Rain on a Spring Night (after Du Fu)

Early this week, Poet Jose Hernandez Diaz on Twitter put out a call for people to respond with their go-to poets in our troubled times. I’m always uneasy when being put on the spot for short-lists, because I’m by nature a person of various moods and needs. The poet I need today is not always the one I need tomorrow. And then, it’s the same or even more so with music for me. Perhaps some of that comes through here in this project’s variety?

Two names surprised me* as I tapped in the poet names that came to my mind that day this month: Edward Thomas and Du Fu. We’ve dealt with Thomas here more recently, so today I’ll speak of Du Fu.**

Two things seem to connect me to this master of classical Chinese poetry: Du Fu wrote his best work as an old man (such as I am) — and that productive period coincided with a great governmental rebellion and crisis in China. When Du Fu writes a lovely nature passage, I always read it as the work of someone who is also seeing great destruction and violence in the human part of nature.

Du Fu, not an Asian-American, but his poetry sometimes speaks to my country none-the-less.

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In this troubled week I went looking for a poem I could get close to and perform, and I found this one of Du Fu’s. For practical reasons, I need to make my own translations of Du Fu from English language glosses (such as the ones found at Chinese-poems.com) and the difficulties of making a graceful poem in English out of an 8th century Chinese poem would seem daunting, but they attract me all the more. Obviously, there are great risks that I will misunderstand what Du Fu is trying to say — but not only do I accept those risks, I’ve been tempted more than once to transform key images from Du Fu’s time and place to contemporary America. For these reasons most of my Du Fu pieces should be understood as adaptations, the kind of thing that I’ve decided are best labeled as “After a poem by….”***

Here’s the English gloss of the Chinese I worked from, and for comparison here’s a link to another person’s English language translation.

gloss rain

This is the gloss I worked from for today’s piece.

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And here’s my “Rain on a Spring Night (after Du Fu)”  version used for today’s performance:

Rain on a Spring Night by Frank Hudson

I usually would work longer on one of these, but it’s been too long since I presented new work here.

I think of my opening section as a good faith attempt at an accurate translation into a working English poem. I used English syntax and conventions, added the poetic device of parallelism to substitute for the word-music losses inherent to translation, and tried, as I always do, to present vivid images.

The last section of Du Fu’s poem is where I likely diverge. I do sense a turn in the poem at this point, I think it’s possible Du Fu’s trying to contrast the peaceful rain following nature’s order in his opening. The (cooking? signal? lantern?) fire on the boat is the only human sign in the poem. Is that only coincidental decoration? The gloss’ final line is most difficult. A single image there comes through to me: that flowers, perhaps even fallen blossoms, are like the patterns on a brocade fabric. “Government city” puzzles. Like brocade on rich courtiers? Or is this spring morning near a capitol city?

So, my choice was to allude, somewhat obliquely as Du Fu seems to have done, and the final scene is designed to depict not peaceful spring and beneficent rain, but the aftermath of violence as we all to well know it now and here: the yellow crime scene tape, the flower memorials left. A rain of bullets is not a good rain.

My music and performance is very sparse for this, but I decided that’s starkness was effective. You can hear the performance with a player some will see below, or with this highlighted link.

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*I wouldn’t even have known their names, much less their poetry or something of their lives before starting this Project six years ago.

**I have to note his name was often spelled in the western alphabet as Tu Fu. Du Fu is supposed to be the better approximation, even though there are as many or more references to him as Tu Fu online or in books.

***I was aware of that sort of classification, but it was poet Robert Okaji (who has also produced graceful work in English from classical Chinese poems) who cinched down that tactic for me. Another thing that informed my practice here is my love for “the folk process” transformations that folk music lyrics go through. In that latter example, a tale of an unfortunate British Isles rake easily becomes the tale of a dying cowboy on the streets of Laredo Texas, or a run-of-the-mill elusive bad-boy-robber ballad gets pared down by a colonial subject whose nation has been dehumanized into the tale of a shape-shifting were-fox.

William Blake’s “The Tyger”

It seemed a long time since I last had a new performance to share. I checked, and found it’d only been a week, but since then the moon has had a red eclipse, and in my country there’s been a couple of mass shootings motivated by ignorant ethnic hatreds. Willful ignorance combined with violence is particularly ugly, and presently a state-leader with missiles and bigger guns wants to kill to impress too.

I’ve completed no new pieces. I tried to start two, but so far nothing is developing. So today I thought I’d present this new-to-you performance of William Blake’s “The Tyger,”  mostly because it’s pretty good and I don’t have anything else ready. I made that decision this morning, and then I suddenly realized that “The Tyger,”  a poem first published in 1794 by a mystical Englishman, has turned just about right for this ominous spring and our current year.

Over 40 years ago, I was in bed and my partner asked me how I could account for the presence in the world of evil.*   Strange place and time for that question — for in that moment I was more impressed with beauty and joy. I stumbled for my answer: good was always present in the universe, and always powerful enough to overcome evil — but not always both at the same point. Alas, “not always” is more painful than it sounds to nakedly say.

Visionary poet William Blake asked that question too. Blake was born into a family of religious dissenters and progressed to rebel even further from Christian dogma. He intuited a moral universe where evil was caused by over-justified powers of the creator. Interesting thought that. In “The Tyger”  poet Blake asks a manifestation of terrible predatory power a series of rhetorical questions, meaning to direct our thoughts in the direction of his conclusion.

Now, to get to my performance of Blake’s poem, we need to make a jump cut. Ready?

Year of the Tyger

Year of the Tyger, three times.

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In what’s usually called the Chinese zodiac, years go through a 12 year cycle. I wrote this musical setting for a video of an event in 2010 tied to the Chinese Year of the Tiger. In order to extend the length of performance to the length needed for the video, I refrained Blake’s “Tyger Tyger burning bright” stanza after every verse, a tactic which makes it longer than I’d like it to be today. As it turned out, the video ran longer than planned, and I needed to cross-fade even my lengthened “Tyger”  with another piece then for the final cut of the video. Given how long ago the recording was done, I only have that completed mix from the video’s soundtrack, so “The Tyger”  I present today ends on the start of that cross-fade.

The “Chinese Zodiac” progresses, and as it goes we’ve once again come to the Year of the Tiger in 2022. I think this performance from the previous Year of the Tiger retains its power and so I present it to you now.** There’s an audio player gadget below that will play it for many of you, and where that’s absent, here’s a highlighted link that’s an alternative way to play it.

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*This all seems way too Leonard Cohen doesn’t it? No, it actually happened like that.

**I often find I have one more question as I think I’ve finished a post. This time, I asked myself, what year in the Zodiac cycle was Blake’s 1794? Why, another Year of the Tiger of course.

Edward Thomas’ “Cock-Crow” cleaves the wood of thoughts that grows by night

A lot of these performances begin somewhat randomly. Oh, Edward Thomas isn’t random, I’ve enjoyed exploring this British writer with you since I first ran into his connection with Robert Frost in the years just before WWI. Was I looking for a poem considering a particular subject or event? One could see today’s piece, “Cock-Crow”  as a spring poem. Well, spring is  random, the current one where I live more so than most. but I wasn’t looking for a spring poem so much as I wanted to find someone else to present from the early 20th century.

I picked up a poetry anthology from 1929. It’s titled 20th Century Poetry,  which would be audacious for a book published a little more than a quarter of the way in, but the editors were aware of that and they rightly note that their century milepost had marked a noticeable change in poetic expression.*

It starts with selections from 50 British Isles poets. Names you might expect are there: Yeats, Hardy, Houseman, De La Mare, Masefield, and so on. A couple of distinctive British women poets you may recall from posts here too: Charlotte Mew, Frances Cornford.

It’s to be expected, given that 1929-to-now allows plenty of shelf-life for poet’s readership and notice to expire, and because Britain and the United States do not share a completely unified poetic canon, that there are a good number of “Who?” names there too: Edmund Gosse, William Watson, Henry Newbolt, Clifford Bax, and Edward Shanks.

It may have been my mood, but though I would have loved to find a little-known poem I thought would be interesting to perform there, much of it was quite dreary as I skimmed through it. The copy I was reading was a library scan, and these books sometimes have interesting marginalia. In my boredom, I examined the library stamp:

Fort Huachuca stamp

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I wondered where Fort Huachuca was, and what would be going on there between the World Wars? Turns out it’s near the Mexican border in Arizona. It was a military facility since Western Frontier times, and it was the base for a “Buffalo Soldiers” Afro-American Calvary Regiment. Just before America’s entry into WWI, the base commander was Charles Young, the Black officer that was the subject of this poetic tribute by Countee Cullen that I presented here last year. So, as I wandered off from the poems themselves, an interesting place for this poetry anthology to reside — even more so when I glanced at the Wikipedia list of the notable people who had been there over the years. That list includes Jayne Cortez a Black Arts Movement poet and (out)spoken-word performer who was born while her father was stationed there. She’d have been too young when she left Fort Huachuca to have read this anthology, but the momentary thought that perhaps her parents had read this volume I was scanning was more intriguing than many of the British poems — or at least it seemed to me reading through it in the middle of a 21st century night.

The editor** is faint-praise in his introductory note to Edward Thomas in his anthology, calling him accurately (but misleadingly) a “commencing poet” and saying that Thomas’ poetry “comes from a very shy and personal mood that sometimes seems to lack variety if we bear it company for long at a time.” He oddly concludes Thomas’ “Invention made no parade of vigour, but he borrowed hints from no one.” Gee, Johnny Editor, it’s the middle of my American night and a lot of the early 20th century British poets you’re presenting are boring me to the point I can’t get to sleep with their all-too-unoriginal “vigour” — an odd effect which I attribute to my hopefulness of discovery — but I’ll take Thomas’ originality thank you.

“Cock-Crow”  is a little 8-line poem describing awakening from disturbing or unresolved dream-sleep, or lack of it, to a set of chickens — not hanging out round a New Jersey wheelbarrow, but amusing Thomas with the bird-pair’s face-to-face rural dramatization of a veddy British heraldic motif. Is Thomas simply smiling at that coat-of-arms likeness, or is there a resonance toward Britain’s more overt class structure?

Heralds of Spendor

“Heralds of splendour’ he says of us! That’s about right. Lions’ll  go and eat you, and unicorns don’t even bother existing.”

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The charm of this poem is that Thomas acknowledges the unsettling “wood of thoughts that grows by night”*** yet allows them to be chopped down by bird-song — and transcendental bird song is ever-present in Thomas’ poetry. And what revelation does that song bring? Farm workers putting their boots on and getting to work. So. Much. Depends. Upon. Putting your boots on and getting to work. Want to read the text while listening? Here’s a link.

Musically I started with a simple folk-guitar accompaniment, though I tried to be settled and unsettled with the harmonic cadence in this one. I ended it with a minute-long coda where I used a vocal chorus to spread out across the English countryside like all the birds of spring. Why do I do these audio pieces? Because I want to hear them —  and you can to. You can use the player that appears below, or this highlighted link in the player’s absence.

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*We’re approaching a similar milepost in the 21st century. Can we say that English-language poetry has significantly changed since 2001? You might say “We’ll know later what we can’t see now in the midst of things.” But the editors of this book were in the midst, and yet thought they could see something distinct in their new quarter-century.

**John Drinkwater for the anthology’s British half.

***Whose woods these are, I think he knows. Thomas led a troubled life. Every peaceful British rural scene in a Thomas poem is set next to that dark woods of thought that grows by night.

Willie Mays, and my April poetry adventure

This is going to be a sort of catch-all post following up on a variety of things. And speaking of catch-all, it’s Willie Mays’ birthday today,* and at the end there’s a recording of an early LYL Band performance of a Dave Moore song celebrating the great center-fielder.

I want to start off by saying that I plan to write something regarding the welcome and thoughtful response about translation Teresa Pelka left here a couple of weeks ago. Hope to have that here soon.

Next, I want to thank those of you who stuck with the experiment/new thing during April Poetry Month where I did daily posts which included some of my favorite pieces from the early years of the Parlando Project with short new accounts of how I view them in 2022. Many of my regular readers/listeners hadn’t heard some of those early pieces. On the other hand, I worried too that that much posting, that many audio pieces, could overwhelm some people.

I’m up to around April 25th in catching up with the blogs I usually follow. I’m too often a week or two behind, but I missed all of your own posts in my being “away” for National Poetry Month on my adventure.

Besides the “classic pieces from the early years” posts I did two other different things this April. The most easily noticed one was the lyric videos. I had noted that my teenager does a fair amount of searching for topics inside of YouTube itself, and sometimes follows algorithm suggestions for other videos, and since a large part of the readership of blog posts here comes from general search engines, I wanted to see if the YouTube audience might bring some new eyes and ears to this.

Did that work? Hard to say. YouTube analytics say that I didn’t get to a thousand views in the month, but I doubt they count the views of the embedded videos in the blog posts.** The most popular video as far as YouTube counts was Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”  at just 33 views, but the effort may have a long tail, as some older videos of mine have slowly picked up views over the years. Having 30 videos of various kinds of poetry and music on YouTube at least gives something of a representation of what the Parlando Project does for those who happen upon it.

I thought I could knock off the lyric videos quickly. “It’s just a lyric video” I’d tell myself, but I kept getting interested in the limited toolset of the software I was using*** and wondering how this or that could be used. And I started wanting to include more and more relevant pictures behind the lyrics after the first couple of them, which led to rapid but extensive searches for pictures. One thing I feel bad about: I don’t have my wife’s photos (the better digital photographer in the family), or even my own, handy for quick search and retrieval, so I ended up under time pressure sometimes using other people’s work without giving the photographer their due credit. Photographers in my audience: my apologies to your art, and if I ever do successive lyric videos expect to see credits.

The less noticeable thing I tried — and that less-noticeable result was particularly disappointing — was that I became Twitter-active during April. I tweeted multiple times many days, and tried promoting the pieces with tweets embedding the blog post link and/or the video. Neither link drove any traffic to speak of. With YouTube the views on Twitter may have been invisible, but the WordPress blog post analytics tell me if someone read a post via a tweet link, and I don’t think I got into double digits for the whole month. The tweets themselves didn’t take as much time as the videos of course, but that wasn’t all. During the month I also monitored #NationalPoetryMonth hashtag tweets — reading many, liking those that gave me something I appreciated, replying to some that I thought I had something to say about, and at least skim-glancing the rest. That this was humanly possible to do says something about how skimpy the Twitter National Poetry Month traffic was by Internet standards. Yes, hundreds of #NationalPoetryMonth tweets a day, but I also monitored three “Day” events during April: Arbor Day, Anzac Day, and International Jazz Day. If Arbor Day swamps the number of tweets over National Poetry Month traffic that tells you something (Anzac Day was even heavier, I couldn’t even skim there were so many).

I think Twitter works if you already have a large circle of acquaintances and want to keep them at least minimally engaged, but I can’t say that it works well to grow that circle. I wasn’t the only one sincerely trying to promote poetry on Twitter in April, and it’s possible I wasn’t the best at it, but from watching not just myself but the others using the #NationalPoetryMonth hashtag, I’d say Twitter was non-rewarding in promoting poetry via #NationalPoetryMonth.

I probably worked full time every day of April on these things, part for the adventure (which I received) and part to grow the audience for poetry and this Project (results mixed, some may be yet to come).

Well, I promised Willie Mays, and you shall get him in the person of Dave Moore’s exuberant piece from the middle 1980s recorded with Radio Shack microphones and battery powered mixer, a cassette tape recorder, and drums via me pounding on a four-pad Mattel Synsonics Drums electronic drum toy from the era. How did I play the drums and the guitar on this? I would pound out the beat and record it onto a second tape recorder first, and then press play while the rest of the band joined in with their parts. Dave’s on keys, and the bass player is Dean Seal.


Something this very short clip doesn’t show you. There were 2 men on base. You see Mays throwing the ball after the catch from that deep a center field and it was fast and on target to the 2nd baseman. The opposition batter who hit that didn’t even get a sac fly RBI out of it!

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I “remastered” this this morning from a stereo digital file I took from the cassette 20 years ago, but there’s only so much help I can give it. I like the way Dave tells the story though, and maybe you will too. Player gadget below where it can be seen, and this backup highlighted link for others.

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*Experience has taught me that baseball-related posts here get a very low interest. I understand somewhat — my interest in the game has dropped since my youth too. Still, Willie Mays was a baseball hero of my youth, and he was a very good centerfielder who could hit, run, and go and catch the ball in the strangely elongated center field of the New York Giant’s Polo Grounds stadium. Shaped like a very deep U, the deepest part of center field was nearly 500 feet from home plate, and the gaps a “mere” 450 feet or so.  “Two-thirds of the earth is covered with water. The rest is covered by Willie Mays in center field.” Oh, and a super-tangential link to the name-alike baseball player to poet Ray Dandridge we featured last month: Ray Dandridge the baseball player played for the NY Giants high minor league team in Minneapolis for several years. One of the young Afro-American players he took under his wing: Willie Mays.

**It doesn’t appear the count includes views of the embedded videos you saw inside the blog posts here, and if you’re like me that’s how you view the videos in web posts, because viewing them on YouTube itself means you have to sit through at least the start of an ad or two in many cases.

***I started using Windows Movie Maker, which is slow, a bit buggy, and has been unsupported for several years now. I moved over to Apple’s iMovie on the Mac, the latest version of supported software from a huge company that is supposed to be very aligned with art and artist’s needs. I found it indistinguishable from iMovie versions of several years back, incredibly simplistic and simpleminded in how it treats text and typography, and yet because it was running on a nearly decade newer computer than my Windows desktop, faster and more responsive — and I found I needed that doing a video a day along with everything else. One other thing it became fast at during April: complete and utter lock ups of the Mac that would be followed seconds to a couple of minutes later by an unbidden computer reboot. This would happen when editing/creating pieces, particularly when I was trying to work rapidly, and other times when rendering the video. This was very frustrating, and I can’t understand how a company with Apple’s resources would produce application software running on its own operating system on its own hardware that could produce a crash of the entire system and an unbidden reboot  like I was some 1990’s computer. Bizarre. If you ever find yourself in this kind of iMovie situation, the old “dumping prefs” thing seemed to help, and I went to a planned reboot before every render by the last half of the month.

“Oh Me! Oh Life!” Walt Whitman’s de profundis poem performed

I saw this Whitman poem from the 1867 version of Leaves of Grass  during National Poetry Month but was unable to find the time to compose the music and arrange a performance during that busy month. Still, I was so stunned by its expression that I made a note to myself to get to it after April.

This week I did just that.

The de profundis poem is a fairly common poetic trope, up there with the aubade and the elegy in examples. It takes its name from the opening words of the Latin version of the Hebrew psalm 130, but it’s not a mode we often associate with Whitman. Whitman, with all his talk of containing multitudes and nonchalantly harboring his contradictions has a personal poetic voice associated with an unashamed and near-boasting manner, a self-portrayal as an example of an unafraid and unbounded life-force.

Why would he write such a poem then? Well, he did want to portray everything human, which would include doubt and failure, it could just be that. But let’s consider something else about Whitman. When this poem was written he’d been working for more than a decade on creating a poetry that was unprecedented: not just free in its subject matter, but “free verse” without fixed meter and rhyme. There were next-to-no models for that form then. Yet, if one was to go this week to a good bookstore, move to its poetry section, and then open any volume of contemporary poetry to a random page, the odds are you’ll find an unrhymed poem, rhythmic perhaps, but not likely in strict meter with unvarying beat-count line-lengths. That poem may not sound like Whitman, but the path to make its own sound can be traced to him.

Back in the middle of the 19th century, in an America which was just getting its poetic feet planted, and still in the process of proving it could write as well as the Europeans in the way the European’s wrote, there wasn’t any call for this. Isn’t it remarkable then, that this carpenter’s son and peripatetic journalist in a place so far off the cultural centers of the western world went and did this!

When Whitman wrote this poem America had just emerged from a great civil war. I’ve said here that WWI, a similar trauma for Britain and Europe, made from its breaking of nations a plausible opening for Modernist poetry. But in post-Civil War America, Whitman’s break didn’t quite take, even though Whitman would include free-verse poems about that war in this edition of Leaves of Grass.

Ah, but there was one Civil War poem in Whitman’s 1867 edition that, for the first time caught the public’s fancy: “My Captain, Oh My Captain,”  an elegy for the assassinated President Lincoln all strictly rhymed up and in regular meter. Oh me! Oh life!

No matter, eventually Whitman got his due. We no longer even need to particularly like his poetry (though I suspect many here do), so significant is his prime-mover role.

 


I’d forgotten that an abridged version of this poem appeared in the movie “Dead Poets Society.” A photo of Whitman is in front of the classroom, but most recall the “My Captain, Oh My Captain” scene over the one above.

 

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The things that stand out for me in “Oh Me! Oh Life!”  are Whitman’s acknowledgement that the failures of those around him, which drive him to despair, are a way in which he is like and “intertwined” to those “cities fill’d with the foolish” and “sordid crowds,” and then the answer he says he receives from out of the depths: the answer that we live to experience that connection, however sorrowful as well as comforting — and that each of us, in our own wisdom, paths, failure, and imperfections contains a self-consciousness, an individual identity, the lifely miracle that we experience life through our own minds creating themselves.

In working on how to perform “Oh Me! Oh Life!”  I considered spoken word (a choice I often make here) — but I soon decided that I needed to sing it in an open and emotive style. Whitman was a fan of opera (a more popular form in his time), and his poem here is something of an aria. This decision seemed right, but it presented a problem: I’m not that good a singer. I pressed ahead anyway, as I think imperfection in the service of required expression was the better choice. My version of “Oh Me! Oh Life!”  isn’t opera — I kept the accompaniment spare for my setting perhaps in the hope that the simplicity of the music will match the limited nature of my voice. I think that did work somewhat. The irregular nature of Whitman’s line-lengths also presented some challenges, and I “solved” them in my performance by elaborating and repeating some of his phrases.

You can hear my Whitman performance two ways. There’s a player gadget below for many, but some can’t see that, and so I also provide this highlighted link to play it.

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Completing my National Poetry Month daily posting with two beautiful pieces

It’s been quite the job of work to do daily posts with new lyric videos here this April in celebration of National Poetry Month, and I haven’t taken the time yet to see what impact those extra efforts have had. Though I was re-releasing already recorded audio pieces from the earliest years of this six-year Project this month, even the fairly simple lyric videos took more time than you might think — and then there was the selection of which pieces to present, as well as writing a few hundred words on what I currently thought of each of them.

Well, not only is today the last day of National Poetry Month, it’s International Jazz Day, and I felt I needed to make a nod to that today. So, let’s play two!

The first piece is, I think, one of the prettiest of the more than 600 performances we’ve presented: Carl Sandburg’s “Autumn Movement.”   Sandburg gets tagged as an urban poet, and of course he broke into the scene with Chicago Poems in 1914. But he grew up in a more downstate Illinois town, and traveled around the less urban areas of the country before spending the majority of his “now you’re famous” years on a small goat farm. “Autumn Movement”  is from his 1918 Cornhuskers collection, which as you might expect from its title is not all city living.*

Here’s Sandburg with farmland not skyscrapers

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While “Autumn Movement”  is short in word-count, I did get to playing a bit as I tried my best to approximate in this piece the stylings of Bill Frisell with my Telecaster and fretless bass. Frisell, who can play more contexts more better than I can properly imagine, is usually labeled a Jazz guitarist. I’m not, labels or otherwise. I just have a lot of guts — but the result is  pretty.

As per our April thing, you have three ways to hear “Autumn Movement.”  You can use the player gadget just below. No gadget?  This highlighted hyperlink will do it too. And the lyric video is above.


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And the bonus second piece? “Sonny Rollins, The Bridge, 1959”  is not an early performance (I performed and presented it earlier this year) but for International Jazz Day I thought it’d be good to have another piece that not only uses Jazz musical flavorings but actually deals with being a Jazz artist — or by easy extension, an American artist in any medium. If I’m not a proper Jazz composer or musician, I take great strength just from considering their achievements, their dedication, their originality. Given that most of the giants are Afro-Americans who’ve had a whole ‘nother level of obstacles and expectations to get over as serious artists — well, the mind boggles and the heart swells considering them.

And one more chorus: three ways to hear it: the graphical player just below this, the backup highlighted hyperlink, and the lyric video just a bit lower down on the page.

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I hope this experiment has been enjoyable for the regulars here who may have joined the Parlando Project already in progress and who perhaps haven’t heard the earlier pieces — and it was my hope that it would also bring some new readers and listeners into the fold. If you’re one of those: welcome! I’m not predictable in what kind of poetry or music I’ll use, but I do consistently try to keep it interesting and varied, and I’d sure like to have you come along with me as I do that.

And here’s my ode to the inspiring Sonny Rollins in lyric video form

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*I’ve always enjoyed the story of Bob Dylan seeking out Sandburg as the younger singer was just starting to reach a level of national fame in 1964. While trying to locate Sandburg, Dylan was unable to get the locals to recognize a “Sandburg the poet” he was seeking, but then they asked back if he was looking instead for “Sandburg the goat farmer.”

Robert Frost wrote a lot of poems about rural life, including many of his best and best remembered, but his contemporary Sandburg, Mr. City of the Big Shoulders, probably spent more time around actual farms and farming.

She’s so unusual: "The Trees are Down” for National Poetry Month

Americans know little of English poet Charlotte Mew, who wrote today’s poem during “the last Twenties,” but her poetry shows some unusual qualities, particularly for her time.*  For example, this poem starts off off-hand and rises at its end to hearing an angel — so beginning like a reserved Frank O’Hara and ending as if she were Rilke.

Oh, and in the middle of the poem, there’s a short meditation over the corpse of a dead rat.**  Joyce Kilmer must have forgot to add that kind of touch in his better-known Arbor Day connected poem!

Accounts from those who were acquainted with Mew often commented on her eccentricities, and even though Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy thought highly of her writing, Mew’s writing career never really gained traction. Over the decades since there’s been some increase in interest in Mew, especially in England. I’d suppose that the eccentricities and tragic arc of her biography help some with interest, but in the immediacy of Parlando’s performances we’re left with just the text of a poem like this. This performance is a live LYL Band take, and like much O’Hara, I found the conversational style makes the text easy to perform.

As with Frank O’Hara, or Emily Dickinson for that matter, just what Mew is getting on about in her poem may not be grasped on one listen or read-through. Yes, the poem’s audacious empathy for the trees comes through easily, but what’s the purpose of that rat? I think Mew is explaining that it’s the absences, the deaths, that more fully convince life into our memory, and that this is so for the “god-forsaken” rat and the angel-blessed trees.

The poem’s Plane tree is a species well suited to urban spaces, able to survive the Victorian pollution of London that Mew was born into.

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One last day to go in our celebration here of National Poetry Month, but I’ve got some plans for a big send-off day tomorrow if time and life allows. As with most of the 30 performances of a variety of poems that we’ve re-released this April, there are three ways to hear Charlotte Mew’s “The Trees are Down.”   You can use a player gadget below, this highlighted hyperlink (supplied for those who won’t see the player), and via a lyric video above.

Thanks again for reading and clicking play. It should be obvious if you read or listen to the things here, that there’s a reason I’m attracted to the unusual. You must be too. I’m grateful for that.

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*That relaxed  beginning, interrupted by the interjections of the workmen’s voices all related in long prosy lines is still an unusual effect today. Maybe the beginning has some Whitman in there too?

**Without plan, 3 poems in the 30 have had rats in them. T. S. Eliot’s “Waste Land”  river rat in “The River Sweats,”  Du Fu’s scurrying rat in the ruins from “Jade Flower Palace,”  and now Mew’s spring corpse rat.

See Emily (Dickinson) Play — I recast her poem “May-Flower” for National Poetry Month

Yesterday I said poetry isn’t just beauty and wonder. Well, sometimes it is. Like this recasting of an Emily Dickinson poem into outright 1960’s wonderment.

I carried around a copy of the original text of “May-Flower”  today for Poem in Your Pocket Day, but alas I wasn’t assertive about it. Should I have been?

The staff at the café I biked to were maybe my best chance, but I was still waking up. Then at the bank, my own variation on Miss Stillwagon had needed to take several helpful minutes to go over questions from an African immigrant accented small businessman before I stepped up to her window, and I didn’t know if she wanted to know about Dickinson’s spring flower just then. Instead, we exchanged the brief small talk about how cold this April has been.

Then at the grocery store I always take the human checkout line, thinking that that supports someone’s job in this scanned beep and bloop age. The cashier in the lane I picked must have hit her off-switch for the Lane 8 sign simultaneously as I plopped the first bag of cherries I’ve seen this season on the belt.

“Didn’t you see my light was off?” Which I hadn’t, probably looking down in my cart for the next item to unload. “Well, that’s OK” she said as she efficiently rung up my small batch of items in a dozen seconds. Still, she didn’t seem all that open to Emily Dickinson’s offering of the aspects of a flower. Out in the parking lot, as I packed up the groceries, a pickup truck pulled in and had, I noticed, a “Media is the virus” Alex Jones bumper sticker. I was putting my N95 mask back in the envelope I pocket it in. I didn’t think it worth putting the mask back on to ask him about “May-Flower.”

So, you are left to hear it.

I sometimes sense when reading a certain kind of Emily Dickinson poem that she’s in a visionary or unusual state of perception. The various theories about her mysterious illness including vision symptoms are one level of explanation, but then I also suspect her cast of intellect and a dose of Transcendentalism could explain some of it. So it is with “May-Flower,”  which is ostensibly a riddle for which the reader is to guess the particular type of flower. That may be her intent, but the scattered aspects of the flower she reveals, and her trademark specific originality of word choices*  are as full of swirling fluorescents as any psychedelic poster or LP cover.

Was it the pinkness of the flower that made me think of Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd?

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In this classic performance from our archives, I decided to further unravel the poem she wrote — and then re-weave the words in a variety of orders and alignments while playing electric guitars, bass, and combo organ in my best rock ballroom approximation of Sixties’ amazement. The 1960s — not Dickinson’s 1860s.

You can hear it three ways. There’s a player gadget below, but some won’t see that and can then use this highlighted link instead. And as we’ve done for almost every post this National Poetry Month, there’s a fresh lyric video above too.

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*I recently read a short piece on Dickinson by Alexandra Socarides. In it she reveals a poetic mentor, Carolyn Williams, had taught her an interesting way to appreciate Dickinson’s originality. She calls the exercise “Dickinson Mad-libs.” Here’s how she describes the exercise best done with lesser-known Dickinson poems: “I choose a line, a stanza, or a whole poem, and I take out some of its words (usually nouns and adjectives, but sometimes verbs as well), and I simply leave blanks where those words were. Then I ask the students to fill in the blanks. I tend to switch up which poems I use, even though I know several that work particularly well. I’ll never forget the time I used “Grief is a ________.”

If you don’t know “May-Flower” and haven’t listened to today’s piece, or if you want to try this exercise with another poet, here’s the Mad-Libs game for the poem’s first stanza:

May-Flower

Pink, small, and [ADJECTIVE].
Aromatic, low,
[ADJECTIVE] in April,
[ADJECTIVE] in May,

Give anyone, even a poet, guesses — a dozen or a hundred — to what Dickinson would use in those three blanks, and what would be their batting average? And here’s the even better trick: because of the sound of those words, I don’t have any sense that their author is over-trying to be “original.” The sound attracts you to them, however rarely you’d expect them.

Fenton Johnson’s “Tired” for National Poetry Month

As we continue into the last week of National Poetry Month I’m going to remind casual readers here that poetry is not only beauty or amazement, even if during this month we often emphasize those qualities. Yesterday’s piece by Chicago’s Carl Sandburg was about a lovely evening, about a generalized bonhomie with love, music, and moonlight. Today’s poem is by Sandburg’s Chicago contemporary Fenton Johnson and it’s about abject dejection and bitterness. It’s called “Tired”  and it’s strong stuff, even today more than a hundred years after it was written.*

As you might expect, it was controversial when first published, even among Johnson’s fellow Afro-American writers. Some didn’t care for the poem’s prosey free verse. Some thought it’s despair unseemly or unreflective of the demonstrated willingness of Afro-American’s to struggle and overcome. Here’s how James Weldon Johnson,** a multi-talented Black American who republished “Tired”  in his pioneering anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry,  judged Fenton Johnson:

He disregarded the accepted poetic forms, subjects, and language, adopted free verse, and in that formless form wrote poetry in which he voiced the disillusionment and bitterness of feeling the Negro race was then experiencing. In some of this poetry he went further than protests against wrong or the moral challenges that the wronged can always fling against the wrongdoer; he sounded the note of fatalistic despair. It was his poetry written in this key that brought him recognition. The central idea of this poetry was startling. Doubtless its effect was in some degree due to the fact that it was an idea so foreign to any philosophy of life the Negro in America had ever preached or practiced. Fenton Johnson is the only Negro poet who has ever sounded this precise note.”

There doesn’t seem to be any good summary available to me about what Fenton Johnson himself thought about his poetic methods, or his political beliefs — but after reading a range of his published verse accessible to me I believe “Tired”  to be a “persona poem,” presenting one of a series of characters,***  not the author speaking their own memoir as poetry, not a summary of correct political stances, but one of a variety of examples: some comic, some ironic, and none quite as despairing as the speaker in “Tired.”   My theory: much like Sandburg and other early Midwestern Modernists such as Edgar Lee Masters, Fenton Johnson wanted to show a range of outlooks and modes of expression.

Do James Weldon Johnson, or others who’ve wrapped Fenton Johnson with the label of bitter and despairing, know better? You and I should consider that. Still, even when they speak of Fenton Johnson’s work in mixed terms, that testifies to the shear condensed power of “Tired’s”  expression and how it struck them as it might still strike you today.


Sandburg’s “Back Yard” celebrated immigrants, and Chicago’s Afro-American population in 1919 included a lot of interstate Black immigrants fleeing a Jim Crow South.

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As National Poetry Month continues, still three ways to hear this piece. There’s a graphical audio player below for many, and this highlighted link if you don’t see that — and our April bonus, a lyric video with more 100-year-old photographs like those in our contrasting-mood Carl Sandburg “Back Yard”  video last time.

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*As with “Zeppelins”  from earlier this month I thought it best to put warnings on the video description so the casual watcher doesn’t come upon the depiction unawares.

**These two Johnsons aren’t related, but it makes references to the pair in this post more longwinded.

***The “Last Chance Saloon that haunts “Tired”  appears for example as a place of musical conviviality in another character poem of Johnson’s that I’ve performed here The Banjo Player”.  A third Fenton Johnson poem I’ve performed is his masterful recasting of a spiritual sermon “A Dream.”  Feel free to click the hyperlinks for those two to get a wider view of Johnson’s poetry.

Carl Sandburg’s “Back Yard” for National Poetry Month

Here’s a poem written by a second-generation immigrant about immigrants, and about Chicago in 1916, or my present city neighborhood of immigrants, or summer, summer nights — and it’s about love and affection, and about the moon that we’re all immigrants from when we fall in love.

The child of an immigrant who wrote this was Carl Sandburg, a man highly identified with the city of Chicago because he broke-out as a poet there and called his first collection, where this poem appeared, Chicago Poems.  Though Carl got around and had traveled before and after this time in his life, he’s settled here in this poem, happy in the poem that night in summer Chicago hearing the accordion, watching the courting, thinking of a neighbor thinking of cherries growing in their backyard.*

How much is different in my Minneapolis neighborhood now? It’s hard to say. I live a more separated life than Sandburg did then I suspect. Yet, I hear the Mexican music at night drifting down from a block north on summer weekends. A hajib-wearing African-born woman is shuffling her children into a minivan a few doors south as I ride by on my bicycle. A Central American refugee father would wait with me for the school bus to drop off our children when my teenager was in grade-school. The stuffed-muffled boom of car stereos has seemingly had its peak, but I still hear them occasionally. Sitting on my porch reading in the summer, the scattered parade on the sidewalks falls in with families, many accounting with babies in slings and front-packs, or strollers, and then they or their siblings go on to toddling, to walking, to scooting on bikes without pedals.

The moonlight though? Some of our silver lights now are downcast close-in little screens. Oh, we still see the moon — but streetlights and houselights, business lights and car lights, more-or-less wash out the moonlight.

But, but, we cannot wash away the moon.

How do we know love emigrates from the moon? Oh, because it’s above all of us, widely appreciated and sometimes almost touchable, other times slim and sliced and out of reach. Because it waxes and wanes yet is always there, even behind clouds. Because it speaks the language all of us speak when we’re speechless. Every person who falls in love is a new immigrant from the moon.


Even though I think this performance wants to slip away from 1916 Chicago, I couldn’t help but put a lot of period Chicago photos in the video.

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We’re still in our April National Poetry Month mode, so three ways to listen to my performance and music for Carl Sandburg’s poem “Back Yard:”  a player appears below for some, an alternative highlighted link is here for backup, and we have the new lyric video above. Oh, did Carl write all the words you’ll hear in my performance? Seems like a few others’ words crossed the border to join in the night. If you happen to have some headphones or earbuds handy, this song’s mix will make it worth getting those out.

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*The poem’s cherry tree in the backyard gives me reason for a thought, not knowing much about immigrant communities in pre-WWI Chicago. I know the tenement neighborhood of New York’s Lower East Side, and there aren’t likely trees or backyards there. Minneapolis might well have had trees in poorer working-class neighborhoods, even if the housing in some areas would be ramshackle. When Sandburg lived in Milwaukee before coming to Chicago, his wife raised urban chickens, and it’s just possible that this poem is a Milwaukee poem bound in a book named for Chicago.