Ample make this Bed

I’ve been unable to do as much as usual with this project for the past month for several reasons. One of those reasons was a trip to Massachusetts, which if this was a normal blog would have already generated posts of the travelogue sort. However, this project is about two palpable things, music and words (mostly poetry), that can’t handily be walked along, though you can tour their containers and neighborhoods. Perhaps that trip, in an indirect way, will generate pieces yet this summer.

I was finally able to visit Amherst and the house where Emily Dickinson lived nearly her entire life—and today’s piece uses words from one of Dickinson’s poems—but long-time listeners will know that Emily Dickinson is already a favorite source for words here.

No house, no state, not even any time or country can explain the genius of Emily Dickinson. For reasons of brevity, I’ll try to summarize by saying that she created and entirely new form of poetry, powerfully compressed, elusive and still approachable, and wholly without precedent. The things scholars can trace as influences can be found in her poetry, but no one else made Emily Dickinson poems out of that same stuff. And her poetry has largely not become obsolete. Over 150 years after it was written it still seems modern, maybe even more modern today than it seemed to the early 20th Century Modernists 100 years ago.

Dickinson Bedroom 3

Ample? The specific standing for eternity. Emily Dickinson’s restored bedroom in Amherst

 

I’m attracted to shorter poems that unpack into larger things, and “Ample make this Bed”  is that. It’s short even by Dickinson standards, eight lines, 34 words. If one pauses to puzzle at this meaning, the imagery of the grave is what comes to many reader’s mind. It can be read as a shorter companion to one of Dickinson’s most famous poems “Because I could not stop for Death,”  but with a bed replacing the longer poem’s subterranean dwelling. However, besides its greater concision, “Ample make this Bed”  is using another poetic form, one different from her longer poem.

“Ample make this Bed”  is an aubade.

An aubade is a poem where two lovers wish for the morning to never arrive. Since it is, in fact, arriving, they will deny it, wishing for their night together to remain forever. By using this traditional poetic trope, Dickinson has thrown a rich ambiguity into her 34 words. Although Christian religious belief has its variations, the traditional judgement day is the day of eternal salvation and the universe’s perfection. “Ample make this Bed”  compares the morning of divine perfection to the morning that separates the lovers in an aubade.

Is this a statement that the sensuousness of human love can be judged greater than eternal salvation? Or is it a puritan statement that any such love will face its final end and judgement? Could it even be both, balanced on a knife’s edge?

Look too at two of those 34 words describing possibilities of this bed. Its Mattress, where the body rests, may be straight. The body has a straightaway lifetime. The Pillow, where the mind inside the braincase rests, may be round, a circular line that doesn’t end.

Dickinson puts her poetic thumb on the scale with the most beautiful line in the poem: “Let no Sunrise’ yellow noise.” The poem has been puritan with its rhymes until this line, although elusive near-rhymes are present in the first stanza. Now it lets in richness, a rhyme internal to the line, before proceeding to the final perfect rhyme in the last line. Besides the line’s sound, the dawn of eternal judgement is— what?—so much noise. If Keats’ second inversion is so, then beauty is truth—and Dickinson may be indicating her thoughts on the matter.

Musically, I performed this in waltz time and I repeated the first stanza to add some sense of the eternal.  You can hear the performance with the player gadget below.

 

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Morituri Salutamus

I suspect no poet in the past couple of centuries has suffered a greater decline in esteem as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This is not due to some scandal in his biography, for as far as I can tell he lived an admirable life, but artistically he’s been indicted for a number of crimes and misdemeanors. Before I go over those, let me briefly summarize the heights from which Longfellow has fallen.

He was the first self-sustaining professional American poet, the first to reach a considerable level of national and international success. By the middle of the 19th Century he was roughly as famous as Tennyson and Dickens, known and generally admired by his contemporary poets, and avidly read by a broad non-academic readership. He sustained this fame for several decades and further, past his death in 1882. His general readership survived into my grandfather’s generation, and then through my father’s, and to a degree, into mine. Somewhere in the middle of the 20th Century, this engine of fame and readership broke down, and by now they’ve torn up the tracks of the Longfellow Line, and ragged grass grows over the railbed.

I grew up reading Longfellow as the next generations might read Dr. Suess or Sandra Boyton in childhood. As I reached the age of ridicule, I could revel in Bullwinkle the moose in his parody poetry corner reciting Longfellow poems that I knew. Now Longfellow is probably not well enough known to satirize.

So, what are Longfellow’s poetic crimes? Meter and rhyme and a certain amount of antique diction—though we are able to somewhat forgive the English romantics of the generation before Longfellow those afflictions. Earnestness and popularity, two things that no ironic 20th Century Modernist would wish to be accused of—but Robert Frost survived the later, while being seen (mistakenly) as expressing the former. Longfellow’s contemporary, Walt Whitman, explicitly sought to commit the earnestness and popularity crimes—though, as the old dis goes, for many years, Whitman couldn’t get arrested for it.

Whitman-Longfellow

The good gray poet Whitman, and his doppelganger the forgotten famous writer Longfellow.

But Longfellow’s capital offense, the crime his reputation has been executed for, is simplicity and conventionality of thought. If I had to be Longfellow’s defense lawyer on this charge, perhaps I’d be reduced to throwing his case on the mercy of the court. Longfellow’s writing is often expressly didactic, and impersonal sentimental themes abound. Over and over again, he counsels perseverance and its seeming opposite, acceptance of impermanence. A more metaphysical poet would show his work and do more with incident to earn his conclusions. A more modern poet would make sure to make his life’s painful particulars his main subject.

Ironically, Longfellow’s life story is full of such material. Today we often think of poetry and art as an extension of memoir, and that writers earn their license to express things from their life stories. Longfellow would have had that license.

Some forms of Modernism believe that the best way to deal with complex emotion or great pain is to put it in the silences, in the blank spaces. These Modernists believed this would be more effective, because they are signaling with this constrained and minimalist expression that the thoughtful audience needs to seek for what is not said.

20th Century Modernists decorated their foreground with images, not antique forms of literary expression, and the complex message is encrypted in those images as if by steganography. Could Longfellow be doing something similar in the blank spaces between the lines of his hypnotic verse?

Today’s piece uses words from a late Longfellow poem “Morituri Salutamus,”  a Latin title taken from the famous gladiator phrase “Those who are about to die salute you.” The bulk of this poem, written for the occasion of his 50th college class reunion when Longfellow was 68, is taken up with matter that might appear in a commencement speech or the granting of an honorary diploma. Its purported mode is lightly elegiac, advice to the young is given; but as it proceeds, Longfellow transitions to a not over-worn thought. He prepares for the poem’s final stanza by cataloging some swan-songsters of literary history: Simonides, Chaucer, Sophocles. For compression, and for my preference for briefer work, this last stanza is what I used for today’s piece.

In that final stanza, with supple verse, Longfellow concisely implores his aging generation (and himself) to continue to labor to create, to create better. That’s not a complex thought. Does it need to be? Is it easier or tougher to do because it’s a simple thought?

To hear my performance of the conclusion to Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus,”  use the player below.

Beloved

Here’s a short piece I wrote about the intimacy of sound. Part of the idea I used for this came from a remark Bobby McFerrin made about music: that we hear it because waves of sound touch a sensitive membrane inside our ear. How intimate is that!

McFerrin and Ear Drum

Talking. Drum. Musician Bobby McFerrin and that tiny ear drum membrane that sound touches

Anatomically speaking, there is an accuracy there, but some would clarify, speaking strictly, that the brain is what gives us the sound we perceive, just as it does the seeing and so forth. Philosophers would also tell us that this distinction is important. They have made their case elsewhere, and I will not reiterate that here now.

There is a view that poetry too is about mental images. No doubt this is so. Language is full of strange ways of meaning to be understood. But all these exact pieces of information shouldn’t lead us to forget McFarrin’s point: when spoken, it’s still a sensual act. We hear poetry as information to some degree, but we hear it also as a musical sensation.

Our world is filled with information. We can sort it forever for meaning. But the feeling of our beloved’s voice on our ear is more than information or imagery. So is music. So is poetry.

Posts may be somewhat farther apart this month, but I remind you that we have well over 200 audio pieces available in our archives over on the right, where they are waiting for further listening.

America, A Prophecy

July 4th is celebrated in the U. S. as Independence Day, the day that our congress signed a declaration of independence from the British Empire. I know this project has an international audience. So, why celebrate a provincial event here?

Because the American Revolution was not simply a patriotic event. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that its initial battle was “the shot heard round the world.” What was so singular about it? It was not merely an anti-colonialist act—after all empires have had rebellious provinces forever, and empires always fall—but it was also an act that founded the modern democratic republic. Overthrowing a colonial government, as the American patriots did, is not in itself a remarkable event. I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifices, the risks, they took. I don’t mean to overlook the evils inherent in armed struggle. I won’t today seek to re-litigate the proximate issues of the Revolutionary War, with its details of commercial interests (including, yes, commercial interests in human properties) and debate the best tactics for redress of grievances. No, those are all important, but they are not what makes the American Revolution worth our unique attention today.

signing the declaration

Silent thoughts in the room: What a fine statement of the Rights of Man we sign today! I hope they wrap this up before traffic on the turnpike gets crazy. None of my slaves have learned to read, right? Why am I the only one wearing a hat? I can’t get tickets to Hamilton? I am Hamilton!  All middle-age white guys, when does the prog-rock concert start?

 

Americans did not replace a king with a president for life. They didn’t exchange one dictator for another. They were not, in the end, interested in only replacing a bad man with what seemed to be a good man, and job-done. They instead instituted an imperfect, constantly challenged and constantly changing structure based on human rights and rule by reason and popular consent. The struggles, the risks of the Revolutionary generation were indeed great, but they pale in contrast to the struggles and risks born by the successor generations who sought to maintain and improve those structures. So, this is not a holiday honoring a person, a generation, or a concluding event, but instead, it is one marking a beginning.

Today’s piece was not written by an American, but by an Englishman who followed those revolutionary 18th Century events, but dealt with them on a spiritual plane: William Blake. The words come from his self-created 1793 book America, A Prophecy,  which he wrote, lettered, illustrated, and printed himself. It’s not an account of the actual battles, and its characters are largely his own imaginary beings, but he never lets his visionary eye fall away from what he sees as the core struggle in the events. It’s spiritual—not in sense of its fantastic stage—but in the sense of its divining the essence of the battle: human beings being held back from their potential and dignity by corrupt structures.

America_a_Prophecy_copy_a_plate_08

A plate from William Blake presenting part of today’s song

 

In our worldly plane, the men who signed that declaration were all men, all white men, mostly men of property, and yes, we should remember that some of those men of property’s properties were indeed other men, women, and children. Blake explicitly understood that. In his prophecy, the essence that they are declaring for, the angelic forces that cry for freedom and dignity are for all nations, for all genders. If the American structure had to struggle for generations to refuse slavery and give full citizenship to women, Blake says that, in essence, and in the philosophy of their republican structures and statements, they have already declared those evils as tyranny, even if they don’t perceive that yet.

It’s almost a reverse Faustian bargain, isn’t it? Instead of the devil tricking them to eternal slavery, freedom’s angels have them agreeing to dissolve their allegiance to a bad king—but the codicils they have signed declare for more than that! They’ve put their lives on the line to declare that humans have inalienable rights and that governments must work with the consent of the governed. How entirely can they understand what that entails? July 4th 1776 is a Thursday. Some are no doubt thinking of Friday; the men of foresight, to the possible course of the rest of the war; the wisest, perhaps, are thinking, of what, a generation ahead?

The sections I use from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  are spoken by an angelic character he calls Orc, who personifies the overturning of the old tyrannies. With the limits of our short-piece format I’ve tried to give some flavor of what Blake understood was being overturned by the American Revolution. Musically, it’s a simple structure, though not the most common of chord progressions.  I tried to chant Blake’s words with as much passion as I could in this one-take performance by the LYL Band. If you are in the U. S., enjoy your cylindrical explosives and tubular sausages, but do not mix the two things up. Their shapes are similar, but keep your mind on their essences. The performance of an excerpt from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  can be played with the gadget below.

 

The Apotheosis of Harlan Ellison

I’m not a fully-qualified Science/Speculative Fiction fan, though I did read it when I ran into it as a young man. Dave Moore, whose voice, songs and keyboard playing you’ll hear from time to time here, read more of it. I’m not sure if Dave introduced me to Harlan Ellison’s work, but my memory is that he did loan me a copy of Dangerous Visions  back in the Sixties. In that 1967 anthology, Ellison made the case that SF was the heir to a Modernist tradition of fiction using outrageous and unique situations—he was claiming SF could be more Kafka than L. Sprague de Camp.

It’s unlikely he was the only person thinking along those lines, but he certainly helped to popularize the idea at a time when an aging generation of SF writers, steeped in pulp magazines and cents-per-word paychecks were in danger of losing touch with the younger post-WWII generation who were more likely to be college educated and experienced in some chemically enhanced inner-space traveling.

Dangerous Visions cover

Used copies may have slight foxing (or are they cannabis stains?)

 

Ellison was an any-world-class curmudgeon. His non-fiction writing is full of enthusiasms and invective, with almost no middle ground. At times he reminds me of another late 20th Century artist/social critic: Frank Zappa. Both of them liked to remark that “The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.” Over the course of his career Ellison seemed to transform from a US-born angry young man punching mostly up to a more generalized misanthropy, where at appearances he would sometimes riff like an insult comic. He once called my late wife who he had just met at an event, “Cathy Carbohydrate.”

These two things worked together. SF had always had a darker side, and the border between it and the gothic strain of fantasy or noir-ish mystery was crossed back and forth often. I believe a utopian, Transcendentalist wing of SF remains, but the terms SF and dystopia now seem to follow one another almost automatically.

Is this the artists’ fault or ours? A large question that.

Thursday night I read that Harlan Ellison had died. Friday I was booked to record with Dave. Friday morning, as I slept, I dreamed that Dave was showing me a binder full of typed manuscripts of stories he had written. As he flipped the pages I read parts of the stories. In style, they were the sort of thing a teenager just starting out would have written, so in the dream’s timeline they would have been written in the Sixties. In the dream, Dave, after learning of Ellison’s death, was telling me that Harlan Ellison had looked over these stories, and that Ellison didn’t like them very much, though he thought the last one had some promise. There was a short, encouraging note from Ellison scrawled in the margin on a page in the story. As I glanced up toward the middle of the page, I saw some dialog in which a character in the story was saying something. The character in this non-existent dream-story was named Octavia Butler.

Now I remind you: this is a dream. Dave never had Ellison critique any early stories he wrote. In the dream, these stories existed, in the waking world they don’t. But here’s the funny thing. I told you at the start that I’m not a fully-qualified SF fan. If you had mentioned Octavia Butler to me on Friday, the only impression I would have was that she was a writer. I wouldn’t have been able to name any of her work or have been able to place her in a genre. In the dream, I just thought it odd that Dave was using a writer’s name as a character in a story that the dream had had him writing 50 years ago. I was about to ask him why, when I woke up.

octavia-butler

Octavia Butler, before or after she was in my dream

 

I biked off for breakfast and hurriedly came back to write the piece you can listen to below.  Looking for info I might use in my song, I searched on Octavia Butler. In the Sixties, Butler was a young, unsure author, fearing that she was too “ugly and stupid, clumsy, and socially hopeless.” While she was still in school, Harlan Ellison, this man with a reputation as a scouring critic, had told her she had promise and should go to the Clarion Conference and present her work there, a suggestion that lead to her first publication in 1971.

Nothing there I could use in the song as it turns out, but strangely this was also nothing I knew when I had dreamed that dream early in the morning. I did use one bit I found in my searching: an interview with my former co-worker John Rabe that revealed that Ellison was still using a typewriter as his writing machine in the 21st Century. I thought of those older generation pulp writers and their per-word paychecks.

That afternoon, Dave and I recorded “The Apotheosis of Harlan Ellison.”  It turned out that in the waking world, Dave had not heard yet that Ellison had died. The player gadget below will let you hear it—though not on your typewriter.

The Poet to Death

Here’s a short piece using a poem by a person who started out as a poet but who spent the greater part of her life working for her country, India’s, independence: Sarojini Naidu.

Sarojini Naidu, like Edna St. Vincent Millay around the same time in the U. S., impressed people as a capable poet while still a teenager. Her talents lead to her being sent abroad to England for college, and eventually she connected with the Rhymer’s Club, the turn of the century London organization that was the last stop in the 19th Century for some of the poets who would launch the poetry of the 20th century.

Today’s piece, “The Poet to Death”  was first published in England as part of Naidu’s initial collection of poetry The Golden Threshold  in 1905. Fluent in several languages, the pieces in The Golden Threshold  are in Naidu’s own English. Some accounts say that the young Sarojini was modest about her poetry at the time, worried that her work was less-substantial because it is lyrical and song-like; and retroactively English-language Modernism did discount that sort of poetic gift. So, while her poetic work is still remembered in her homeland, where Wikipedia says she’s called the “Nightingale of India,” Sarojini Naidu will be a new name to most of our reader/listeners.

During the WWI years Naidu transferred her focus from poetry to working for Indian independence, a cause in which she became a principal, alongside Gandhi and the other independence leaders.

Did the world loose a poet for India to gain its independence? Perhaps. I do not know enough to say. In her English poetry, I can see the influence of the earlier 19th Century English romantics, but her language is less extravagant. She can remind me at times of Christina Rossetti (readers here will know I consider that a good thing), and “The Poet to Death”  is a concise version of a trope Keats used as well.

Sarojini Naidu Real Folk Blues

India gave us chess. Chicago gave us Muddy Waters on Chess records.

 

Today’s music employs a polyrhythmic blues. Perhaps I was subconsciously moved by the “till I am satisfied” line in Naidu’s poem to think of Muddy Waters and his “I can’t be satisfied,” though what I ended up playing has some elements of Skip James’ guitar style too. At a conscious level, I was working on this while thinking of poet Donald Hall, having read a review of his new collection of essays coming out this month, and then hearing later in the same day that he had died at age 89. In his last couple of decades, Hall has often written of what continues until it ends in the course of aging.

Donald Hall
Donald Hall. His book of essays “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety” drops in July.

 

For some reason the version of the text I worked with did not have Naidu’s first stanza, which specifically speaks, as a younger poet, for death to stay his hand. In the remaining two stanzas, the age of the speaker is less determined, and so the situation is joined whether it is a young poet or old. The blossoms are always there a short time, at any age.

To hear my performance of Sarojini Naidu’s “The Poet to Death,”  use the player below.

A Visit from the Angels

Back more than 200 years ago, poet, painter, engraver and mystic William Blake was reported to be conversing with angels in English trees. Last episode we had William Carlos Williams celebrating celebrity scientist Einstein in a blooming New Jersey night early in the 20th Century. Today we have Dave Moore in his backyard garden in Minnesota in our present century.

Blake Angels on spiral

William Blake illustration of Dave’s Minneapolis garden night, sort of.

Is this poetry, song, or story-telling? It might be a little bit of all of them, but then labels are just sticky paper. Let me refrain this time from talking so much about the piece, but I encourage you to just listen to the LYL Band and Dave Moore tell the story. Use the player gadget below to hear it.