Two Houses on the Blue Ridge Mountains

While visiting western North Carolina this month I toured two houses built in the 19th century, each high on hilltops overlooking the mountains surrounding them. My mind likes to link things, I couldn’t help but look at them as a pair.

The first house was named Connemara by an owner that lived there in between the man who had it built and the man whose shade I’d come to visit. The man who had it built was Christopher Memminger who had enslaved workers to build it. Memminger eventually became the Confederacy’s Secretary of the Treasury, so he must have known something about money and the slavery that helped accumulate it.* The later owner was a poet and writer who somehow found his own words remunerative enough to afford it, Carl Sandburg. Sandburg was said to have found the place a bit baronial for a socialist poet, at least on first sight — but his beloved wife wanted temperate pastureland for her dairy goat herd, and this place had that. She’d helped and stood by Carl through his unlikely rise from hoboing between short-lived work, to being an aide to a mayor of Milwaukee, to daily journalism in Chicago, to becoming a prize-winning poet and multi-volume biographer of Lincoln.

The second house is Biltmore, built for George Vanderbilt II. If you know your Gilded Age, the Vanderbilts were likely the first great fortune family of enormous wealth in 19th century America. Brief accounts I’ve read of him don’t make him sound like someone all that interested in business or growing wealth. He was bookish, a bit shy — but also very rich and looking to use that wealth to put his mark on things, to enclose his life in the best as he saw it. If one wonders at the two socialist second-generation immigrants living in the large farmhouse of Connemara, Vanderbilt’s house makes that place look like an outbuilding. Biltmore’s not just bigger, it’s thought to be the biggest residence ever built in the United States, with around 4 acres of floor space beneath huge high-vaulted common rooms. The estate surrounding it was over 100,000 acres, and Vanderbilt had it landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, the man who had worked on a much smaller canvas with the 800 acres of New York City’s Central Park.

The mix of manicured and wild seeming landscape is beautiful in the Olmsted manner. We biked along a trail through 8 miles of it, past lagoons and along the banks of the French Broad river —and as we rolled over a wood-rimed rise down past a pasture I was delighted to see three hawks at tree-top level swooping over us, so low that the shadows of one passed over me rolling beneath them.

The two houses have similarities, if not in scale. Both Carl and George were packrats, though at the wealth level of a Vanderbilt, it’s called being an art collector. The Sandburg house was donated to the US government just after Carl’s death. His wife and two live-in adult children packed up as if going on vacation and left the house for residence in Asheville. The Park Service has maintained it ever since in Marie Celeste ghost-ship-shape. One of Carl’s cigar butts sits in an ashtray on the set-for-a-meal dinner table. Piles of books and magazines cover many surfaces as if they were just set down this week. Sandburg has thousands of books in bookcases everywhere around the house, and there are busts of Carl and his long-term subject Lincoln, art photographs by his wife’s brother Edward Steichen, and scattered knickknacks. Vanderbilt had even more thousands of books, all stored in a large floor-to-two-story-high ceiling library room, all arranged with leather and gilt bindings a-plenty. Life-size John Singer Sargent portraits abound and above giant elaborately surrounded fireplaces. Hallways are hung their entire length with framed etchings. Large Flemish tapestries showing Biblical virtues completely cover walls of a big room. Servants kept it all clean and ordered then, and that’s how it’s displayed now.


Sandburg Clutter

Vanderbilt Biltmore Library and a Sandburg bookshelf. Some Sandburg clutter.


The mood of the two places, as I sensed it, was very different however. Biltmore seemed dark, and though some of that was likely due to preservation of valued pieces from bright lights, both my wife and I had simultaneous Citizen Kane thoughts by the large tables and giant fireplaces. She nudged me and asked if I’d like to put together a jigsaw puzzle. In contrast, the Sandburg house seemed domestic in a familiar way to me. The metal handles on the hand-touch-patinaed Sandburg kitchen cabinets — chrome ones fluted like a Pontiac’s hood — were the same that were in my childhood’s kitchen. The clutter there, like my clutter.


The Sandburg house kitchen


In the lengthy tour of the Vanderbilt house, the highlight was when we detoured outside onto a long stone veranda with splendid views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We sat on deck chairs, as we might sit on our own home’s rickety screen-porch, and gazed not at a multicultural Midwestern neighborhood, but on the far hazy peaks as swallows darted to and fro just over the railing as they likely did when the Cherokee could not dream of steamboat millionaires or multi-volume biographies.

There’s a wicker chair out on a large flat granite rock, yards from the Sandburg house. It too offers a view of the tree-covered mountains, but with no roof over one’s head or seats for others. Carl Sandburg would go to that chair and sit to write first drafts. That unkempt shock of white hair of his would blow like leaves in the breeze, and the sun would remind him how blank the new page was.

Sandburg lived at his hilltop house bought with the proceeds from his own literary labors for two decades. Though George Vanderbilt was rich the day he was born, he had only about the same number of years to enjoy the extraordinary elaborate one he had built to his desires. Some of us still read Sandburg’s work in our homes — only tourists will now see Vanderbilt’s commissioned magnum opus.

I told you I like to connect things — and these two houses around Asheville are a natural pair — but I also look for the more tenuous connections. Last time I said that Sandburg’s most lasting influence, obscured by time and the others influenced by him, was being an original “roots” or “Americana” popularizer, the man with poems, a guitar, and songs from all corners and sub-cultures of America. What is perhaps the greatest lasting fruit of the extended Vanderbilt family tree? Not steamboats. Not gilded age mansions. Not art collections. Maybe not even philanthropic donations to long-lasting institutions. In 1910, Emily Vanderbilt Sloane, descended matrilineally from the Vanderbilts, gave birth to John H. Hammond. There’s no room to tell you all John Hammond gave us, so here his Wikipedia entry is linked. Why would you want to click that link? Here are names you’ll see linked to John Hammond there: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Benny Goodman, Robert Johnson, Harry James, Charlie Christian, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Big Joe Turner, Pete Seeger, Babatunde Olatunji, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Freddie Green, Leonard Cohen, Arthur Russell, Jim Copp, Asha Puthli, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mike Bloomfield, and John H. Hammond’s own son John P. Hammond.

Today’s post is dedicated to my life partner of two decades today, Heidi. For a musical piece here’s one of Sandburg’s chief influences whose birthday also happens to fall today, Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.”   In his song Whitman reminds us of our labors, and as the son of a house carpenter, he knew directly who built the houses. Graphical audio player below for some, backup link here if you don’t see it.


*Carl Sandburg, Lincoln biographer, was not a Confederate, and was a proud “Civil Rights” supporter. When the tour guide noted the incongruence of this, I put on my village explainer hat and told the tour group that poet Longfellow, he of patriot poems like “The Ride of Paul Revere,”  lived in a house built by a Tory who fled the American Revolution.

Observations and Questions Concerning Carl Sandburg

I’m in Asheville North Carolina this weekend, and I visited the Carl Sandburg home national site not far from here. Longtime readers will know that Sandburg is a touchstone for me and this project, and so I thought it’d be worthwhile to put down a few observations and questions that have arisen from my visit in consideration of Sandburg.

I think Sandburg has suffered from succeeding in doing something we no longer expect poets to do. He achieved a certain level of fame during his lifetime — and that alone is problematic. If poetry has lost sufficient cultural interest, as some critics and some poets believe, then a poet too famous has presented a case that they aren’t really writing true poetry. It doesn’t help that Sandburg wasn’t known as a critic himself, and didn’t present an explicit theory of how poetry works. This led to an assumption that there’s no depth, originality, or vision in his work. From this perceived lack, his fame — and one might assume his influence — died off quickly with the celebrity poet character he became in his long lifetime.

Yet there’s one line of influence that I say is underappreciated, one that flows from his writings and public persona, a path of influence that mixed with others who had complementary urges. That line of influence runs through Sandburg’s work with American folk music. He seems to have been working roughly contemporaneously with John Lomax and Charles Seeger* in popularizing folk music at a time early enough that one couldn’t yet term their actions a revival. And he was mixing these folk tunes collected from various subcultures in America’s regions and mixing them within a project that included outreach of high culture poetry and a lefty political slant from the presenter, as if it was all one thing. There was no natural reason these things were required to be combined, and so a successful poet and author combining them, as Sandburg did, helped set the format for the progress of the folk music revival from the WWI era through to the eventual “folk scare” of the Fifties which launched Bob Dylan and many others who would be called song poets.

Sandburg-grandkids-guitar today

Sandburg singing with his grandkids. Note the classical guitar position, a way of holding acoustic guitars I adopted too. Guitar and piano currently in the Sandburg home. I couldn’t get an angle to read the headstock. Anyone got knowledge or a guess what make and model is is?


Critical intermediaries in this half-century progression were Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and I’m often struck by how similar their presentations were to Sandburg’s. If you mix Sandburg and Will Rogers** into a cloning machine you wouldn’t get an exact Woody Guthrie, but you’d likely get something like him. Guthrie familiarly called Sandburg’s pioneering 1927 folk song collection The American Songbag  “Carl Songbird’s American Sandbag.” And like this project, Guthrie played and composed music to accompany Sandburg poems for public performance. Pete Seeger’s Chautauqua-ish concerts presented to and aligned with a Sandburgian “The People, Yes”  outlook. Seeger’s breakout group The Weavers made much of this blurb given them by Sandburg “When I hear America Singing, I hear the Weavers.” Before that, when he was beginning, Pete claimed he got ahold of American Songbag   when it came out. Again, like Woody, Pete was Pete. They added themselves.

I admire Langston Hughes, and while not single-handedly, he’s seminal in the development of Afro-American poetry. In reading his early work, some of which remains in the forefront of his legacy, I hear strong echoes of Sandburg’s word-music. Are they both hearing Walt Whitman in their ears? Likely, but the concision of many of Sandburg’s early poems is not Whitmanesque, and Hughes’ poetry likewise could be concise. Langston Hughes was too, himself, but a poet like Sandburg at least ran interference for his work.

Hughes was an early proponent of Jazz Poetry, yet Sandburg’s “Jazz Fantasia”  was there to serve as an example when Hughes’ first poems were published. Later on, I was often hearing elements of Langston Hughes in Gil Scott Heron, and if we continue that line, perhaps there are reflected elements of Sandburg is some down-tempo, socially conscious rap.

One of the things a tour of Sandburg’s home offers is the ability to peak at his many bookshelves and scattered magazines. They show a man with wide interests in politics and human rights alongside poetry. Here’s one little something I didn’t expect to find, wedged in between The Roots of American Communism  on its left and McCarthy: The Man, The Senator, The Ism  on the right: a copy of a science fiction magazine. Did Sandburg read or at least casually follow mid-century SF? Has anyone even asked this question? Is there any way to answer it? Was this one issue or are there many in the house?

Fantasy and Science Fiction

The magazine is right next to the McCarthy study. Hard to read the spine, but it may be this issue.


Here’s an oddity that I thought of while sitting in Asheville thinking also of the Black Mountain College that existed nearby. From 1945 when Sandburg moved to North Carolina until the college closed in 1957, it existed in the same part of the Blue Ridge mountains with Sandburg. In the 1950s it became the locus of a group of poets*** who eventually were called The Black Mountain Poets after the school. You might wonder (well, I did)  did any of them seek out Sandburg, or did Sandburg make any note of them? So far, I can find not a trace of an answer to that question. Was Sandburg either too busy or too retired to mix with them? Was he considered too mainstream and successful to be of interest to insurgent “post modernists?” Many Black Mountain Poets admired and communicated with William Carlos Williams, Sandburg’s contemporary — but Sandburg too had championed a more American and less European-culture-centric style of free verse continued by the Black Mountain Poets. There’s a dog not barking there.

In the end, I suspect Sandburg might be comfortable with his diminished reputation in the 21st century — even if I’m not. Sandburg often spoke of the work of the people as being continuous, of that factor being part of the peoples’ power. In that way he might be satisfied. Things he helped build, put in motion, continue to move forward, change, and develop.

For an audio piece today, here’s a short poem by one of the foundational Black Mountain Poets Charles Olson titled “These Days.”   I performed it acapella this morning, recording this very short piece on my phone in a less than quiet room I’m staying at. It speaks of something Olson and Sandburg might have agreed on. You can hear it with the audio player below, or if you don’t see that, with this backup link.



*Father of Pete, Mike, and Peggy Seeger. Husband of Ruth Crawford Seeger.

**Will Rogers arose in a very similar time-frame to Sandburg. The amateur guitar player/author/speaker Mark Twain had died just a few years previous. The clever yet folksy artist observing the entire range human behavior from a loving/skeptical non-East-coast/high-culture place was a needed character in American life, and while Sandburg isn’t a Twain clone, the role he played was somewhat successive.

***The list of other famous students and teachers of Black Mountain College included Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Charles Olson, Walter Gropius, Joseph Albers, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Paul Goodman, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan.

Complexities of Memorial: Kevin FitzPatrick’s “Survivor” & Carl Sandburg’s “Grass”

A great many countries have holidays honoring their nation’s soldiers, often with an emphasis on memorializing the dead of past wars. The United States has two such holidays, a Veteran’s Day on the date of the WWI Armistice and the one that arrives this weekend, Memorial Day.

Long time readers here will know I’ve presented a lot of soldier’s poems in this Project, and poems otherwise about wars. This is fitting, war as a poetic subject matter goes back to Homer and further.

Many soldiers’ poems are at least ambiguous about the worth of war, some are outright harrowing. But that’s poets. Outside of poetry, many in the US have developed a particular carefulness in speaking of our wars, a hesitancy to speak honestly about those ambiguities mixed with a deadened obligatory reverence for veterans — a reverence with no other required obligation or attention. Yet we have these two holidays.

Well, do we have such an obligation to remember the horrors of war and the hard-won realities the warriors helped enforce? Asked this way the answer is suggested: yes, we do. For this year’s Memorial Day, I’m going to present two poems that suggest something else in addition.

The first one is by poet Kevin FitzPatrick, who I’ve been memorializing since his death in late 2021. Kevin was not a vet, but he helped with the arrangements that led to his father Bernard FitzPatrick’s memoir, A Hike Into the Sun,  about his WWII experience as a prisoner of war in the Bataan Death March. Let me briefly summarize that, for those for whom this is ancient or foreign history: In the early days after Japan declared war on the US, the Philippines came under attack. The fighting was fierce, with Americans and Filipinos resisting without anything like sufficient logistical support to hold out very long.

After they surrendered the near 70 mile march began, with brutal mistreatment and wanton execution of captives adding to the suffering of the weakened and injured soldiers. Forced labor for the duration of the war followed for those who survived the early days. Death counts vary, ranging from 5600 to over 10,000, continental American soldiers and their Filipino comrades. WWII had many accounts of human depravity. This was one of them.

Kevin’s father survived the march, survived the years as a POW doing forced labor, and then wrote his book about it in the 1990s. That’s only background, this isn’t what today’s poem is about. “Survivor”  is about his son Kevin visiting his dad in the 21st century while the infirm father in his late 80s was in a care home. How much can someone like myself know about Bernard FitzPatrick’s experience?

It just happens that one of the Parlando Project’s mottos is “Other Peoples’ Stories.” That motto also admits, understands that I (and you) can only partially understand others’ experiences, even if poems and performances might inform us somewhat.

I’m not going to spoil the ending of the poem, you’ll need to listen to my performance in order to hear it. Without spoilers I can say that when I first heard Kevin’s poem, when he read it in draft form, his tale of a chair transfer reminded me of my time working in nursing homes and like Ray was performing those kinds of tasks, but the ending took it another place I didn’t expect the poem to go. You can hear my performance with the audio player below. If you don’t see that player (some ways of reading this blog hide it), this highlighted link will open a new tab to play it.


Knowing how Filipinos and US troops suffered in the hands of the Japanese, what does the ending say? There’s no secret right answer, this isn’t a pop quiz. Instead of defining a clear answer, let me supply another poem in a performance I shared here many years ago before some of you followed this Project. I think of it as a great Memorial Day poem because for it to achieve its greatness you need to think about it, think about what it implies in the compressed story it tells. The poem is Carl Sandburg’s “Grass.”   Coincidentally, Sandburg was a veteran of the Spanish-American war, the conflict that made the Philippines an American Commonwealth up until independence just after the ending of WWII around 50 years later. Sandburg as a soldier wore Civil War era heavy woolen uniforms while stationed in tropical Puerto Rico, and his commander was a Civil War officer. That’s how close his time was to the bloody American Civil war whose battles are mentioned. “Grass”  was written when the bloody battles of WWI, also mentioned, were contemporary events.

Kevin FtizPatrick and Carl Sandburg

Kevin FitzPatrick and Carl Sandburg. A couple of poets imply some things you’re not likely to hear elsewhere this Memorial Day


Sandburg’s poem in its short duration reminds of the costs of war — but what does his ending mean? Does it mean it will be best all-tolled when we have the option to forget their sacrifice? Does it simply observe that time passes, and we will forget, eventually? Is he saying that more wars, more bloody battles, obscure the dead of past wars? Chances are you won’t hear any of those statements in any Memorial Day commentary or post — but you will hear about Memorial Day discount savings, and rote uncomplicated praise for service.

Here’s the audio player for The LYL Band performing Carl Sandburg’s poem “Grass”   live several years back. And here’s the backup link for it.


More of Kevin FitzPatrick’s poetry is available at this link. His father Bernard’s book is linked here.

Color — Caste — Denomination: The Seventies and Me Part 3

I’m going to share a musical performance of an Emily Dickinson poem, but before I get to that, I’m going to continue my memoir-of-influences series on things that formed the idea of the Parlando Project earlier in my life. I’m going to try to keep it short, which will force some amputations, but I feel embarrassed spending much time on the small events of my single life. Those in a hurry, or only interested in the new audio piece and what I have to say about that, can skip down to the second section of this post.

At the end of the last post I had moved to Newburgh, a town on the Hudson river about 60 miles north of New York City. I don’t know if the town knew what to do with The Seventies, it seemed between eras; and in some larger sense I might not have known what to do either, but like the town I had a daily job to do, and kept doing it. Can we say that had some value?

I liked many of the people I worked and lived with during my five years there. I still think of some of them from time to time, and they were often kind to me. The folks who worked with me at St. Luke’s Hospital, particularly those in the Emergency Department, worked hard under significant limitations trying to do things that we could only address partway. I could say much of that under-addressed were systematic issues — and I’d be right — and the levers of those systems were outside our direct grasp. Another part of those limitations were closer to us, internal. I said I’d try to be brief. I said there would be amputations. Newburgh had a racism problem. The town, the region, was populated by stratums of immigrants, with the original European WASP colonials to Irish, Italian, and Puerto Rican waves following on. Mixed in there were Afro-Americans who were there, as they were everywhere in the United States. I don’t know the exact demographic details, and I said I’d try to keep this concise, but I’d guess the Black Americans were first in the region from servant and slavery times, and then there was some low-paid and otherwise undesirable work that still may have seemed better than some parts of America for Black folks. Few poor people ever emigrate for marginal gains from acceptable situations.

That work had shriveled over the years, and what jobs there were, those other immigrant waves got some of the employment from the white folks who did the hiring. Again, I’m no expert, I may have some of this wrong, but when I think of the Irish and Italian Americans who can recount the derogatory tropes employed against their ancestors,* I still suspect that even within the cruel othering they received, they sometimes got, in practice, hiring preferences over Afro-Americans.

This led to the town, in the time I was there, with an underclass of underemployed Black folks viewed by too many of the white population as shiftless, ungrateful and unenterprising wards of the state. Think I’m amputating too much to say this was a prominent white attitude? Ten years before I arrived there was a controversy that was called “The Battle of Newburgh.” I didn’t know much of this specific history in 1971, but the attitudes were still easy to hear and feel while I lived there. Here’s a link to a 30 minute podcast on the 1971 controversy. Wonder what happened later? Here’s an article that updates things to 2015.

Back in my Emergency Room, The Seventies, we were the place anyone came when things broke down. Folks needing medical care that couldn’t pay. Victims of violence. Stressed out or addicted people. Worn-out old workers and beneath the working-class people. I worked the 3-11 shift, the busiest one in the ER. We’d typically get 50-70 such situations every shift. What could we do for them, right now, in our imminent place? Patch’em up. Give them a preliminary diagnosis and maybe a shot or some pills. Hand off a referral card to a medical system already fragmenting and requiring insurance levels of payment from various payers. Witness their deaths.

So those folks I worked with, who did this, were they racists? I’m not saying that. I can’t see into the hearts of them — not then, and not with any level of magnification now. I know we were frustrated with the people in and around the treatment beds at times, thinking that what’s close and in front of us was the most significant thing in what was going on. No, no, we’d no doubt say, that thought wasn’t from the color of their skin, that was what they did, or were doing, or weren’t doing. From what some of my coworkers said talking among our tired selves, I could hear racism, hear pat rationalizations. I’d be hearing this from folks on a modest paycheck given the responsibility of a past that isn’t even the past as Faulkner put it. Our actions were mostly care — yes I saw kindness too, even when our philosophies and capacities could not fully appreciate the lives of our patients and their families. Perhaps it was good that we were too busy to think about that incongruity. Would our care have been better if we — speaking now of the whole group of us, including myself — were less ignorant and more broadly empathetic? That’s certain. But such wiser folks weren’t there then, we were. Imperfection trying to heal what could be treated directly.

A couple of years before this, a songwriter was 40 miles to the north of me, goofing off with his Canadian R&B band buddies in a big pink house. Sing heavenly muse, he sang these lines:

Remember when you’re out there
Tryin’ to heal the sick
That you must always
First forgive them.”

To this day, when someone, almost always a white person, concludes some confession to me with a variety of the phrase “You might think I’m a racist because I said that.” I reply “You said it, and you might well be to some degree. So, what are you going to do about that, and about the situation that is before us?” Ignorance and prejudice may not guide us well in trying to solve things, to remedy faulty systems — so what efforts can reduce that so we can see more clearly? But beyond that, even though our thoughts and prejudices can make us work blindly or in the wrong direction, the injured and endangered may be more in need of helpful actions than faultless inner wisdom.

Is writing and performing poetry a helpful action? Well, it’s not clearly so as is binding wounds or performing CPR. Poetry is in the calling-attention business, including part I normally celebrate here as “Other People’s Stories.” With that focus, I feel conflicted in writing so much within this series which touches on individual and sometimes trivial things in my life. What good will calling those things to attention do? Perhaps it helps make you aware of the “unimportant” things in your life, or the dependencies we have in others who have broadened or deadened what we’ve seen and felt. It can be someone else’s story that helps you see the contours of your own story.

And then too, poetry is full of little, trivial things that poets write down to stand for the ineffable larger things. Can our lives stand for the larger things? They do I believe, or they can, in ways we never fully know.


Once more a chord sheet if you’d like to sing this too.


The Emily Dickinson Poem

Emily Dickinson has many poems where the small things stand for larger, and then she has others using more philosophical language — yet I was still struck by the first line of today’s Emily Dickinson poem. Poems sometime seek to grab your attention right at the beginning, and this one does that with a trinity: “Color — Caste — Denomination.” These things rule so much of our lives. We may think we don’t let them rule us, but then we see the next person is using them to guide them — or perhaps guide them in how they view us. How can that not affect us. How many next persons can there be without us sometimes being one of those next persons, or yielding to the next person in our lives?

A couple of short notes on things to mention in the poem since we’re running too long. Who’s a “Circassian?” It’s a Middle-Eastern Muslim-believing ethnic group largely exiled from their homeland by the old Russian Empire. “Caste” is a word given by Portuguese colonialists to a hereditary hierarchy they found in South Asia, but it has taken on new usage in modern America to describe the intertwined prejudices and discriminations based on skin color, ethnic background, religion, and economic class. Both terms show a breath in Dickinson’s reading and education. Even though Dickinson’s America was approaching or undergoing a war around race-based chattel slavery when this poem was written, Dickinson seems to give religious prejudice equal or greater weight in the “minuter intuitions” her poem holds that we use to obscure our common humanity. Some scholars have pointed to this poem as a comment on Irish-Catholic immigration in Dickinson’s region at this time which led to a substantial reaction from the existing Protestant settlers.**

My musical setting for it is simple, just guitar and voice, as I’m somewhat rushed for time — and then wanting to use what gifted time I find available when I can record acoustic guitar with open microphones that would otherwise pickup other noise. Though that may have been a practical reason, I think the simplicity works for this hymn from Dickinson’s alternative hymnal. You can hear my performance with the audio player below, or with this alternative, a highlighted link that will open a new tab with an audio player.


*Not doubting those stories — see the next note as we see that connect to Emily Dickinson. And I haven’t mentioned anti-Semitism in its Jewish and Muslim varieties. Or the ugly anti-Chinese laws and hate. Oh, and First Nations? I could go on. And that’s just America. I know I have an international readership. Other countries have their own varieties of this, as we’ll see too in Dickinson’s poem. We had all kinds of supposed levels of intelligence and moral fitness that bedeviled us then and now.

**As I mentioned in one of my favorite posts on the roots of Emily Dickinson, her mid-19th century Amherst Massachusetts region had Afro-Americans, mostly in her time in servant class jobs. As she grew into adulthood, the Irish immigrant wave started to displace them, and anti-Irish sentiment ran high. Emily’s brother Austin, who she was close to, at least dabbled with the notorious anti-immigrant Know-Nothings. When young Austin was assigned to teach Irish immigrant kids in Boston, he found the job stressful. There’s a letter from his sister Emily where she jokes that it sounds so bad for him that he ought just as well to go and kill some of them, referencing in the same letter a notorious Boston murder case with anti-Catholic connections. Generously, I sense Emily the satirist there, but this kind of edge-lord humor, then as now, can just be “just joking” license as well. I think: Dickinson, for all her independence of mind, was part of systems, just as you and I are. Even Transcendentalism, the time’s new thought movement that sought to open up cultural enquiry, was not without racism and prejudice. Emerson’s “American Civilization”  which I presented part of earlier here, and which is contemporary with this poem, contained portions with racist ethnography.

The most remarkable thing I can think of regarding Emily Dickinson and Irish-Catholic prejudice is that she ended up working elbow to elbow with Irish maids on her rural homestead that retained elements of its former farmhouse work-load carried with other poor first generation Irish immigrants as the hired help. The longest serving maid, Margaret “Maggie” Maher — did she recall Irish poetic bards and song? When Emily’s precious packets of her remarkable poems, overran a portion of a bureau drawer, Maggie offered up her immigrant’s trunk, in which she’d carried her all to America. When the Dickinsons decided they didn’t like the likeness in the oft-seen daguerreotype of Emily we rely on now, they tossed it out, and Maggie rescued it and kept it. Maggie worked beside Emily as she cared for her invalid mother during her prolonged illness, and she then cared for Emily as she lay dying. She was a loyal worker, but it’s said Emily told her to burn the poems. Then, she didn’t obey. When Mabel Loomis Todd was given the task of arranging the poems for posthumous publication, I read that Maggie did housework for Todd to free up her time for the editorial efforts.

And here’s the final thing, as final as death’s equivalence that today’s poem recounts. When Emily Dickinson died, she, this descendant of one of the town old-guard WASP leaders, asked that her coffin be carried by the Irish workers of her homestead. Aren’t you glad you read footnotes, patient reader? You can read a summary account I relied on for much of this in this academic paper available via JSTOR. It’s author Aife Murray expanded her research into this book, which I read a few years back.

Opening to Rooms: The Seventies and Me Part 2

I have a new audio piece today, combined with a continuation of my Parlando Project influences-as-episodic-memoir series. The audio piece uses text from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons worthy in itself — but what suggested it was a question that reading about Stein brought to my mind during The Seventies when I started to look into her life and work a bit.

Despite being nothing like an expert on Stein, I could fill this post with stuff about what she did and how she went about doing it. I’m going to make a summary of that a footnote, though that’s worth reading if you know even less about her than I do.*  There’s one detail from Stein’s life that hooks into my story as I entered The Seventies. I’ll come back to that. Watch for it.

In the last post I’d left college in 1970, disconnected in the aftermath of the political activism post Kent State and my failure as a young editor of my college’s student newspaper. I wrote of some musical and poetry experiences in the early Seventies there. Another thing was both continuous and changed at this point: I needed to find a job. This was continuous because I’d most always worked from my middle teens. I’d had paper routes, did odd jobs for the local bank, and besides my work in my second year with the school paper, I’d been what was called a “work-study” student working most days in the college cafeteria. Although it didn’t occur to me then, I suspect the more well-off students may have noticed that I was doing kitchen work while they were only concerned with regular college life, but this continuousness of work was ever more complete from the time I was 20 until I was past the age of 65. Another way to say that was that I worked full-time hours all those year with no more of a break than a worker’s vacation. After leaving college I worked frying hamburgers at a fast-food restaurant and on a factory floor making vertical blinds, but in 1971 I was back in my small Iowa college town looking for work. I went to a nursing home in the town, thinking they might have kitchen work. Instead, they asked if I wanted to work as an orderly/nurses aide.**  I took that job.

So, if work was continuous for me, what was changed? In some expectations one is supposed to find one’s career in their 20s. I had decided earlier that I wanted to write. In some other lifetimes perhaps I would have found an entry-level writing job, in another I might have wandered into something with politics. I’m not sure however if those alternative livelihoods would have suited me, for reasons I may discuss later in this series.

My job in the nursing home was in the Extended Care Facility, the wing for those patients who needed more-or-less complete bodily care for the rest of their lives. Many were completely bedridden, and many of that portion also unable to communicate. I worked the overnight 11-7 shift with one RN. I’m guessing we had around 20 patients in the unit. Our night work was turning the incapacitated every four hours to prevent bed sores, to clean up the incontinent and their bed linen, and to occasionally minister to those who awakened, often with some level of anxiety and agitation. It was hard physical work, and I will confess that I let the physical work deaden me somewhat at first to the Sisyphean nature of their lives and my tasks with them.

Cubist PU 3!

If one has a lot of triangles to move from Iowa to New York…


I moved to New York state to stay after a few months of that, carrying everything my wife and I owned in the bed of a rusty 1960 Chevy pickup truck that I’d purchased for $200 from my wages. The truck was so rusty that I could see the tires through holes in its floorboard, but other than a hydraulic clutch that would reengage itself if depressed too long, it ran OK in its rattly way. Back in New York I was living in a poor, mostly Black section of Westchester, renting a room from an elderly Mrs. Whitted who had a framed life-time membership certificate to the NAACP on her living room wall. I worked there first in another nursing home, a much fancier one in upscale Westchester, on the day shift this time. There were more staff there, but some elements of the care bothered me.*** Being low on the care system org chart I chose not to try to remedy that, and left for a job working on a med-surg floor at a Catholic hospital on the overnight shift again. The regular charge nurse on my floor was Miss Watson, a young highly competent Black Anglo-Jamaican with an impeccable English accent that would match a Sidney Poitier. We worked along with an LPN and at least one female aid (usually one of several Afro-Americans with a Great Migration southern-American accent) to complement my coverage of the male side of the patient census. I fully enjoyed working with Miss Watson. The most peculiar absurdity of her life that I got to observe was when patient relatives came in around the change to the morning shift after talking on the phone with Miss Watson. They’d assumed a starched-white Englishwoman, and so the recognition scenes when they arrived and saw her dark black skin always had me stifling a laugh. How much humor Miss Watson could consistently find in this might be another matter.

These orderly/nurse’s aide jobs paid a dime or so over minimum wage. The work was physically hard and even at its most basic levels it involved deep responsibilities all out of proportion to what it paid. Around this time, I came to embrace this necessary and underpaid work. It provided an inescapable, palpable, meaning to my life, something that struggling over a poem or prose draft could not demonstrate objectively. It allowed me access to all kinds of people in a wide range of economic classes and backgrounds. Occasionally, I thought of the members of my generation who served in the military, some drafted, and I told myself this was my service.

Eventually I moved up to Newburgh, New York, which will need to be another post. I worked my last overnight shift at the hospital and then I hitchhiked up to Newburgh at the end of my shift. I’d already gotten a job at St. Luke’s Hospital there in the Emergency Room. I’d work the 3-11 shift there the next day.

Are you waiting for Gertrude Stein to return? Here’s the connection. I can remember reading about the little Paris apartment she and her partner, edibles pioneer Alice B. Toklas, shared with Stein’s brother and a wall-smothering collection of Modernist art bought directly from artists that she knew, and the world would know later. It was there Stein lived from 1903 after leaving Johns Hopkins Medical School short of a medical degree.

As a time-travel destination that place is five-star. Artists, writers, critics, composers who once needed only to travel geographically to go there, wrote of it in their memoirs. A famous place.

Gertrude Stein in front of paintings

Gertrude Stein in front of some of the Modernist paintings collected in her Paris apartment.


You know what I thought reading of that apartment? Yes, there was wonder. How did they figure which artists to collect? He, she, they, all of them  were there, people before the pronouns. So and so met so and so there? Hemmingway finding part of his prose style in this small apartment — and from a woman?   But my most nagging thought? Something else, another question: “Who paid the rent?”****

Many (most?) writers have the ability to be motivated by that experience, though in reading I can tell some are, and others are not. I myself am inconsistent. I have written and performed poems here that the richest and most comfortable person in my time might have written or could easily relate to. And then again, I may overselect poems whose speakers are in extremis.

Some take a commercial-first approach to their art, making sure it earns the rent money. My nursing work from age 20 to nearly 40 illustrated a variety of life to me, but it also allowed me (with worries) to pay the rent.*****  Others take a cause-first approach, advocating with their art resolutely for remedies to what they see. Could my nursing work have reduced that aspect of my writing? That has just occurred to me. I’m not sure, though looking back I’m more at glad I didn’t have to point to my writing, and later my music, as what justified my life. And “Other People’s Stories?” Each day in the Emergency Room you’d meet up with other people’s stories. If your own were limited, or intractable, you could move their stories forward.

I had found a job that in those days allowed one to pay the rent. Inside that conceptual room, paid for by working with the sick and injured, I worked on the writing. And those years of unbroken work, of clock-in every working day, and rotating shifts? I suspect a habit retained as this Project approaches 700 pieces this year.

Today’s audio piece is from Gertrude Stein’s still controversial, still avant-garde, collection of “Cubist poems” Tender Buttons.  That book is divided up into three sections: People, Objects,  and Rooms.  I performed the opening to the final section, Rooms  today. Tender Buttons  remains gnomic. Though the words themselves are plainspoken, a straightforward meaning is most often hard to make out. My performer’s working theory during the recording was that she’s making a statement about Modern Art and Cubism. Rather than a center and conventional panorama, Stein holds for more perspectives at once. She seems to be advocating for something not just decorative or the easy dessert of sentiment (“silver and sweet”). She sounds a “Life is real, Life is earnest” almost Longfellowean note when she says “A preparation is given to the ones preparing.” She perhaps compares a conventional painting with a center and a border to an empty dress, flat on a hanger. The final paragraph/stanza moves, synesthesia-wise, to music where the flowing facets of a Cubist painting may show a sequence of time.

opening to the rooms


Though printed as prose, the musical rhythm and rhyme of this poem arises with any earnest effort to read it aloud. If one was to modify it to conventional lineation, parts might almost pass as Emily Dickinson, albeit the more obscure and compressed Dickinson.

You can hear my performance with a drums, bass, piano, and electric guitar quartet with the player gadget below. No graphical gadget? This highlighted link is an alternative way to hear it.


*These footnotes are going to be long, and are for the more curious. They’re not necessary to enjoy the audio piece.  Stein is easily classifiable as equal to Apollinaire and Ezra Pound (both of which she knew and interacted with) for influence on the emerging Modernist movement in the first quarter of the 20th century. Her influence on English language Modernist writing is not consistently admitted or admired, but her influence also extends to Modernist music — and along with her brother Leo, she’s absolutely central to the development and appreciation of Modern art.

The most amazing thing about her pre-Paris youth is that in a 19th century when women’s education and careers were constrained, she attended Radcliff (meeting, being mentored by, and admired by, William James) and then sought to become a medical doctor through graduate work at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Her center of interest was how the mind and its perceptions work, something she was studying at a time when Sigmund Freud had just started publishing. She dropped out of Johns Hopkins before graduating however.

**Job titles and even jobs listings were routinely gendered in 1970. Orderly was a male job, nurses’ aide the woman’s. Training for either was generally informal and on the job. Later in the Seventies I barely started an academic RN program, but affording the classes and especially the time and automotive costs of traveling to the nursing school put the brakes on that. Since I worked in teaching hospitals for over a decade after this as an aide hand-in-hand with nurses, interns, residents, and staff doctors, I learned a great deal of practical knowledge along the way. Administering medicine was not legally allowed, but I eventually did much of everything else the LPNs and RNs did. Afterwards, I always called what I did nursing, as it was a better description of my role for most of that decade-plus. In the middle 70s I helped in a small way to train early EMTs and given how much I liked the pace and variety of work in Emergency Rooms, I might have gotten into that line of work if I had come along a few years later.

The gendered job titles may have faded out as the Seventies progressed, but some of the work remained gendered. Despite having a poet’s level of athleticism and large muscle development, I was often called on to move or lift heavier patients, or to help restrain out-of-control people. Given how many stories there have been in recent years of people killed while being restrained (one in the news this month) I have wondered retrospectively if a different fate could have involved me in such a case. As things worked out, I never injured anyone while restraining them, though besides wear and tear I got a couple of minor injuries.

***I suspected a co-worker of patient abuse. I was new — they’d been there for some time. I had nothing concrete, and other longer-tenured coworkers thought they’d seen more, and that was part of my unease. A better person would have tried to organize a complaint and urge an investigation.

****Did you go to this footnote to find the answer? I’m not enough of a scholar to know all the details. Paris was dirt cheap then, there was some Stein family wealth, and the idea of artistically curious Americans of some means being gifted with broadening time abroad was common. Another Stein sibling, Michael, who also lived in Paris, has been cited as the man who handled the family finances there. The Stein bought-cheap-then paintings eventually became capital gains. At one later point someone noted a missing painting from the crowded apartment walls and Stein explained “We are eating the Cézanne.”

*****I’m no economist, but it’s my understanding that rent and housing costs have risen compared to the wages that of job earns now. It’s not my intent to engage in a walk-uphill-both-ways misery Olympics, just to explain some things that led to making this Project. Has any economist explained how jobs like the ones I held then, which are physically hard, unpleasant in some elements, demanding of all-shifts work, are at least mildly dangerous, have a chronic shortage of workers (much less good ones), and can have a life-and-death level of need and responsibility, yet pay less than much easier jobs for which there is a surplus of applicants? In my last few years of hospital work I moved to being a ward-clerk: typing, paperwork, general workflow organization and support (all of which I did as a nurses aide, as well as patient care) —and I then got a small raise.

Thinning Shade

This month, as I wondered what poem to explore through setting it with music, a voice — my voice from a portion of myself — often spoke up. “You still have sheets of poems by Kevin FitzPatrick that you typed-up after he died, ones you thought you might perform.”

This week I finally listened to myself.

In my studio space I have a short stack of those sheets, printed out when I thought I might perform them around a year ago. I picked this one up. I had scribbled some chords on it, and I now tried to recall what melody I’d planned over those chords on a day last spring when Dave Moore and I performed things we recalled of Kevin and Kevin’s poetry. That spring day, I had reordered and reduced that stack as the two of us alternated suggesting musical pieces. This one was shuffled to the bottom then. Had I not felt I had finished the composition? Could be. More likely? From what I could see on the page, it had more chord changes than things which work best when I hand them to Dave and he has to try to follow my eccentric phrasing in real-time.

I picked up a guitar and started running through the chords, trying to discover, or rediscover, a likely tune. In doing so I made a few alterations and after an hour or so of that, I sat at my acoustic guitar recording location in my studio space and performed the guitar and voice tracks of the song you can hear below. As I played, I was thinking of Kevin and some full measure of retirement, that as it turned out, he didn’t get.

But then, none of us know what we’ll get. Part of the reason I have had a rapid release schedule over the years with the Parlando Project — its get-it-down-and-move-on-to-the-next pace — is that factor. Not only do I skip over additional steps toward perfection, the amount of things released probably wears some listeners out. Though somewhat more talented, my fellow studio-rat Prince used to get pushback from his record company that he should trim back his output, that it was too much, bad for his career and their business. Well, should he have waited? Did he get enough time?

Thinning Shade 2

More playing with Adobe Firefly, the AI art generator that claims to not use uncompensated artists’ work.


Like most of Kevin’s poetry, his poem “Thinning Shade”  doesn’t call out for my extemporaneous insights to direct the attention of readers. But while going through the process of composing the music and going over the performance, the poem did get deeper for me as it repeated in my ear. I see myself as his sparrows and that “fattening squirrel,” “pouncing on seeds…in fussy haste.…”

Thinning Shade 1

Extending Robert Hunter: Talk about your plenty, talk about your ills/One squirrel gathers what the fussy bird spills. Great analysis of the song “St. Stephen” linked here.


You can hear my performance of Kevin FitzPatrick’s poem as a song with the link below. As the poem reaches it’s volta, I decided to slow down and add a string sextet to my guitar accompaniment. You can hear it with the player gadget below. No player you can see? You haven’t missed your chance at gathering the seeds, there’s this backup link that will open an alternative player in a new tab.


Interested in reading more of Kevin FitzPatrick’s poetry? His books are available at this site, that I’ll link here.

Instructions for Angels

What I’ll write about today’s piece might be needlessly complex. I’ll try not to take too much of your time so you can get to the simple performance of the poem below and you can decide.

The usual job of a critical essay on a poem or other work of art is to explain how something works and doesn’t work, usually making use of, or in the context of, criteria for artistic value. Within these efforts, the spread of essays praising or condemning a poet, poem, or poems is maintained. There’s no contradiction here. How can there be good art if we don’t have bad art? Judgments, pointing out good and bad, are equally creative, just as when we are writing and revising ourselves.

Is this a critical essay? I’m not sure it is. Instead, I think of these pieces of prose as short notes about my experiences with the texts, nearly always literary poems, as I combine them with music and perform them. And in the case of today’s audio piece using Kenneth Patchen’s “Instructions for Angels”  my experience so contradicts what criteria I believe I have that it calls into question that I have them or really believe in them.

What do I think are the things I look for in a successful poem? First, I think poetry is musical speech. “Instructions for Angels”  is free verse, something formalists take as problematic. I doubt I’m a formalist. I admit the effects of rhyme and meter, but my musical sense admits also that the amount of symmetry and regularity can and should vary. There’s some underlying da DUM da DUM iambic back-beat feel here in Patchen’s poem, that King James version 17th century English thing that can itself now feel overused or overfamiliar. But familiarity is not always bad, no more than regularity in structure. “Instructions for Angels”  does clearly use one musical feature: the refrain. Perhaps this is what drew me to it when skimming through a book-length selected poems looking for what would be good to set with music. I’m not alone in choosing this poem. I’ve found several other musical settings online.

instructions for angels

Today’s piece is easy enough to play on guitar, so guitarists have at it.


I do think we too often confuse imagery with poetry’s essence, praising coded word-play rather than word-music. But imagery is a more abstract version of word music isn’t it? That this-is-like-that, or things arrayed in an as-above-so-below manner is an intellectual harmony. The intervals and combinations are pleasing as audible music is. “Instructions for Angels”  is plainsong in this regard. Yes, I suppose angels and God have a certain majesty, but as a recent coronation reminds us, tired pomp can bore quickly. The rest of the poem is full of threadbare, generalized counters isn’t it? “pretty girl,” “red mouth,” “baby,” “beautiful,” “rain,” “snow,” “flowers,” “trees,” “winds,” and “fields.” If one looks for fresh and arresting imagery this poem doesn’t seem to have it. If I was revising this poem or it was being workshopped, it would be easy to imagine changing a few of those general terms to more specific ones. I can see someone asking “But Ken, what flower exactly do you like? Give us the name so we can see it.”

How about a poem’s message? Shouldn’t that count for something? Yes, I think it should, yet over the ages critics can worry that worthy messages are too common, too cheap — or that art for art’s sake has judged any meaning as secondary. Writing in the 1930s Patchen was often reacting to a Modernism that was too inhuman, too concerned with form, and too unconcerned with the fates of its readers. I sense the present pendulum has once more swung and we are now again asking poems to tell us worthy things, and for the poets to be worthy people. I should be happy, yet I’m not always happy with poems on the right side of the issues. I wouldn’t like it if that was all the poetry I read and sing. Am I just cursed with contrariness? Should I note here that Patchen’s pacifism continued throughout WWII? That was a contrary position and not helpful to his poetic career at the time.

If a poem’s message is important, shouldn’t it be as clear as prose about saying it? How obscure can or should poetry be? Again, poems and critics differ on this, but there’s a consensus that a poem shouldn’t be harder to understand than it has to be.

That “has to be” is a broad thing however. Proponents of exciting and fresh images and language will say beauty and skill allows indirection, ambiguity is true to life, a little, even a lot, of mystery can compel, and that irony combats blandness and tiresome cliché. The greatest benefit of workshopping poems, or at least second readers, is for a poet to find out they are sometimes unintentionally obscure.

One could say that “Instructions for Angels”  is clear. But on first and later readings, even into my performance, there was one small thing that was less than clear and more at odd. We don’t have to wait long for it: the first sentence says “Take the usual events/For your tall.” “The usual events” is clear, it’s a statement of purpose for the everyday and common that Patchen will praise as the poem continues. But “tall?” It looks like a typo.* I could make more immediate sense if it was “tale,” “tail,” “toll” or “tell.” Is Patchen saying “Angels pass this info up (way up,  like to heaven) the chain?” A phrase soon to come, “Blue weather,” is fine, and there is some nice ambiguity there: blues or blue skies? Patchen returns and expands that image with “The weather in the highest soul” indicating he intends that ambiguity.

So where does that leave me, all this applying of what I think and have been taught to understand might constitute a “good poem?” In my present, poems have two states: ones that interest me, often because I can see performing them; and then, the ones I skip over. It may not be the fault of the poet or their poem that I skip them — that poem just doesn’t exist with me in my moment. I’m not totally without criteria, some things I can predict, but this poem is an example of a poem that met me emotionally in my moment, the place where some poems live while others are undressed tombstones. Is Patchen’s poem technically perfect? Unlikely, but there’s a ruined recording take were I just started crying a bit as I tried to sing.

I don’t believe every poem needs to do that. Pleasure in the words, images, and music of some other poems will make them live for me. Amazement at virtuosities can compel at times. If every poem in the world was like “Instructions for Angels,”  I’d be a rebel angel, and crawl into a John Ashbery volume and never come out. As it is, I’d instruct the angels to not poop on my head and to pass it up the line that I’m grateful for Kenneth Patchen.

You can hear my performance of “Instructions for Angels”  with the graphical player below. No player? This highlighted link will open a new tab with one.


*I have a scanned pdf of the published collection presumably OK’d by Patchen, but the typo theory remains possible. Patchen was recorded reading some of his poems, sometimes with music. That would answer this doubt, but as far as search goes I haven’t found him reading this  poem.

She had concealed him in a deep dark cave…

It’s usually of little use for an artist to apologize for their work, and this is so even though most have self-doubts. Perhaps more so, women artists will speak about “imposter syndrome,” but I’d guess that many/most male artists have the same feelings, they just don’t talk about it. The plain fact is that we’re all pretending to be what we want to be, to go to the place we want to go to. We maybe get there, we maybe don’t — but we’re all traveling, and we all get lost sometimes.

I even have trouble with the word “pretentious.” I say that, though I know the problem that word is describing: the embarrassing failure where something doesn’t achieve what it clearly wants to achieve. It’s just that most good, and nearly all great art, starts out with exactly that urge: to make something better, to make it new, to stretch and extend the maker’s talents, to make something over the horizon from what the artist knows. Since the same urge produces success and failure, it’s not the urge or the hubris that’s the problem. Don’t beat yourself up over that urge, don’t beat your breast over the failures. Reflexive humble-brag is exceedingly boring. If you must, get through any of that quickly. One of my animating maxims is “All Artists Fail.” As I’ve written about that maxim extensively here, that paradoxically comforts me.

I’m not an expert on Kenneth Patchen, but the general impression I get from him is like a 20th century American William Blake, that he self-invented himself and his credentials, and that’s easy for me to admire. I spent much of this week looking for a poem, a text, that would inspire me, and shake me out of some creative doldrums; and after striking out both swinging and looking during several at bats inside several books, I came upon this one. Since the text of this Kenneth Patchen poem doesn’t appear to be available to link, here it is:

she had concealed him

One can think on the statement that “death is something which poems must be about.” That’s sort of true, and I laugh at it.


It doesn’t appear to have a title in the early Selected Poems  volume I found it in, but the first line was used as such when Patchen was recorded reading it. The poem is read unaccompanied, but Patchen predated the Beats in doing the mid-century poetry with music thing that’s an inspiration to me. He reads it slowly, precisely. I hear it silent on the page as more anguished in its effect, and in trying to record a performance of it this week I first tried almost shouting out parts of it. After trying that I decided that wasn’t working, and tried a more understated take — only to find that my voice was horse from the earlier takes. I did my best in the time I had, and that’s the performance you can hear today.

“She had concealed him”  seems to be using something of a collage of voices. Not so directly as a Patchen favorite of mine “Do the Dead Know What Time It Is,”   but the opening seems like the start of a fairy tale, then there are bits of realistic daily speech, and then the fantastic metaphor of the poems final lines. As so often in Patchen poems, there’s a sense not so much that God is love, but that Love is god.

The music today makes use of some concepts of mine that are, to convention and many listeners, wrong. I like the rub of outside notes and grotesque melodic contours.*  Rather than having a straightforward harmonic foundation below a singular or a mathematically related set of melody notes, I’m fond of twined melodic lines that respond or contrast in turns with each other. And as an electric guitar player accompanying singers or poetic readers, I clearly don’t know when to shut up and not play my guitar. This last one I might change, perhaps should change, but in the immediacy of the playing moment I’m believing that strong words, read with force, are able to stand toe-to-toe with electric guitar.

Frankly, I worry that the resulting musical performance may have too much of all of the above. Is that from a failure of nerve, or a failure of execution? Am I reflexively using old habits, not stretching out to something else? Well, I meant what I played, meant my reading performance of Patchen** — but meaning and intent didn’t allay my doubts. Yesterday I made four completed attempts to mix this. With my self-expected release schedule and time conflicts, it’s rare to go beyond two alternate mixes. I still decided to let the music continue for a bit more than an extra minute past the reading, because I liked the echoing musical conversation in the deep dark cave.

And there’s this perspective: all that is just one musical mode here. I have other pieces that are less cluttered, more accessible, and less contrary to expectations.

Returning to the thoughts of the opening of this post: the middle parts of what I write today are parenthetical and not something I want to take more of your time with. Non-paralyzing self-analysis is likely uninteresting to readers or listeners, but it can be effective as part of the journey of making art. I’m done trying to make this piece any better. I think the best moments that I hear in it and what Patchen wrote may be worth your time. My job with this Project is to move onto the next piece, to see what I can find and do with that. Thank you for reading and listening. The player gadget to hear the musical performance of Kenneth Patchen’s “She had concealed him”  is below for many, and this highlighted link is there for the others.


*More than once, what I play has been characterized as out of tune or dissonant. Some of that is timbral, and some of it is wide vibrato, but often it is note choice and sequence. I don’t always hear it that way. I think harmony has rules, that can be broken or bent, but there’s propriety there. But melody? Melody is free. Yes, I’ll acknowledge that certain melodic contours generally cause admirable effects, but I myself am easily bored with stock moves. Two bands I admire, Television and the Velvet Underground, were each said to have banned playing Blues riffs that were part of the expected electric guitar vocabulary. I on the other hand, and in today’s piece for example, am playing Blues expression (stinky, funky notes and wide vibrato) without the expected sequence.

I think the opening electric guitar chord today was likely a subconscious attempt to refer to the chord at the opening of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac version of his “Black Magic Woman,”  and Green’s Fleetwood Mac was another band like the combo I constructed for today’s piece that tried to find room for an overplus three-electric-guitar frontline. That band’s Live at the Boston Tea Party  set is foundational to me.

**I felt my earlier more histrionic reading was less effective and my more resigned reading better and more true to the poem, not a retreat.

There’s No Reception in Possum Springs

I asked the teenager if they had any ideas for a poem I could use for May Day, the international workers day. She thought for a minute and then said, “Well there’s one, but it’s from a video game.”

Have I intrigued you? Perhaps only the unusual folks who follow this project might be. May Day. Video game? Poem? Maybe even: teenager? Every one of those things are keywords that might drop readers. Add that your author is an old guy, one not very hip to video games, and I don’t know how many are still reading by this paragraph.

Still here. Good — because the poem is excellent, and we’ll get to it in a moment. First, a short summary of the context it came from. The video game is titled Night in the Woods.  It’s now around 5 years old, and it seems to this outsider to have an unusual premise: it revolves around teenagers and their peer relationships in a declining industrial town of Possum Springs. There’s a mystery to be solved, at least after a fashion, but the richness of the characters and their milieu makes it more a novelistic experience than a puzzle escape room or series of mini to macro baddies to battle. Oh, and did I mention that the characters are anthropomorphic animals?

Sound cute? Well, here we go with opposites again. Mental illness and violence are part of the world. Nancy Drew Case-Of… or PBS Kids style animal parables this isn’t. Our main characters are teenagers, and yet the weight of this world is on them — and the world, despite the fantastic elements, is our world, set in the declining rural America inhabited not by animated animal-faced kids but by a gig economy and our new-fangled robber barons.

The poem is spoken in the game by a minor character — in the nomenclature of game mechanics, a non-playable character — a spear-carrier in this small-town opera. I’m told she appears in various episodes as the game proceeds, speaking funny little poems while the foreground, playable characters, deal with weightier things. As she starts to read this, it’s not clear from the opening words that this poem isn’t just another little sideways humorous piece of verse.

It’s not. Yes, the people in it, the working class this May Day is ostensibly for, are counted as small, but the poem builds in its litany of smallness increasing, of inequality compounding. At the end the poet-character finishes stating her dream of justice. In that night dream, she’s alone, and that’s why it’s a dream — and will always be a dream on those terms. A century ago when the Wobbly songwriter Alfred Hayes dreamed he saw the dead Joe Hill, Joe Hill tells him to organize. When Martin Luther King said “have a dream” he was standing in front of thousands who’d say it with him. That’s why we have a May Day.

Here’s the poem presented as the chord sheet that I performed it from today, credited to the fictional character in the game. Best as we can figure, the actual authors of the game’s dialog and therefore this poem are Bethany Hockenberry and Scott Benson.*  The chords listed show the chords I was fingering on guitar, but I had a capo on the first fret in this recording, so they sound a half-step higher. The main reason I’ve been presenting these chord sheets is that while I do my best in my rapid production schedule on these pieces, I figure others out there might do a better job with this. One person singing a song is a performance. The second is a cover version. More than that, and it might be a folk song!

There's No Reception in Possum Springs


To hear my performance there’s an audio player below. Player not there? Then this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab with its own audio player.


*They have no connection with this performance, other than the eloquence of the words impressing my daughter and then myself. Apologies in that I hurried to do this for May Day and haven’t contacted them.

Jazzonia: May Music Find a Way on International Jazz Day

The end of U. S. National Poetry Month is approaching and there are things I meant to get done (and didn’t) this year, but the last day of April is also International Jazz Day, and I can’t let that go by without a piece to celebrate. Poetry Month and Jazz Day — shouldn’t that be a piece of Jazz Poetry read in front of a Jazz combo?

I looked around the house and didn’t find one. Not the Jazz poem, it was easy for me to think of Langston Hughes, one of the originators of the form, and find a poem of his, “Jazzonia”  that I didn’t perform when I celebrated his book The Weary Blues  a couple of years ago.

No, it’s the Jazz combo that’s missing. Not in the garage, not in my studio space, not under the table in my office amidst that messy pile of stuff. Not in my phone’s contacts list. None marching down the street in my city too northern and cold for Mardi Gras.*  Oh sure, there are a couple of Jazz clubs in town, and local musicians who can play Jazz, but I don’t know them. I’ve handed out Parlando demos to a couple over the past few years, and heard nothing, which may indicate politeness around my audacious use of my limited skill-set — and that would be right. I can sort-of hang with a Jazz feel on a good day with guitar as long as I’m under control of the context,** but Jazz isn’t about tightly controlling the context. It’s about surprise, about flexible chops that fit with a multitude of things.

So, I went about doing my best with what I had at home. I have a little device I use to practice instead of a metronome. It lets one play-in a set of chords in rhythm, and then generating from the form you play a drum and bass track following the harmonic material in tempo you’ve given it. It’s a fine quick practice tool, but I’ve only used it a couple of times here for public Parlando Project pieces.

I prefer to put in work on the digital drum tracks, adding hand percussion, even playing a real ride cymbal I collected from a neighbor a few years ago, editing the hits and beats on drum patterns — but I let that go this time. The machine had supplied a serviceable walking bass part, I let that stand as well. I played the guitar part in a single pass after warming up. I had to duck out a couple of egregious clams, but it represents one of my good guitar days.

Jazzonia 2

In the whirling cabaret, guided robots and human jazzers play for Poetry Month and Jazz’s Day.


Looking at Hughes’ poem (full text here)  I see that he specifies there’s six Jazz players in his poem’s combo. If I count my reading at the mic as a player, that got me up to four, including the two robots on bass and drums. So, I next checked out my naïve piano skills. I was pleased with a couple of little motifs I came up with. My repetition with under-elaboration of those motifs marks this piece as more of the simplified “Soul Jazz” emanation*** than a hardcore blowing session. That’s OK with me, I liked those records. For the sixth and final musician, I played some vibraphone over MIDI from my little plastic keyboard.

The above account may have convinced too many readers to not listen to the result, but for a one-day-wonder I think it came out pretty well. It’s a little longer than most pieces I present, but that lets its relaxed celebration grow on you if you’re receptive. The audio player gadget to hear it is below for many, and this backup highlighted link is for those that don’t see that.


*One thing my town once had, and I now miss, was the May Day parade that happened each year in my neighborhood. Elaborate giant puppets, kids on decorated bicycles, dancing troops, folks on stilts or riding on fantastic creations, and usually more than one amateur shambling marching band with a touch of second -line New Orleans flavor. Alas, lack of funds and what seems to be a case of sectarian infighting has stopped this annual event. I did some videos of this while it was still a going thing. You can see some here, here, and here.

**Jazz guitar is much about chord chops, something I’m embarrassingly bad at. Similarly, advanced Jazz harmony will confuse me quickly if I try to understand it in real time. Luckily, with this Project I usually get to be the composer and bandleader, so I work with myself the player to do what I can accomplish.

***You’re still here reading the footnotes? Good, this probably should have been the main thing in this post. Langston Hughes’ long life and immediate and lasting appreciation for Jazz meant that he could write about and be influenced by early Jazz when Dixieland was fresh, and then he continued to dig it, incorporate it, and perform his poetry with Jazz musicians in the post-WWII years. So even though Hughes wrote “Jazzonia” about 1920’s Jazz, he lived long enough that he could have performed it more in the mid-century bag I experienced then and sought to manifest today.

What’s extra cool about how Hughes presented the still emerging Jazz of the 1920s in “Jazzonia”  is that he sees it already as part of a continuum from the African Garden of Eden, and then via Cleopatra, and through Harlem Renaissance — so it’s no surprise his Jazz, and Jazz itself, can keep on reformatting itself into new ways of expression. The honesty I shared regarding this audio piece above? It’s part of living the Musician’s and Composer’s Prayer: “May music find a way.”