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.
When I first conceived of the Parlando Project several years ago I did not plan to analyze the poems I presented. My original vision was to present the combinations of music and words directly, unmediated.
I had several reasons, including that I didn’t think I was particularly good at that, but the chief reason was that I was worried that was too easily associated with the idea that poetry was some kind of tricky riddle meant to lock out it’s meaning from the unworthy, rather than a different way to approach how things are.
For every person who is satisfied by “solving” a poem, there are twenty-times more that find the effort not worth their time or attention, and a not unsubstantial number that have been found-out for bad readings, wrong guesses, and are shamed from ever making another attempt with poetry. Or for safety and comfort, some readers will restrict themselves only to poetry that seems to reveal itself at first sight.
The experience of poetry as rote code-breaking or writing of it like a video game cheat solution, even if you find that sort of thing engaging and fun, reduces it. Constraining your poetry experience to easily-grasp aphorisms and reassuring sentiments also limits it.
Once in operation the Parlando Project didn’t follow my plan. If you’ve been reading the more than 300 posts here accompanying the audio presentations of poetry, you’ll have seen that most of the time I present some kind of explanation of what I think the poem means. How’d that happen? Mostly because I ask questions as I experience the poems, and then I think “Why not try to find an answer?” Those answers often delight me, and I can’t help but share them.
And maybe that’s just as well. Get the puzzle part, the explain part, out of the way and we can get on with the enjoyment of the word-music, the music-music, and the innumerable costumes, persons, and ways of speaking by which the poems come walking up to us.
Why introduce today’s piece, D. H. Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale” like this? Because I can’t tell you what this poem of his means to me, at least not yet. For a moment I stopped myself and asked how I could perform or present this without knowing that.
Lawrence, better known as a novelist, was also a poet published in the early Imagist anthologies, and this poem fits well into that new Imagist idea of how poetry should present things. Minnesota is covered by a couple of feet of snow at this point in our particular winter this February. The winter landscape Lawrence presents is vivid and rhymes with my experience.
Early spring in England, daffodils in the grass, flowers in planters…and then snow.
It’s the other character besides the poet/speaker/singer and the landscape that puzzles me. It’s only a pronoun, “she.” And what do we know of “she?” Female. Walks out in the deep snow, no mention that there is any accompanying her. “She’s waiting.” For what? We aren’t told directly, though the lovely line that describes her waiting “Impatient and cold, half sobs struggling into her frosty sigh” is both vivid and mysterious. England isn’t as cold in winter as Minnesota, but no sane and competent person goes standing out in the rural snow alone without some good reason. Well except for hunters, and my sane statement still stands. I did give some thought about the poem being a hunting story, but I can’t think of any English game that would be large enough to sob and sigh.
The last stanza only compounds the mystery for me. She’s “come so promptly.” Huh? Sounds like there’s more than a common-sense supposition that there must be a reason for her to be there. The poet/speaker/singer steps to her, and the poem concludes before it tells us, saying only the question “Why does she come, when she knows what I have to tell?”
I read one attempt to explicate this as the story of a woman who has come to meet her lover who is about to break up with her, keying partly off the line that says she’s come promptly though she knows that “she’s only nearer to the inevitable farewell.” I don’t have anything better myself, but I’m not buying that. Another says she’s death. I could go part-way for that, although then what’s she/death doing knowing about and being constrained by farewell? Death breaks up with us, we don’t break up with death!
Could she be winter? The poem’s opening says winter has just arrived or returned overnight, so there’s a link to the “promptly” remark. That gorgeous sobs and sighs line could be winter winds. If this is so, then what the poet/speaker/singer has to tell winter is that they know spring will inevitably come.
And so my appreciation for the mystery continues, it isn’t solved now, and it was far from solved when I performed this earlier this week, singing only the question, and thinking of Mark Hollis. It was intriguing to forget certainty as I sang lines of uncertain meaning, but I could grab onto their beauty and find emotional hooks in threads even if I couldn’t view the tapestry. My earlier experiences of this poem, particularly when heard aloud and formed in my voice, are no lesser than my experiences after questions and possible answers.
It’s my hope, as it has been since I started this Project, that you can do the same, and listen to the audio pieces (perhaps several times if you are intrigued) and let meaning and the emotions that surround it accrue in its own time, for your own self. The player gadget for D. H. Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale” is below, and thanks for listening, it means so much to me.
It’s 1956. World War One had ended less than 40 years ago, instead of 100. Robert Frost is the most celebrated living American poet, and he has traveled back to England to receive honors from both Oxford and Cambridge universities, a symbolic laurel helping to mark the 20th Century acceptance of American poetry into the pantheon of our polyglot language.
Two elderly women follow an invitation to an upstairs to-do in London, where the American poet has just landed. Eleanor Farjeon is one of the pair, then 75 years old, and here’s how she described what happened:
We approached a white-haired man who was talking to T.S. Eliot. ‘It’s Helen and Eleanor, Robert.’ He turned towards us quickly, unmistakably Robert. Were we as unmistakably ourselves? Eliot smiled at us and withdrew a little…. Robert muttered, ‘Well, well, well.’ Soon he and Helen were talking of their grandchildren.
Who are these ladies that broke off the tête-à-tête between the two Modernist poetic titans?
One was the widow of Edward Thomas, the man who Robert Frost called “the only brother I ever had.” The other was the woman who had introduced Edward Thomas to Frost in 1913, Eleanor Farjeon. The poet Edward Thomas is not well known outside of Britain, Farjeon even less so, but none-the-less she had a long and varied literary career as a poet, playwright, children’s book author, and songwriter in a life that spanned from the Pre-Raphaelites to Carnaby Street.
Eleanor Farjeon early and late in her life
Back just before and after the outbreak of WWI, the Frost Family, the Thomas Family, and Eleanor Farjeon were a sort of an extended pod of friendship and affiliations. The Thomas marriage had strains, and Farjeon was in love with Edward Thomas. Thomas’ spouse, Helen, surprisingly cast Eleanor Farjeon not as a rival but as a balm to Edward. And so, between her own writing, and typing manuscripts to help D. H. Lawrence (also hanging around this circle*) Farjeon, like Robert Frost, took to accompanying Edward Thomas on his indefatigable walks around the countryside.
Eleanor Farjeon was still a literary stem cell at the time. She later said “In my youth I dreamed of being a ‘real’ poet, but half way through my life that dream died, and whatever figments of it remained went into writing songs** and verses for children.”
When Edward Thomas decided to enlist and volunteer for the front lines in the war, the pod all shared correspondence with Thomas, a correspondence that continued right up to the very week of Thomas’ battle-death. And after that, they all shared the task of putting his literary affairs in order and promoting the poetry of the man who had only started writing it during that short pre-war period.
Robert Frost and Eleanor Farjeon both wrote elegies for Edward Thomas. It may surprise you, but I’m choosing to use Farjeon’s memorial sonnet here to cap off our Armistice Day series on Edward Thomas, instead of Frost’s poem. Farjeon might have thought of herself as not a “real” poet, but it’s us, the audience, that decides. Her poem may seem to be made of genteel English stuff: gardens, Easter eggs, love tokens, so that it has the patina of an antique valentine—but that’s just the surface. How about those relentless repetitions? You can hear James Joyce or Gertrude Stein tuning up in the distance if you listen for those. Did she mean the punning subtext of the repeated “Eve” with the repeated apples? If this were a Joyce poem we’d assume yes, so why not here? And that surface? It’s a paper scrim she means to tear, to rip—and yet when she does it in the last line, there’s no sound, only an invisible gap, an understated “apology”.
Here is what Eleanor Farjeon said, shortly before her own death, writing again about Edward Thomas and Robert Frost when recounting her last, 1956 meeting with Frost in the company of Thomas’ widow: “We do not lose our friends when they die, we only lose sight of them.”
Here’s my performance of Farjeon’s “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)” that you can hear using the player below.
*Sounds a bit unconventional for an Edwardian village in 1913 doesn’t it—but any bets on who did the housework?
**And it’s in this guise that Farjeon is likely to be best known in the U. S. Back in 1972, three denizens of that Sixties London: Cat Stevens (later Yusef Islam), Rick Wakeman (later caped-keyboardist of Prog Rock fame) and Paul Samwell-Smith (producer and former bass-player with the Yardbirds) created an arrangement of Farjeon’s hymn “Morning Has Broken” for a best-selling LP and eventual #6 hit single on the Billboard U.S. charts.
As we enter the week in which we note the ending of World War One a century ago, I want to call attention to some the ways we’ve shown poets wresting with that war in their own time. It’s a longer post, but each one of these pieces presents something different for Armistice Day.
I didn’t start out to feature the WWI generation here. I first intended to include more modern poets’ words, but to do so I would have needed to try to negotiate the issue of finding the copyright holders and getting them to respond to requests for permission when I thought I’d located them. That turned out to be frustrating.
This left me with the pre-1923 generation, the original Modernists, as the most recent voices I could consistently present. Like many limitations this brought an unexpected return. This generation’s members were the pioneers in the new poetic voice that I had to deal with as a young man and young writer, and to some degree we’re still dealing with them now. Even the basic and incontrovertible truth that the majority of published poetry has been free verse in my lifetime is not some inevitable thing, someone had to suggest and prove its efficacy. And the kind of imagery we take for granted as allowed or desirable in literary poetry? That too is their doing.
WWI did not start Modernism. Americans and the French were experimenting with many of its tactics as early as the mid-19th century, and British Modernism was already emerging before 1914. But the events of WWI bent the development of Modernism by their tremendous gravitational pull. Sometimes directly, by poets and artistic allies who were killed, but also by propounding the idea that the established artistic order was incapable of describing the world of the first world war or it’s aftermath. Pre-WWI Modernists writing in English could be straightforward and modest in their poetry. They often valued shorter forms that assumed the elaboration would occur in the minds of readers rather than in endless lines on the page. Post-WWI, the longer poem and much more elaborate and opaque imagery came to the forefront, and the form of the irrational became a large part of the reflected world, even for writers outside the movements like Dada and Surrealism that were formed around that.
It’s been an adventure here reliving those changes. Some of the Parlando Project’s most popular pieces have come from that WWI moment, and here are the six most popular WWI poems we’ve presented here.
6. Christ and the Soldier. Siegfried Sassoon seems to have been somewhat superseded by his friend Wilfred Owen as the representative British War Poet of the anti-war stripe. Owen may have “benefited” by dying in the war, rather than having the long career that Sassoon had. Sassoon was a highly decorated veteran of the trenches when he started to publicly oppose the war, and this lead to the danger that he could have been charged with treason, and a weird compromise was worked out where he was treated instead as a man suffering from mental illness caused by the war instead of being put up on trial, the kind of outcome that Joseph Heller would have relished writing of decades later. “Christ and the Soldier” is not politically anti-war, but it’s stark, darkly-humorous, and yet serious account struck me from the first time I read it. As WWI poems go, it deserves to be much better known.
You probably haven’t heard this one, so use the player below.
5. These Fought. Ezra Pound did not fight in WWI. Pound was an American living in England, which would have complicated his enlistment before and after America’s entry into the war, but in either case a determined man could have overcome those obstacles. Pound’s friend, and co-founder of English Modernist verse in the years leading up to the war, the lesser-known Englishman T. E. Hulme, enlisted, as did others in his wide circle of acquaintances. So, when this post-war poem was published, excoriating the waste and propaganda of the war years, it was in the context of a longer poem that it’s only a section of, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” In the entire poem, Pound, who’s personality seems to have been a strange mixture of generosity and egotism, stubbornness and self-admonishment, also charges himself with failing to decisively deal with the titanic issues of the war. I’d muse that this sounds like survivor’s guilt is mixed in with the contempt for the war stated after the fact. In Pound’s case, his self-correction found him supporting his next foreign home, Fascist Italy, against his native country’s side during the next World War. Ironically, this lead, like Sassoon, to the compromise of “Well, maybe he’s a traitor, but let’s treat him as crazy.”
Still, as a piece of invective, and as a condensed statement of art’s challenges in dealing with monstrous events, I have to hand it to Ezra for his set of words. Pound helped “popularize” the use of phrases from many languages in High-Modernist English language poems, much to the benefit of footnote writers, and in “These Fought” he drops a variation on the same Latin phrase used by Wilfred Owen in Owen’s best-known anti-war poem: “Pro patria, non dulce non et decor” in Pound, “Dulce et decorum est” in Owen. In either case, the Latin phrase, from Roman poet Horace, is about it being sweet and proper to die for one’s country, and neither the veteran Owen or the non-veteran Pound meant to endorse that phrase when they used it. In our 21st century world, large portions of proper Americans would agree with Horace’s original thought, and take umbrage with Pound, or possibly even Owen denying its validity—yes, I could see that being charged against even Owen who gave his life, however sweet or properly.
The gadget to hear Pound’s rant about the waste of it all is below.
This large American military cemetery engraved Horace’s maxim in 1915. And whether for solidarity, guilt, or respect for duty, many will endorse it still. Some will stand by it with their lives not just a chisel.
4. Trenches St. Eloi. Another poem by a front-line veteran of WWI, one who didn’t survive the war, and a man who was important enough to the founding of English language Modernist poetry that his war death might have alterned post-war Modernism to some degree. T. E. Hulme helped form Pound’s own views on how poetry should “make it new,” and was admired as well by T. S. Eliot, but his own poetry is now little-known because of its sparseness in number and length. Though he was known as a pugnacious talker in person, and was a writer of audacious criticism, his surviving poems have a shocking modesty about them, something I find quite admirable. Though he wrote dispatches to English home-front periodicals during his service (from those I’ve read, they support the English cause) this is his only poem about his experience of the war itself, and it was composed, or rather transcribed, while he was back in England being treated for battle wounds before going back to the front and his death.
To hear Hulme’s ode to soldierly persistence, use the player below.
3. The Death of Apollinaire. Speaking of influential casualties of the war, Guillaume Apollinaire, must be right up there. The man coined the names “cubism” and “surrealism” after all, and his verse influenced not only countless French poets, but Americans like E. E. Cummings. The exact cause of Apollinaire’s death is open to attribution. He was still weakened by war wounds when he was struck down by the infamous 1918 influenza epidemic just two days before the end of WWI. The poem used here is a surprisingly sincere elegy written by a frank shirker of military service, Tristan Tzara, who as a teenager fled the tinderbox of the Balkans where the world war started for neutral Switzerland, where he participated in the invention of Dada at the famous Cabaret Voltaire. Dada had no respect for the pieties of the warring parties, but Tzara’s respect for Apollinaire comes through in my original translation of his poem.
Thinking of Hulme and Apollinaire as front-line soldiers in WWI makes me pause and wonder at the differences in my own time. Can you imagine John Lennon and Bob Dylan serving as grunts in Vietnam? Or Damon Albarn and Jay Z being deployed to Iraq? Of course, there are differences in poet/critics and pop-stars however artistic the songwriters are, but still it’s a different world, and Modernist artists both reflected and helped to form it.
To hear my performance of my own new translation of Tzara’s poem about Apollinaire’s death in the autumn of victory, use the player gadget below.
2. Grass. Carl Sandburg didn’t serve in WWI. He was a Spanish American War vet however. His personal position on WWI is somewhat hard to figure. He was writing for the stalwartly anti-war IWW under a pseudonym and explicitly supporting there the radical IWW line that the war was the Capitalist class enjoying their profits in a cage match between the working people/cannon fodder of both sides. Yet also during the war he wrote pro-war pieces under his own name, taking the same stance as some other parts of the US left: that the Central powers were evil empires lead by ruthless kings that needed to be defeated by the democracies Britain, France and the U. S. In 1918, Sandburg published “Grass” and attempted to synthesize both sides of Sandburg.
“Grass” is sometimes considered a straightforward patriotic poem, a reverent poem about the ultimate sacrifice of veterans, and if read in such a context no one is likely to object. But listen closely. Even though he echoes Whitman’s leaves of grass metaphor, even if you may find it next to John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” in some presentation of poems about honored war dead where we might be implored to “Take up our quarrel with the foe!” One might even too-quickly think it’s akin to what Sandburg’s hero Lincoln would say in his Gettysburg Address, that we “cannot forget what they did here.” But, Sandburg’s poem’s point is literally the opposite of Lincoln’s: that we will forget what they did here.
How completely true is that forgetfulness as we approach the centenary of the end of WWI? A discussion point.
You could read “Grass” as an antiwar poem, saying that “It doesn’t matter how important and glorious they tell you the cause you are fighting for is, because the same or equivalent crowd will run things afterward and what you thought you were fighting for will be forgotten.” Speaking of WWI, 50 years after it started, Sandburg admirer Bob Dylan could sing “The reasons for fighting, I never did get.”
I just got done earlier this fall performing Sandburg’s “I Am the People, the Mob,” In that poem, Sandburg makes a subtle point. That thing the leftish political vanguard often bemoans about “the people,” that they forget the injustices committed against their best interests, is in fact how they’ve managed to survive and endure. If they remembered their defeats, their sacrifices, they might not go on, they could be immobilized in grief and despair. Is Sandburg saying the same thing in “Grass?” Is he saying “I was never sure if this was the rich man’s war fought with working man’s blood, or a war to save democracy. It’s over now and the rich and powerful will forget us as unimportant. Or perhaps it was a struggle so our imperfect democratic governments can continue in a long battle to perfect themselves, but that in the end is what we need to concentrate on.”
To hear the LYL Band perform Sandburg’s elegy to soldiers graves, use the player below.
1. On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli. These most-popular-here WWI pieces I feature today: it’s a rather downbeat outlook, even Hulme’s piece is not the sort of thing to inspire sacrifice for one’s country. Pound’s rant openly doubts the beliefs of some that did, and is unequivocal on the base motives of those who lead his host country in the war. WWI war poets did write poems that supported the war effort. A personal favorite of mine, Edward Thomas, volunteered and died at the front with a deep belief in the nobility of service that overwhelmed his suspicion of the war’s rationale. Pete Seeger’s uncle, Alan Seeger, wrote his fatalistic but heroic “I Have a Rendezvous with Death.” Another well-known poem in this mode is British poet Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.” If one believes that any active deity must have a dark comic streak, Brooke dying of an infected mosquito bite while steaming to the front lines of one of the most horrific battles of the war could be part of your testimony.
Pound once had to explain that when he was critical of Brooke’s poems he was speaking of their old-fashioned prosody, not his character. When I saw this fragment found in Brooke’s journal after his death I saw an opportunity. What if Brooke’s observation of his fellow soldiers on their way to battle could be shaped to express itself in the mode that Modernists like Pound, Hulme, or Sandburg would have used? You can see the edits I made here, and listen to my performance of my setting of it with the player below.