who invoke the saying that if voting could really change anything, they’d make it illegal. Now I hear that statement backwards. If there are current efforts trying to impede voting, reduce it, and denigrate it—there must be powerful people afraid of some change it could bring.

Mowing, and the Meaning of Work

This Monday is American Labor Day, so here’s a poem about work from Robert Frost: “Mowing.”   Like a lot of Frost’s early poetry it’s an example of words that want to sing, and so I’ll sing them today. Also like a lot of Frost’s best poetry it seems simpler than it means. It doesn’t scare the reader or listener away with its surface, but if you really stop to ask why it says exactly what it says, a more complex and subtle work emerges. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem if you want to follow along.

The Scythers by NC Wyeth

That about scythe’s it up. NC Wyeth’s “The Scythers”

 

On first reading this poem is a description of mundane work, mowing a field with the time-honored hand tool: the scythe. How old is that tool? It goes back to the pre-historic days of agriculture, to the making of the first blades for that, and then for the battles over that. It was still in use in Frost’s youth, in the late 19th century. And in the house I grew up in, in the mid-20th century in Iowa, in the crook of a tree in the big back yard there was a scythe caught there, high above my head, stored, captured, put away until it seemed as natural as any other part of the tree.

So, the poet or his speaker counterpart is mowing with a scythe. And since that poet is Frost, we get sound imagery regarding that work. The Imagists contemporary with Frost didn’t require their images be visual, but as a practice they strongly preferred them to be. Frost, on the other hand was the audio guy, not the word painter. The scythe as it swings and cuts, punningly sighs, but Frost has it as a whisper. About this, the poet is curious: if it’s whispering, what’s the scythe (and by extension, the work the man and tool are doing) saying?


The maker of this video on Frost’s poem demonstrates the sound

 

Frost’s poet says he doesn’t know. Interestingly he speculates it might be talking about the heat of the workday, and the phrase he uses “The heat of the sun” may well be reminding him of a poem from Shakespeare we recently featured here: “Fear No More.”   Shakespeare’s poem and the connection with the scythe has with the “grim reaper” brings in an overtone of death.

And then he speculates it may be about why  it’s whispering, why it’s not speaking something out-loud and plain.

Next the poem moves on to the realness of work inherited from its physicality. It’s not a dream or imagination without consequence. And it’s not some fairy story. Gussying it up with such trappings or comparing it to mental work with no embodiment would be enervating it. The poet instead calls this work “earnest love.*” This isn’t some secret crush, even with the whispers and all, this is actually sweaty stuff.

Frost then drops one of his better-known mottos: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” That line is end-stopped with a period, and set off that way it’s a statement that real work on real things is superior to mere fancy. But this is Labor Day, so I performed it as if there’s a colon after “The fact is” and that its meaning carries on through the period and into the last line. The sweet dream then is the scythe whispering and the concluding matter of the hay.

What is the scythe whispering?

Because after all, there’s an unanswered question from the poems opening. What is the scythe whispering? It’s something intimate it wants to say, that good work  says, but doesn’t say. It says it is—paid or unpaid, self-employed or employed, the labor of a poet or of a farmer, done grudgingly or with joy, appreciated or overlooked—it says it is done with love. Not the magic love, not the imagined love. The earnest love.

Happy Labor Day to the readers and listeners here. Wishing you good work and earnest love.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Robert Frost’s “Mowing”  is below.

 

 

 

 

*This section of the poem, lines 10 through 12 in this unusual sonnet, is the most mysterious. I had to perform it before I could figure it out. There may be an overtone here (something that English folksong often made a practice of) of farm work being used as a metaphor for sexual lovemaking. There are snakes, flowers, and then named flowers that are “orchises” which are a genus of flowering plants and also etymologically testicles. Frost made a choice for what flowers he names, and his poet/scyther could have scared off a field mouse or chipmunk not a snake.

On the other hand, he may be just saying that like all artists his work will fail, some flowers get scythed. And the snake could be a Garden of Eden thing.

Or the flowers and snakes may be the beauty and the evil of what we do, that the Grim Reaper scythe will cut off.

The Poetry of a Root Crop

I’ll often choose a piece to present here from an instant impression. I’ll be reading another blog, looking at a writer connected with something else I’m looking for, or paging through an anthology and there’ll be this poem that strikes me as more interesting than the one before or the next one after.

Somewhere last month that happened with this piece. You can find the full text of Charles Kingsley’s “The Poetry of a Root Crop” here. It starts off as a garden poem (I may have been looking for one of those) but it soon gets a bit strange. “Swede” is the British term for what I (and Swedish-American Carl Sandburg) would call a rutabaga. “Golden globe” is a turnip. The “Feathered carrot” is a nice image, I see the root tendrils—but by the second stanza we’re getting weirder: “angel’s alchemy” is somehow involved and “blood and bone.” I think of the orthopedic snap of crisp root vegetables and what, beet juice? Sure, it is rhymed couplets, but this is very modern imagery. I knew nothing of its author: I thought late Victorian or maybe one of the “Georgian poets” from around the time of WWI who often use modern imagery inside of traditional forms.

And then the poem starts to take on visionary or prophetic imagery. There are also elements in here, pace the “angels’ alchemy” phrase that call to mind esoteric terms of alchemy.*  Where is this going? As the poem closes it becomes clear. This is a graveyard—and/or a garden. Which is it? I think it’s to be both.

By the time I’d finished reading the poem for the first time I’d decided I wanted to write some music and perform this. Those who consume the Parlando Project as a podcast hear only the short audio pieces, and I already knew this would be arresting there if my music worked out. But here, for my blog readers, I’d need to find out something about the author. Who was Charles Kingsley? I’d never heard of him, and it’s likely you haven’t either.

Charles_Kingsley._Photograph_by_Charles_Watkins

Charles Kingsley. If the British royal family is related to Odin, is there a part for Queen Elizabeth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

 

The weirdness didn’t end. First off, this poem was older than I figured it was. It was written in 1845. On first reading I would have guessed a contemporary of Yeats, but instead William Wordsworth was still alive. And Kingsley was strange. He was an ordained minister of the Church of England. He knew the British royal family and Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. He was an early proponent of Christian Socialism, and he was an advocate for increased worker’s rights.

But he believed in a historic basis for the old Norse gods, and thought the British monarchy was descended from them. He attacked Catholicism and thought Emerson and the American Transcendentalists were poppycock. He was a defender of the brutal suppression of the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica.**  If one wonders if that last was some technical or procedural objection, Kingsley’s Wikipedia page quotes what has to be the trifecta of a racist statement written in a letter to his wife after a visit to the County Sligo*** in 1860: “I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country [Ireland] … to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.”

So there you go: if you are a person of color, Irish, anti-colonialist, anti-racist, Catholic, an atheist libertarian, or I would suppose, a sentient chimpanzee, Kingsley is despicable.

Yes, these ideas caused, and cause, suffering and death, but his little-known poem brought me some pleasurable surprise. Big and little things.

Maybe I’m a bit glad that this poem is older than I thought. The vegetative minerals of Charles Kingsley are long absorbed into the earth, and I’ve performed Ezra Pound poems, so I guess you can put me down in the group that says the art can exist—at least eventually—separate from the artist.

Is the opposite so? The better, the more evolved, just, and righteous that a reader is, the smaller the number of poets they will be able to read?

The player gadget to hear a performance of “The Poetry of a Root Crop”  is below. My music for this is acoustic guitar and electric bass today.

 

 

 

*If you’d like to go off on a strange tangent into esoterica, consider Isaac Newton’s alchemical and occult studies.

**Wikipedia says Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens and Alfred Tennyson also served on a committee with Kingsley defending the actions of the British colonial governor of Jamaica.

***I’m moved to mention that within a decade, a certain young boy named William Butler Yeats was in that same County Sligo a lot during his childhood. Some chimpanzee, Kingsley. See Yeats moving poem in his primitive tongue: “Me Tarzan, You Maude Gonne.”

Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon

Our last audio piece this month had American satirist Mark Twain pointing out incongruities in the longstanding trope of the tortured poetic genius who dashes off “weird, wild, incomprehensible poems with astonishing facility, and then gets booming drunk and sleeps in the gutter.”

How far back does that trope go? Well at least to 8th century China, and the authentic poetic genius of Li Bai.*  Li Bai and Du Fu are the two most highly regarded poets of the Tang dynasty period, and given that the Tang dynasty can be viewed as the artistic high water mark of an extremely long and wide culture, that makes this pair probably the most esteemed Chinese poets. The metaphor is rough, but unavoidable: either have been called “The Shakespeare of China.”  Their lives overlapped, they knew each other, even wrote poems that drop each other’s names.

Li Bai both by reputation and through the persona that appears in his poems, has some similarities to Twain’s poetic genius. References to wine** in Chinese poetry are legion, but even against that background Li Bai stands out for the number of poems he wrote about the consumption of wine and examination of intoxicated states. The Li Bai poem I’m performing today, “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon”  is one famous example.

Li Bai by Jin Guliang crop

Li Bai sleeping off the work of translation from English to Chinese: “The 白色 is the white, the 港口 is the port, the  柠檬 is the lemon, and the 果汁 is the juice. White port lemon juice. White port lemon juice. Ooh! What it’ll  do to you!” 

 

I think this poem pulls off a neat trick. Somewhat like Twain’s “Genius,”  on the surface it’s comic: Li Bai portraying himself as a sort of Falstaffian character whose meditation practice this evening in nature is to get hammered on some juice. But to my reading this short poem also portrays the progression of his intoxication subtly. The opening has him cleverly figuring out how to bypass any guilt from society’s admonitions regarding solitary drinking. And then he quasi-surprises himself that his plan is only partly working. I love the image of him finding that his shadow is merely a disciple—that Shadow will only follow Li Bai’s own drinking and not spur him on by proposing additional draughts. Then as his hand gets less steady, the moon’s reflection in his wine cup wiggles and dances. He of course doesn’t sense that he’s  getting unsteady himself, but that shadow guy, he sure looks shaky.  Finally as intoxication becomes deeper, he senses that his senses are going to be blotto, that the disciple Shadow-man, the companion moon, and yes even Li Bai himself are going to be out of it, cast off into some state not in the here and there of his actual moment.

Where does he go, where does his imagination go? The final image is of stars, moving, swimming it seems, movement-blurred. These could be the actual stars if he’s now flat drunk, or even abstract visual stimuli as his consciousness slips away. Footnotes in some translations tell us the idiom Li Bai uses in his ending may be understood as the Milky Way, the visual smear of our own stellar galaxy visible on some clear non-light polluted nights. My reading is that Li Bai may be using that image, but any stars are blurred and multiplied to his character in the poem now.

Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon

My new translation of Li Bai for today’s performance.

 

Oddly, it takes a clear-headed poet to portray drunkenness. Twain may have had some moment of empathy for his dying in rags and dirt “Genius”  poet, however foolish he can portray him. Li Bai starts his poem alone—and though he imagines his two drinking partners, he knows that they too, not unlike real companions absent at the start of his poem, will disappear with his consciousness as the wine flows.

In the original Chinese, Li Bai was a meticulous poet, observant of the traditional forms, a fluent user of rhyme and the Chinese version of meter. I can’t tell if any of the poetry Twain’s genius wrote justified the rough and foolish life, but from Li Bai’s esteemed poetry we know that whatever is true of his now legendary life, that his poetry gives us something worth reading. It’s possible the poet Li Bai used the character Li Bai, the dauntless romantic unconcerned for moderation—just as Samuel Clemmons, the ambitious young man who fled west to become a writer, used the character of Mark Twain.

I’ll probably write a follow-up post regarding the process I went through in creating this original English translation of Li Bai’s poem, but in summary, my observation at the start of that task was that most existing translations worked hard to be poetic, and some achieved that to a degree, but at a cost of not vividly embodying the process and character of the poem’s speaker. So, I went another way.

Musically this started out as a rock quartet: two electric guitars, drums and a very saturated overdriven bass guitar that sounds almost like a synth bass. I used some woozy Mellotron strings again, adding a bit of simulated worn tape cartridge wobble. I was going to go with the infamous Mellotron flute (any two or three notes using that, and many will forget what you’re playing and start to go: “Let me take you down, where I’m going to, Strawberry Fields…”) and then I thought: why not a Chinese bamboo flute instead? The last part I played was an approximation of a guzheng, a long scale zither-like Chinese instrument that I thought of since I had recently seen some examples in a museum this summer.

The player gadget to hear my performance of my fresh translation of Li Bai’s “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon”  is below.

 

 

 

*The names we type and read in western alphabet for Li Bai’s name are approximations, and the schemes have varied. Li Bai is also rendered as Li Po and Li Bo and if we take the carom shot off the backboard of Japan’s pronunciation (as Ezra Pound did), he can also be called Ri Haku or Ri Taihaku.

**I had to look and see as I worked on this translation what kind of wine was common in 8th century China and would be known to Li Bai. Most Chinese wine in those days was grain-based from millet or rice. There were regions that made fruit wines then, but they were much less common.

Genius by Mark Twain

Last time, American satirist Mark Twain took aim at the pretensions of half-hearted sentimental memorial verse. Today’s barbs for bards are from a younger Twain. The text is taken from what was apparently a journal entry written on shipboard in 1866, before Twain was established in his literary career. Elsewhere on the web “Genius”  is identified as a poem, and perhaps in manuscript that intent is clear—but when I first read it, I suspected it could be notes for something not yet finished, or even cue-phrases for a humorous lecture.

150 years and the mystery of what it is hardly obscure the points Twain makes. The alienated, self-pitying, and intoxicated artist, damaged by a feeble market that is itself a claim to their originality, is a type we can still recognize—even for some of us, in the mirror. In my performance I chose to bring forward what I think is some ambiguity in the piece. Twain never quite shows the work itself is a worthless affectation, while indicting the affectations around the artist specifically and wholeheartedly. Yes, the poet’s rhymes are said to be “sickly” and “incomprehensible,” heavy charges laid on them by those “with sense” who are not hip enough to appreciate the “genius.” Every single poète maudit* since would take those charges as badges of honor. I sense some mixed admiration for this stubborn guy who sensibly should take available steady work as a sawyer, but instead sticks to writing.

Mark Twain 1863

The pen name was still fairly new, and the ‘stache hadn’t yet leapt to his upper lip, but here’s the twenty-something Twain.

 

After all, Twain himself was not far from that state. He was not yet a successful writer. He hung out with a group of self-described Bohemians in San Francisco. He lived in his Twenties a fairly reckless and feckless life, fleeing to the west from Missouri to escape the Civil War and the draft, fleeing Virginia City for San Francisco to escape a duel occasioned by a slanderous article he had published, and this particular journal entry had him on a ship heading to Hawaii, leaving San Francisco. “No direction home, like a complete unknown…”

And all his life, Twain was two, a man who clearly wanted success and recognition, but whose writing and outlook was distrustful of established norms, propriety, and shibboleths.

If “Genius”  is notes for a talk and not an intended page-piece, it points out that Twain’s eventual career included substantial work as a speaker who told humorous stories. We have a name for that sort of work today: stand-up comedian. During his time out west Twain met and befriended Artemus Ward, a man who has since been called the first stand-up comedian. They met in the mining boomtown of Virginia City, and the story goes that after Ward’s performance, Twain took Ward on a drunken tour of the rooftops of the town. Given their state, the risk to American culture of such an intoxicated lark was in retrospect considerable, so perhaps we should thank the town constable who along with a shotgun filled with rock-salt, ended that escapade.

So, Twain lived to write his books and to skewer poetry. The player gadget to hear my performance of Mark Twain’s “Genius”  (whatever it is, or was intended to be) is below. Here’s the full text of “Genius” as is appears elsewhere on the web.

 

 

 

*Was Twain skewering a particular poet, or a type? Edgar Allen Poe, the American poet of his time who lived and sang the “songs of a poet who died in an alley” would be one candidate. And it could be in some part a reflection of persons in the West Coast bohemian scene he was sailing from.

Mark Twain takes on Poetry: Stephen Dowling Bots

I’m of an age when thoughts of death could be excused as more a present issue than a youthful goth affectation. Covid-19, that hit dirge of the summer that would play at every party were there every parties, amplifies that. But the gothic was similarly close at hand in the 19th century when untreatable disease and violence were more common. We still associate poetry with funerals—though I worry too that we can compartmentalize it there—but in the 19th century this was even more so. Real and imagined elegies were all the rage for poets at any level of talent and fame. From extensive demographic research I believe it may be true that just as high a percentage of 19th century people died as nowadays;* but it did seem the opportunistic occasion for poetic mourning was more extensive then.

Now Mark Twain, a satirist, loved subverting the expected, and so in the course of his novel Huckleberry Finn’s catalog of expected human behavior and good taste overwhelming a more rational ethic, he stopped to parody such memorial verse with this tale of romantic death that failed to be, well, romantic enough. In the novel this poem is written by Emmeline Grangerford, who is described as a young poet who rapidly cranked out memorial verse faster than any undertaker or supple lyric muse could keep up.

In today’s audio piece I give some of the story of Emmeline’s poetic endeavor from the novel, and then sing as a folk song of the sadful death of Mr. Bots using for lyrics the example poem of Grangerford’s Twain has given us. The full text of the poem is here.

What is said to be Mark Twain’s guitar still exists and has been acquired by a collector. Small size guitars like this were normal for the 19th century guitar market in America. (photo by Bianca Soros)

 

Today’s music is just acoustic guitar. Although I originally intended a more elaborate arrangement, I think just guitar suits it well. As I came to the decision for practical and aesthetic reasons, I was reminded that Mark Twain himself was a guitarist.** Just before leaving for the West Coast where he would make a name for himself as a writer, he bought himself a used Martin guitar.*** He says he played it for men and women in the newly founded boom towns, and on shipboard as he sailed hither and yon. Twain’s account says he sang along with the guitar, but I haven’t found any accounts of what his repertoire was. It could well have been a songster’s mix of popular tunes of the day and what we now call “folk music” and I could purpose he just might have slipped in a few originals. Since one can’t tell how Twain would have performed “Stephen Dowling Bots”  as a mournful song, I claim my attempt as “close enough for folk music.”

You can hear my reading of how Emmeline Grangerford’s poetry is introduced by Twain and the song made from her memorial poem with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*I can present the statistical charts and tables for this startling claim when it’s ready for peer-review. A counterclaim is based on the data that many people in our 21st century are not, in fact, dead at this time. (emphasis mine)

**One of Twain’s sisters was a music teacher who taught piano and guitar. Both instruments were often thought of as women’s instruments in that era, to be played in middle-class home parlors for do-it-yourself culture and entertainment. The supposition that Twain’s sister taught Twain how to shred on his axe follows that tidbit.

***The famous American guitar making company was founded by a German immigrant Charles Frederick Martin in 1833 (a year that’s still featured on a Martin guitar’s label.)  The Twain guitar pictured here is said to be from 1835, which would make it a “birth year guitar” for Mark Twain. Some collectors today seek out vintage guitars that are coincidental with their birth year, but I doubt that was a thing in Twain’s time. Further clouding the picture, the design of this guitar (particularly the headstock) looks more like the guitars Martin made later in the 19th century, and not those made just after the company’s American start.

Fear No More

I’ve already talked here about doing translations from other languages into English and how it can be a strikingly intimate way to get next to another poet’s creative choices. Performance, or even attentive reading, can also bring on this effect.

Let’s take Shakespeare as a mere lyricist today. Of course, he’s a big deal for our English language, a writer from the days when it was beginning to resemble the one we speak today. For many he’s the writer of plays, with characters of which generations of actors measure themselves by the facets they cut from them. For others he’s the writer of sonnets, many of which work by complex arguments and compressed thought, making them memorable from line to line, even if it’s hard to grasp the entirety of even one of them. But occasionally* within the plays he becomes a lyric poet in one or both of the senses of the word: a writer giving us a complex emotional matrix of someone’s experience in a moment of time, and as a writer who expects his words to be sung to music.

Songs meant to be performed inside other, larger works can be problematic. They may refer to particular characters and situations, which when the song is presented separately, become unfootnoted puzzlements. This song doesn’t have much of a problem there. “Fear No More”  is  sung as a funeral song in the play Cymbeline,  but it’s self-evidently that—a situation that is universal, just as the song admits.

So, as I do my task with this project, figuring out what sort of music to write and effect to try to present in performance, I need to read attentively. Though I have done this hundreds of times during the Parlando Project, I often find that no number of silent readings finds what route to take. This may be me, my wandering attention and self-centeredness, but for this one (as with many others I’ve presented here) the subtilties started to emerge as I come to grips with performing it.

On the surface one could say this song is making an argument: they’re dead—but you know life is suffering, so they are no longer suffering. It doesn’t take long to notice that surface is transparent and there are other things to see through this.

First off, many things here are bittersweet. The opening line, for a Minnesotan** “…the heat of the sun” isn’t something we fear or are even displeased by, even during an extraordinary hot spell. “Golden lads and girls” also, not exactly earthly suffering, and we’re given their end with the joke that they’ll come to dust like the occupationally dusty chimney-sweep. Yes, wages, clothing, eating, learning, loving (all referenced here) can have their struggles, their bad as well as good days, but on the whole we don’t wish to dispense with them.

As the lyric proceeds, Shakespeare slides into darker and darker territory though. Those that assume to be our social superiors are going to have opinions on us, and in some cases our rulers will be tyrants. We may be slandered and censured (apparently this could be done before Twitter). And given some storms in the upper Midwest this August, I’m reminded that summer lightning and thunder are not mere theatrical sturm and drang, but can be the light and sound tech-crew of destructive forces.

And the final stanza moves darker yet. Exorcists, vampires, zombies, and vengeful ghosts—but wait: these are all dangers to/from the dead. So, the whole argument of “At least they are now resting” is completely undercut. And it’s here that I started to notice that the singer who’s tasked with merging with the poet’s work is outlining an inconsistent but vivid life that’s not without agency. This vividness argues against its inconsequentiality.

Imortal Poems of the English LanguageMaster Poems of the English Language Cover

Oscar Williams’ poetry anthologies surprised the mid-century publishing world selling quite well. These two thick yet inexpensive books were part the paperback library of my youth. Maybe it was the titles: “Master” and “Immortal” would be catnip words to an inconsequential young writer. Williams was an ad-man besides being a poet and editor, so this may have been no accident.

 

Shakespeare’s songs attract composers, and this one has been made into lovely art song, but I like to roughen them up a bit, and do so here with this acoustic guitar and voice setting. The player gadget to hear my performance is below. But before I go, I want to tip the hat to the Stuff Jeff Reads blog which recently reminded me of this beautiful and enigmatic lyric. And it turns out he and I both read it first thanks to the same anthologist, Oscar Williams, who issued some surprisingly great-selling mid-20th century paperback poetry anthologies.

 

 

*Besides being a dramatist, he’s also an entrepreneurial content provider for a new form that needs to please nobles who might get their heads chopped off—and then too, folks who couldn’t get good seats for the bear baiting and so had to make do with a play. Given that Elizabethan song had many clever lyricists, it’s not sure if Shakespeare wrote all the songs in his plays. We also don’t know the music composers, or their tunes for the most part. This particular lyric seems “Shakespearean” however.

**And likely too for an Englishperson, with a temperate-climate, but one that’s not too-often sunny. Winter’s “rages” aren’t without joy in Shakespeare either, like this song from another play.

Breakfast in a Pandemic

Can we accept a little fall-off from Rilke last time to something I wrote?

As long-time readers here know, the Parlando Project is about “Other People’s Stories.” Dave and I both write words as well as music, but I find it interesting to examine how I experience other people’s words, other people’s outlooks and visions. This project’s focus for the past four years  has been an exploration—often into writers I didn’t know, or writers that I, and perhaps you as well, think we know because of what we have been told about them.

I was able to run this piece past a fine poet Kevin FitzPatrick,*  before it reached the form you’ll read/hear today. He noted that I was working in my Frank O’Hara mode, and he’s right. For me in my 20s, O’Hara helped me integrate the French Surrealists with the American mode of Carl Sandburg,**  with a Modernist touch of exoticism I’d retained from love of the English Romantics.

I had to remind Kevin that a big influence on this poem was his own poetry, about which a reviewer once said included so many “poems with other people in them.”  Why, oh why, is that so rare? How many poems are about the poet’s own head space or solitary meditation on nature? Of course, that landscape can’t be avoided. And yes, some very good poetry can be written in that less populated country. Readers here will know how much I’ve come to admire what Emily Dickinson did. Though we now know that her life was not entirely that cloistered myth that once was used to define her, does her extraordinary corpus of poetry ever include another human character speaking for themselves?

So, my poem starts out like a nature poem, albeit in an urban setting, and then another character breaks in and changes the poem. The music I composed and performed seeks to underline that. And a disease pandemic is, after all, a natural metaphor for our separation.***

Breakfast in a Pandemic

A long poem for me these days. Some thought it could be shorter and some thought it could include even more detail . They’re both right, but that’d be another poem I decided.

 

In the text of the poem I use an epigraph from Frances Darwin Cornford’s “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train.”   Dave wondered if that might put off some readers. His concern has merit. Cornford’s poem (better known in Britain) is an earworm best known for being disliked. I have not seen anything from Cornford about what her intent was with the poem, and perhaps she had little conscious intent, thinking of it only as a catchy triolet. However, I think it’s a kind of pointed  failed encounter and is written as such.

As I said above, the music here tries for contrast, with acoustic guitar and then drums and bass with a smattering of woozy strings and distant woodwinds. The composer in me isn’t sure the composition or the performer achieved all of his intent. The middle section may be taken at too fast a tempo. My late father who hated poetry read too fast would certainly think so. But I remind myself that plenty of modern spoken/chanted word is taken at a rapid pace, so maybe not.

The player gadget is below, so you can listen and decide for yourself. Stay well, valued readers and listeners!

 

 

*Alternative Parlando voice and keyboardist, Dave Moore had some helpful suggestions on it too.

**I don’t know what O’Hara thought of Sandburg, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t favorable. Sandburg might have seemed too straight, and too yokel. But Sandburg was working often in the mode of Whitman and Hart Crane which O’Hara also was (along with O’Hara’s French language influences).

And did you know that Whitman’s oh so American ‘barbaric yawp” was a formative influence on French Vers Libre? I didn’t either until this project’s exploration.

***At least the existence of this poem means that this pandemic of our age won’t be as little covered by poets as the big 1918-1919 flu pandemic that poetry ignored.

Before Summer Rain, or we get to Rilke eventually

How do we determine what a poem is on about? That this should be a question is a reason many flee poetry. Plainspoken poems still exist, and some poets manage to pull off the technique where there’s an easily accessible layer, and then on further consideration, deeper ones beckoning beneath. But the plainspoken poems are not always honored in the school anthologies that introduce growing minds to the art; and too many when introduced to deeper readings fall away from poetry thinking that either they “just don’t get it” or that those pointing out these subtleties are hallucinating angels and cows in cloud forms.

Even a poet like Robert Frost who was able to pull off that trick of relatable surface and deeper, more complicated undercurrents, must suffer from party boors like myself reminding trapped conversation subjects that “The Road Not Taken”  is about the over-consideration of choice not the necessity of stalwart individualism. Damn, the listener thinks, looking for an out, “I thought I had a poem, my poem, and now this fellow is saying one or the other of us is an idiot or a fool.”

There’s another route, another signpost that may help, one couched in the informal phrase “Where are you coming from?” Given that literature in our age has been to a large degree taken over by memoir,* we may employ this tactic as readers or listeners. In this frame, poets are about their lives, and in an even more contained sense, about the important facts of their lives: a trauma, a struggle, a novel life story.

In this view, to consider “The Road Not Taken”  in the context of the tragic friendship between Robert Frost and Edward Thomas walking in the wandering lanes and paths of the Cotswolds may help us understand that that poem isn’t just a self-contained piece of art, though it can be that, but also an artifact of something complicated as lives are.

So, I promised I’d get to Rainer Maria Rilke. Last month I started to translate his poem “Before Summer Rain”  from the original German. I sometimes do my translations before reading existing English ones. I’m not sure if that is a good idea, but I like the surprise of a poem coming into view for the first time as I work out the language. I finished a draft of it, and then found two or three other English translations in short order.

My “Before Summer Rain”  that I could view when this draft was done was a fairly light, fairly clever nature poem about the onset of a thunderstorm. Summer, leaves are all green—then sunlight, perhaps even the chromatic range of the light’s color, takes on a new cast. A bird calls, but we sense it more as a warning omen or a call for others of its species as the storm brews. Inside the house, sunlight no longer illuminates things. Will it storm or will it not quite reach ignition and fade off? A few drops or a deluge? The poem ends.

 

Before Summer Rain

 

Right away I doubted my translation in light of the others. I didn’t get the picture entirely wrong, but a couple of significant details diverged, ones that seemed to take the poem elsewhere. Here’s a link to the most common English translation I found. The translation is by Edward Snow, though almost none of the Internet sites that use his work credit him. Snow published his translation in 1991. He’s an award-winning translator who concentrates on Rilke’s poetry—plenty of reasons to respect Snow’s authority on the accuracy of his Rilke. Other than our differing attempts to make compelling English poetry from Rilke’s German, here are the two things that stuck out.

The end of Rilke’s German line “man denkt an einen Hieronymus” (literal: “one thinks of a Hieronymus”) is in Snow’s, and I think every other English translation I found, translated as “St. Jerome.” This indicates strongly that is how the word would be understood in German, and Hieronymus is  the Greek version of the name Jerome. This may be problematic for the poem, however. Assuming that the more knowledgeable translators are correct, this leaves many readers in the dark. What the hell does St. Jerome have to do with this reasonably vivid and non-allusive description of an oncoming storm?**  In my first complete draft I thought it better to leave it Greek, which would be mysterious in a more mysterious as opposed to a “what the…” way. My second choice, the one I used by the time of my performance, was to use the literal translation of the name from Greek: “sacred name.” This increases an immediate sense of the moment being described by Rilke. The bird’s call is so urgent, so important, that the sacred is invoked.

OK, if I’m going to worry about a single word, what next? The concluding two lines of Rilke’s poem in German are: “das ungewisse Licht von Nachmittagen, /  in denen man sich fürchtete als Kind.” (literal: “the uncertain light of afternoons, / in which one was afraid as a child.”  Snow renders these as “the chill, uncertain sunlight of those long / childhood hours when you were so afraid.” I had a completely different sense in my draft, that it was still the external object, the changing light of the summer afternoon threatening to storm, that was being depicted. In poetry the observer, the poem’s speaker, and the object may often be merged, but Snow says this is not just an oncoming storm, this is a trigger of something darker than even that. Snow seems to add “chill,” which I can’t find in Rilke’s German, to intensify that sense.

I had read the poems mood as mostly light, mostly clever. Snow had read it, I think, as darker, more chilling. A day or so later I started to think. Did Rilke suffer some kind of childhood abuse?

And so, just in trying to do a translation, trying to figure out what a poem was on about—so that I could bring you an audio performance of a piece that otherwise wouldn’t exist, I found myself thinking I had two roads: throw out my attempt at translation as a misleading embarrassment, or dig more into Rilke’s life.

Turns out I knew even less than I thought. I had this sense of a lean, sickly, aesthete melding art and spirituality, a purist willing to risk lyrical excess. In looking at the highlights of Rilke’s life, it’s stranger than that. I began to think Midwesterner Don Marquis would have made of Rilke something of his poet character Fothergil Finch in his Hermoine and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers  satire. But Rilke’s childhood did  have elements that we, and he, might view as abusive.

Rilke age 4 and Rilke age 11

Rilke age 4 dressed by a mom who missed a dead daughter, and Rilke age 11 sent off to military school to butch-up by his dad. Yes, 19th century children’s clothes are a different sensibility, and some kids respond to a disciplined and regimented life. Rilke didn’t seem to, and his teen years in the school were not good, clashing with the other students who were more into it.

 

And so I concluded, I needed to revise my translation or abandon it.

Then yesterday I had a chance to record with acoustic guitar, and I grabbed a few things that might work presented that way. I thought, “Before Summer Rain”  needs revised words, but maybe I can compose the music while I’m at it, and I could record the revised words later.

The tune came fast. The chord progression has similarities to a strain used in Ray Davies Kinks’ song “Rainy Day in June”  (another song about sudden summer rain), but given that I had access to a quiet room where I could record acoustically, I decided I’d go all the way and use an even quieter nylon-string guitar available there.

Nylon-string guitar might bring various things to mind: “classical guitar,” Willie Nelson, Latin American music. I’ll often associate it with two things: learning to play guitar on a J C Penny’s nylon string guitar in my youth, and the early albums of Leonard Cohen where Cohen would play his “one lick” effectively on nylon string guitar. Testing the melody against the existing words, I recorded a couple of takes, while trying to reacquaint myself with the different sound of nylon strings.

There, with live mics and the recorder running, I realized I had already written the translation that could bring out the personal darkness, the undercurrents of childhood abuse, with my version of Rilke’s words. It was simply a matter of performance.

You can hear the performance below with the player gadget.

 

 

*I don’t object to this except to the degree that as a contrarian by sensibility, I don’t want any mode or approach to become so predominant without at least asking what else could be done. This is part of the reason that this project has been focused on “Other People’s Stories” and isn’t as much about a personal journey (though those elements can’t be avoided).

**Wikipedia’s entry for St. Jerome, who I only knew as the man credited for translating the Bible into Latin (then the common language of educated Europeans) includes an anecdote about the guilt-ridden Jerry after a night of too much party trying to atone by visiting Rome’s dark catacombs to commune with the decaying bodies of apostles and martyrs. Major goth points, and possibly even a reason why he might be mentioned in Rilke’s poem. But how well is this known? I also find it odd that the German to English literal has it “a  St. Jerome” if we remove the Greek. Was St. Jerome enough of a big deal meme-wise that you could refer to him as a type, like calling someone “a Judas?”