It’s time to look back on the past season and to look once more at the most listened to and liked pieces over that time. We do this in the classic count-down method, moving from the 10th most popular to the most popular piece.
This time I’m going to link to the original post each time so that you can read the longer discussion of my encounter with the text, but if you’d just like to hear the recordings of the performance of the poems, the player gadget following each listing will do that.
10. October by Paul Laurence Dunbar. When something makes these count-down lists it’s often hard to know if it’s the inherent interest in the author, the things I wrote in the post introducing the poem, or the qualities of the musical piece and its performance that account for that. In this case I think it could be a bit of all three. I wrote in my post about what I thought was an undertone in this seemingly happy autumn poem. Was that a misreading? I’m not sure, but it informed my solemn musical performance which may work even if you don’t share my sense of this supple poem.
I highly recommend translation as an exercise for poets. Not only do you need to achieve a Vulcan “mind meld” with another artist when translating them, but the mental muscles activated to find the best English word in sense and sound are great ones to develop for one’s own writing.
Three poets awaiting the invention of the MacBook and the modern coffee shop with WiFi: Rilke, Mallarmé., and Dunbar.
8. Autumn Day by Rainer Maria Rilke. Another translation that received good response this fall. Here I ascribe a substantial portion of that response to those looking for and appreciating Rilke poems, and finding some here. Of course, there may be many reasons for that desire to seek out Rilke, but I’m under the casual impression that he’s treasured for what seem to be life lessons to his readers. I noted in my post on this poem that it’s been a particularly popular target for translators, but you still may want to look at mine, or hear the way I performed it.
This poem of his is also an example of a theme: gardens and small agriculture, that I returned to again and again this fall. Perhaps it’s my own position in life’s passage that caused that, but there are a good number of autumn poems that are both about the experience of “cultivating one’s garden” and the valence of the ending of a growing season. Such is Rilke’s.
Did you know that Emily Dickinson wrote a Thanksgiving poem? It’s not one of her “Greatest Hits” or anything, but it does represent a couple of Dickinsonian traits: skeptical humor and puzzling philosophical concision. You can read the text of it here as I discuss my encounter with it.
Dickinson didn’t use titles, and the first line, our entry into the poem, starts off with a strange tentativeness. What’s the series? All the days of our lives, of history? Or a series of holidays? I suspect the last, in that the next line throws up the American holiday inside quotes. It’s hard not to read “Thanksgiving Day” in Dickinson’s text without intonating the words with “air quotes,” that at least slightly dismissive way of saying “Well, you can call it that if you want.”
I’m not a Dickinson scholar but I get the impression that Dickinson uses quotes literally—that is, when she’s quoting someone*—but there is a sense here of our modern manner in the poems first half. And as the poem continues, its opening comments could be written this week by someone musing on the holiday. Yup, Thanksgiving is a strange mix: part a big meal, a gluttonous celebration; and part memories of worshiping dissenter pilgrims and family. And Dickinson, in her thirties as she wrote her poem, notes she’s not sitting at the kids table nor is she some honored elder closer to the pilgrims than the present. So, outsider in a middle place, she says she’ll post a review, from her “Hooded thinking.”
Maybe you’re visualizing The Handmaids Tale when you read “Hooded.” I think Dickinson is taking a bit of a religious acolyte’s stance in her review, even if playfully. Her two-word review: “Reflex Holiday.” You’re just going through the motions she seems to be saying.
One won’t get a turkey drumstick: Emily Dickinson on the left with her siblings.
The poem could end there, but Dickinson takes off in the second half in gnomic concision. This is often beautiful as word music, but it’s hard to follow her mind.
What’s the sharp subtraction for the early sum? A falling away from religious immediacy? Mankind’s fall from grace? Forgetting the history or piety of the holiday? The next two lines are even more weird. What the heck does “Not an acre or a Caption/Where was once a Room” mean? This is Dickinson the hermetic riddler. I’ve rolled that couplet around in my head for a week and it always slips from my grasp.
The tossed pebble wrinkling the sea lines have a Blakean tone. Here the mystic Dickinson is plain as any mystic can be in words: our lives, our actions, are small against creation—just visible, just for so long. Her final couplet seems to say that our thanks, our Reflex Holiday, is insufficient to the gift. This realization combined with the reflex action is, in a way, a more sublime and awe-some thanks.
What an odd poem! It starts out witty and lightly skeptical and (as best as I can figure it) closes on a humble mysticism.
Musically, I tried to hew to the mystery, if a strange resonant piano and wavery synth can portray that. The player is below. Thanks for reading and listening!
*If she is quoting a person, it may well be Sarah Hale, a New England journalist who campaigned for the importance of a Thanksgiving holiday during Dickinson’s day.
History is unavoidably entangled with literature, so I’m often pleased to present poems that are personal witnesses to history. Today’s piece uses three texts written by Queen Elizabeth I of England, or rather by a young princess who wasn’t queen at the time of their writing, but was instead a political prisoner.
As someone who grew up in the U.S. I didn’t have a good grasp of British history for most of my life. Over the years I’ve picked up bits and pieces, but one element that I discovered was the degree to which that the era surrounding the vigorous birth of English literature was a dangerous, violent, unstable political situation. And the woman who would give her name to that era, was not protected from those horrors.
The story is complex, here’s the best brief summary I can come up with. Europe had been in the throes of religious-affiliated warfare between Catholics and the Protestant wings of Christianity mixed in with the usual imperial cross-conflicts for some time. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII had moved England into the Protestant camp largely so that he could divorce his wife and marry the woman who would be Elizabeth’s mother. That new Queen eventually was executed as Henry VIII moved on through his infamous marital history. At Henry’s death, his young male child and heir Edward became king in name, but with an adult Protector running the country, but that protector’s brother sought to marry the teenage Elizabeth and take over. That plot failed, and the Protector’s brother was beheaded.
On the sickly Edward’s death at age 15, Elizabeth’s older half-sister Mary (daughter of Henry VIII’s first, divorced, queen) became ruler of England, and she switched the country back to the Catholic side. Every time the state religion changed, suppression of the other religion occurred, and plots from the outs faction against the new establishment were rife.
Elizabeth was, on paper, next in the line of succession at this point, but aligned with the Protestants. This barely protected her and made her a target at the same time. And in 1554 a Protestant plot that aimed to unseat Mary and put Elizabeth in her place was discovered. Elizabeth was now 21, some suspected her being a participant, not just a pawn being moved surreptitiously to the queen’s row on the chessboard, and once more executions will be going forward for the discovered plotters.
Elizabeth was taken to the Tower of London. Her imprisonment began, interrogation was in store, even torture and execution were possible.
After several months in the Tower, a compromise was reached between those who wished to rid Queen Mary of the plausible rival and those that thought it better to not martyr Elizabeth. She was shipped off to a disused old castle, Woodstock, away from the court and other plotters. It could be said she was now at a royal palace, not the Tower where traitors were imprisoned and executed. In reality, she was still imprisoned, kept in the half-ruined castle’s gatehouse under guard.
The story goes that today’s poem was written in charcoal on the interior wall of that gatehouse by the imprisoned princess. As a poem it’s also a political statement, a rather clever one at that. On its face it’s not addressed to those who’ve imprisoned her, rather it’s addressed to impersonal fortune, fate. Like a candidate sticking to the message, she’s not charging her Queen and half-sister with being behind this, but she is calling out injustice. She’s not issuing a call to overthrow the government, but only slyly praying in conclusion that a just God may send “to my foes all that they have thought.”
In today’s performance I’ve framed that poem written on a prison wall with two other shorter texts: a couplet titled “In Defiance of Fortune” and an ending: three lines scratched into the glass of a window pane in the gatehouse by a diamond, an even starker statement by a political prisoner.
Musically, I’ve been thinking of The Byrds, and so it was time to break out the electric 12-string. I even thought of punning off the title of the half-ruined castle that Elizabeth was imprisoned at by referring to Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” musically—but in the end there is only an echo of that song’s chord progression left in my music.
There are more stories in the swerving era of revolution and counter revolution, secret police and royal executions. Elizabeth’s eventual reign doesn’t end the religiously affiliated plots. After her death and a new Protestant king, one of the last serious Catholic-affiliated plots against the government ends when Guy Fawkes is found watching over some great store of gunpowder in a crypt under the parliament building. An English holiday is born, celebrated on November 5th: a burlesque of treason or revolution, suitable for children. Effigies are burned, there are taffy apples, and fireworks smell in loud colors.
Arrest, torture, head on a pike, then centuries as the but of holiday villainy. Only Alan Moore can save him now!
Of course it was deadly serious for Fawkes, ready to kill in defense of his oppressed religion, and deadly serious for the government, ready to execute him for such a plan. Someone—do we call them Fortuna or God—had a joke to tell us. As Fawkes was led up the execution platform, he tripped, fell off the platform, and broke his neck. History, like literature, has so many sad stories, some uplifting ones, and then again some jokes.
To hear Elizabeth’s prison poem performed, use the player below. Want to read the texts and a few other poems attributed to Elizabeth, they are available here.*
Long time readers/listeners here know I like to look for the Modernist outliers and less-remembered poets, and today we have one of those: Orrick Johns. But as a bonus, today’s piece by Johns likely influenced one of the most famous American short modernist poems. So, we’re only one remove from “poetry’s greatest hits” with “Blue Undershirts.”
Orrick Johns has a Wikipedia page, but the project classifies it as “stub class,” and the article’s lead sentence claiming that Johns was part of “the literary group that included T. S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway*” seems misleading to me from what little I know so far. If what the author of that meant was that Johns is a Modernist of the first generation, that would be correct, though he was not a novelist of note, nor a Lost Generation exile in Europe or (as far as I know) a close friend and artistic confidant of that trio.
The only picture I can find of Orrick Jones
Like Eliot, Johns was born in St. Louis, but I haven’t found any direct connection between them in my brief research. He did know St. Louis’ other most noteworthy poet of Eliot’s generation, Sara Teasdale though. If for no other reason that he was present in Greenwich Village in New York City during the early part of the 20th Century, he does turn and touch many other American Modernists. He eventually became a member of the American Communist Party later in the century, which no doubt connected him with others of that time who thought that a remedy for the crisis of capitalism, fascism and racism.
But for today, let’s look at how he and his little-known poem connects with William Carlos Williams. In 1915 Williams and Alfred Kreymborg were involved with Others: A Magazine of the New Verse, a New Jersey headquartered, NYC-area journal that published many of the East Coast modernists. In its first year one of those published was Orrick Johns and a series of short poems in the then Modernist/Imagist style he called “Olives.” Imagists were somewhat fond of small, mundane one-word objects as labels for poem series. Kreymborg called his own 1916 collection “Mushrooms,” and so we know what the two of them would have ordered if they stopped off for pizza.**
There’s an element of provocation in “Olives,” and though I don’t know John’s writing and outlook well, I can’t help but read a sense of humor in them. Some read as if they could be parodies of Imagist poems, even though Others, being thoroughly Modernist, was in favor of Imagism.
Here’s the third poem in the “Olives” sequence:
Oh, beautiful mind,
I lost it
In a lot of frying pans
And calendars and carpets
And beer bottles…
Oh, my beautiful mind!
That could be as serious as a modern Instagram poem, or it could be Don Marquis’ laughingstock fictional free-verse poet Fothergil Finch or Ficke, Seiffert and Bynner’s invented Spectrist characters’ work from 1916-17. Was there a meta/double-ness intended? In 1917 Others published a “special issue” devoted to Ficke, Seiffert and Bynner’s Spectrist hoax “new poetic movement” poems. When the hoax was revealed, many Modernists like the Others group took the stance that these old-school poets had freed their minds when they wrote as invented authors with intent to mock the new styles.
Despite the caricatures of Modernist detractors, many early Modernists liked to make fun of themselves and recognized the outrageousness of what they were experimenting with. Was “Olives” a Dada statement: “Look, this ephemera is as worthwhile as some long-winded, pro-forma imitation of Keats or Tennyson. At least it’s clearly of today, and doesn’t ask you to pretend to be some knight or medieval Latin scholar?” Or was Johns writing as best he could in the Imagist style, which valued stripping away fripperies and outdated metaphors, and presenting objects in a charged moment of time?
My best guess is both. And I could be wrong, even wrong twice.***
Here’s the piece I used today from “Olives,” titled there “Blue Undershirts:”
Upon a line,
It is not necessary to say to you
Anything about it—
What they do,
What they might do…blue undershirts
Does this sound like a famous William Carlos Williams poem?**** Did Amazon mess up your order for t-shirts, color: blue, sending you a red wheelbarrow instead—and what—there are white chickens in the box? I guess that’s what the air holes were for, even if they let some rain in when it was sitting on your doorstep.
Williams and Johns were both part of the Others circle, and there is the mysterious appearance of the first four lines of “Blue Undershirts” quoted in Williams’ 1920 prologue to Kora in Hell in the context of Williams claiming that Others founder Alfred Kreymborg is superior to T. S. Eliot, because Williams observes that Eliot is too much recapitulating the past where Kreymborg and Williams believe:
“Nothing is good save the new. If a thing have novelty it stands intrinsically beside every other work of artistic excellence. If it have not that, no loveliness or heroic proportion or grand manner will save it. It will not be saved above all by an attenuated intellectuality.”
While writing this prologue, did Williams think that “Blue Undershirts” was a Kreymborg poem? I can’t say, but that he prefers those lines of Johns to “Prufrock” and Eliot says something by way of example.
So, in 1923 did William Carlos Williams have “Blue Undershirts” in mind as he wrote “The Red Wheelbarrow?” Again, I can’t say. Williams was already well versed in compressed Imagist writing and speaking in a plain American idiom, and the Others circle was close enough that I’m sure all kinds of informal interchange occurred. From an abstract of his paper, it appears that Mark Hanna sees “Red Wheelbarrow” as consciously seeking to be a version 2.0 improvement on Johns’ less graceful and vivid poem. That sounds plausible to me and detracts not at all from Williams’ achievement. Art isn’t a contest, and no amount of “Top 10 lists,” prizes, or “greatest” evaluations can make it so, but “The Red Wheelbarrow” does give me subjectively more rewards than “Blue Undershirts.” Still, that doesn’t reduce the audacity of Orrick Johns doing “Blue Undershirts” first.
*And I’m part of the musical cluster that included Prince, Bob Dylan, Garrison Keillor, Husker Du, Sharon Isbin and the Replacements. Technically true, but misleading as a claim of significance on my part.
**Ezra Pound published Canzoni in 1911. He was paying tribute to medieval songs back then, but a careless listener could mistake that for Ezra’s own order at the pizza joint.
***Johns remained fond of the “Olives” series, republishing a selection from the 1915 “Olives” as “Tunings” in his 1920 book Black Branches.
Should I stop for a moment in our count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces this past winter to describe briefly what the Parlando Project is? After all, there are always new people coming upon this stuff.
What we do is take various people’s words, mostly poetry, and we combine them in various ways with original music. The music too is not one style. Sometimes we sing the words, but not always, or even usually. Sometimes we read them or chant them or talk-sing them. Singing gives a particular effect to the words, and though I admire many examples of art-song, including some examples that use the same texts that I’ve used, I think there are other facets of the poetry that can be shown with other performance styles.
I wish we had more modern or semi-modern poetry here, but very soon in this project I determined that the effort to obtain the rights to creatively engage with work still in copyright protection would reduce the amount of encounters we could produce.
Limits and restrictions often engender creativity though. I’ve found that being largely restricted to the pre-1923 public domain world still allows me centuries of material to pour over, and there seem to be a great many under-appreciated and forgotten writers to discover. A lot of what I end up using is work from the first part of the 20th century, the Modernists that established the world of literature we are still continuing and reacting to. It’s been fascinating to experience this early formative time of Modernism by adapting and performing their words.
Now let’s return to our countdown with numbers 4, 3, and 2 in popularity this winter. Yes, they’re all early-20th century Modernists. And one poet takes two slots in the countdown today.
4. A Winter’s Tale. D. H. Lawrence is another novelist who was also a poet. In my youth he was probably better known for his novels, and their spicy rep in the mid-century world no doubt helped his youthful readership. I recall reading some Lawrence poems in the sixties and I remember liking them then, but I have to say that my interest in them didn’t continue. Now in this project, in this century, I’ve run into him again. The Imagists who kicked off British literary Modernism considered him one of them.
I liked this poem of his, even though I still can’t say for sure what’s going on in it, but we often can forgive that in the context of music and words. My musical setting for an early 20th century poem kind of took some small inspiration from the late 20th century music of Mark Hollis (of Talk Talk) who died last month.
D. H. Lawrence asks “Is that a Mexican poncho, or is that a Sears poncho?”
3. Gacela of the Dark Death. Here’s another work that I translated into English myself for presentation here, a poem of passion and wit from Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. I actually first heard this poem as part of a project that attempted to do something like what the Parlando Project does: Joan Baez and Peter Schickele’s 1968 LP Baptism. Baez read Stephen Spender’s translation of Lorca’s poem earnestly there, and the poem’s title would lead one to read it as sorrowful. As I translated Lorca’s Spanish I sensed a more playful and mocking attitude in some of the images, and my performance tries to bring that out from my translation. As part of conveying the emotional range of the piece, I sang the opening and closing sections while speaking the middle of the poem—an example of how singing and speaking words changes the experience of them.
Baez and Schickele do Parlando 51 years ago
2. Self-Pity. D. H. Lawrence again, but a different kind of poem from “A Winter’s Tale.” Shorter, and superficially an Imagist poem, it so clearly makes its “no whining” point that it was once used in a film by a drill sergeant. Poetry that makes straightforward self-improvement/empowerment points was not that common in early Modernism, and it’s not the usual way to literary cred these days either. I’m not sure why that would have to be. There’s an audience that likes it, and the 19th Century revered some poets who plied lessons like this poem does, although usually with many more words and stanzas. My best guess is that artists, particularly now in an era when literary poetry is something of an outsider art, like novelty and rebelliousness too much to settle for earnest self-improvement.
Well, this poem isn’t one of my favorites, but you know something: I need its message some days as much as anyone. I may have worked extra hard on the music I wrote and performed for it to compensate for that.
So what will be the most popular piece from last winter? I’ll be back soon to reveal that.
Moving on now with the most liked and listened to audio pieces from our just past winter. As we’ve done for the past couple of years, we’ll be counting down toward the most popular piece in the next few days.
7. The Darkling Thrush. Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are now at least hinting at spring, but if you’d like to recall the frailty of a countryside winter, Thomas Hardy has you covered with this, one of his most famous poems. Though I like to vary the musical style I combine with words here, I’ve been working a lot with string and orchestra instrument arrangements recently, and I think this one came out pretty good.
6. Her Lips are Copper Wire. Hardy was also known as a novelist, and Jean Toomer too moved between prose and poetry in his writing, using both of them to great effect in his impressive 1923 book Cane. Cane is both a set of linked short stories (think Dubliners or Winesburg Ohio) and pieces of outright lyric poetry. As one of the poems, this one struck me immediately when I read it.
Cane is one of those works that have just entered the public domain this year. Because gaining rights to present written work is somewhat difficult, much of what we present is from the 1923 and before era. Instead of strings or woodwinds, I decided to bust out the fuzz-pedal for a guitar solo to cap this performance off.
5. Five Kinds of Truth. You’d think it’s some clever plan to have this one come in at number 5, but I assure you that while the Parlando Project has goals and some principles, we don’t do plans. This was one of the pieces written and voiced by Dave Moore this winter. Dave has contributed to this project from the start, and “Five Kinds of Truth” is an example of some of the differences he brings to the project. Though Dave wrote this, he was inspired by a fantastic graphic novel (what in my days in the old main street barber shop was called a comic book). The Parlando Project varies not only the types of music we create and play, but we also don’t want to stick to one style of poetry either.
If you like some kinds of musical or literary expression more than others, relax, you’re normal. If you stick around here you’ll see that we may not present something every time that you’ll appreciate, but what comes next may not be anything like the last piece.
It’s time to look at the most liked and listened to pieces here during our just ended winter. Overall, listenership was down in December and January, and I was a little discouraged by the drop off from the growth I was seeing throughout the rest of 2018. But then February was one of our most listened to months and March has started off strong too while readership of the blog posts here continues on a general upward trend.
As I’ve done for the past couple of years I’m going to count up our Top Ten audio pieces from 10 to 1 the rest of this week. I always enjoy tabulating these totals, as just like the Parlando Project in general it’s usually a mix of the “big names” as well as the lesser-known writers who I come upon looking for material we can use.
10. There Came a Lion into the Capitol. And we don’t have to wait long for a lesser-known. Walter J. Turner was a friend of Yeats who I hadn’t heard of until I read a book from 1920 seeking to summarize the British poetry scene, and saw Turner’s name. This one seems full of occult symbolism, something that links Turner to some of Yeats work as well. Since the lyrics mention the lion coming to the “blare of a great horn” I tried my best to play a trumpet line using a synthesizer “virtual instrument.”
A Lioness Comes to the Capitol, or ‘Shipping the Poets. At least by the accounts I’ve read, Mew and Sinclair’s relationship was more troubling than these trading cards have room to recount. The “sudden end” involves May unexpectedly chasing Sinclair around a bed
9. The Trees are Down. The same 1920 book that mentioned Turner had considerable praise for Charlotte Mew, who’s become a personal “talent deserving of greater recognition” cause for me this year. You can see some similarities to Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy or Christina Rossetti in Mew, but she’s got her own sensibility that immediately stood out as I started to read her work. She seems to have been an eccentric person in her life, but one of the joys of art is that different often attracts. This one’s a surprisingly modern meditation on a group of urban trees and spring. I liked what I was able to do with the bass and guitar parts following each other as Dave’s piano playing filled up the middle of this LYL Band performance.
8. Archaic Torso of Apollo. Even though he wrote in German, Rainer Maria Rilke is, on the other hand, well-known even to English speakers. There’s a spiritual/philosophical element to his writing that seems to attract many seekers, whatever language they read him in. Several translators have tackled transmogrifying this poem from German to English, but I try to do my own translations here.
In the process of doing this project I find I have to dig into the words I use and try to figure out what they’re asking for in terms of music and presentation, but doubly so when I attempt translations to English. I’m not sure how good I am at the translation task, but it’s a very intimate experience, trying to see, sense and think like another poet. I highly recommend doing your own translations to poets seeking to stretch their literary muscles.
Musically I spent even more time than usual on getting the drum part right, as the opening of my performance is all spoken word over percussion.
I’ll be back next with numbers 7-5 in our Top Ten Winter Countdown.