Letters to Dead Imagists and A Pact

A few posts back I dropped a performance of Walt Whitman’s “Poets to Come,”  a piece where Whitman precisely states his understanding that he’s shown a new mode for poetry and allied arts, but that this new mode of expression will only be fully exploited and explored by artists in the future.

And of course, as Americans we’re still living in his future. And Emily Dickinson’s future. And Ezra Pound’s future. And to a degree we have yet to acknowledge, we’re living in Charley Patton’s future as well (more on that last one later).

So, in “Poets to Come”  Whitman foretold his legacy, but did Pound and the other founders of modern poetry in English fully acknowledge their American predecessors? I’m not sure, this is an area I haven’t studied yet. I’ve already mentioned in earlier episodes that Pound and his British allies seemed eager to point to modern French as well as ancient Greek, Chinese and Japanese influences in their Modernist verse.

Could Pound have been embarrassed by his American origins? Could could Englishmen T. E. Hulme and F. S. Flint have sought to emphasize the continental sources of their new aesthetic to compensate for their decidedly non-posh class status? That would be rash for me, who is not a scholar in this field, to claim on speculation. The strongest evidence in Pound’s case would be that as a man living outside the U. S., his cosmopolitan outlook was well-earned by his travels. Being drawn to the work of LI Bai or Sappho, or the French Symbolists requires no apologies.

Modernists who remained in America may have voted with their (metrical?) feet to more frankly explore the 19th Century American roots of modern poetry. A personal favorite of mine, Carl Sandburg certainly did this. That some of Sandburg’s longer poems sound too much like Whitman’s word-music has, I believe, disguised the degree that Sandburg was a committed Imagist, capable of writing spare, no-wasted word examinations of present objects in the Imagist manner. In his no-less than duality, Sandburg was the first successful poet to combine the innovations of Dickinson and Whitman.

Young Sandburg and Pound

Young Modernists in suits: Carl Sandburg and Ezra Pound

 

Today’s piece combines two short poems, the first by Carl Sandburg and the second by the indispensable Modernist promoter Ezra Pound. Sandburg’s part “Letters to Dead Imagists”  speaks fondly and perceptively about Dickinson and then moves on to tenderly remember Stephen Crane as a poet, who, like Sandburg, tried to combine Whitman with Dickinson. By calling them Imagists, the term Pound used to promote his “make it new” style of poetry, Sandburg is directly endorsing their claim to being pioneering Modernists.

In the second part “A Pact”  we move on to Ezra Pound’s altogether more cranky voice, where he allows that Walt Whitman had broken “the new wood”, as if Whitman was some sawmill man who had roughly hewn some timber, which he contrasts to his, Pound’s, task and skill, which is to carve it artistically.

Chipewa Falls Water

Know your Modernist family trivia: Ezra Pound’s grandfather started this bottled water company

 

I’m unsure how much Pound knew about Whitman’s background, so when Pound talks about the “pig-headed father” I at first assumed that famously stubborn Pound was only projecting his own considerable intransigence onto Whitman. But the poem’s closing image, an extended riff on wood and timber, indicates that he may have known of Whitman’s father’s trade as a carpenter. Pound’s own family had connections with the lumbering industry. So in the end, when Pound proclaims that he and Whitman share “one sap and one root” he’s allowing they share the American grain.

 

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And the most popular piece here last season was…

Musician jokes have a cruel streak, though most musicians love them.

 

“How can you tell if there’s a drummer knocking at your door?”

“Because his knocking speeds up and slows down, and he doesn’t know when to come in”

 

 

“Did you hear about the banjo player who played in tune?”

“Neither did I.”

 

 

“How do you get an electric guitarist to turn down?”

“Put sheet music in front of him.”

 

 

Here’s my favorite. A doctor, a lawyer, and a musician each win 100 million dollars in the lottery. The doctor is all smiles and says, “Oh, this is great! I don’t have to worry any more about arcane billing codes and insurance bureaucracy. I can just treat my patients!”

And the lawyer claps his hands on hearing, and says, “I’m going to just take all my cases pro bono and never again have to represent someone just because they can hire me.”

The musician though is downcast, he says, “Well, I guess I can keep gigging until the money runs out.”

The most popular piece for the Parlando Project this past Winter was Fenton Johnson’s “The Banjo Player.”  Johnson’s poem is essentially another musician joke, but one elaborated with some telling details observed from Johnson’s early 20th Century life.

The banjo is an African-American instrument, something often forgotten in my time until a few folklorists made efforts to set things straight. Fenton Johnson, born in 1888, just one year after Papa Charlie Jackson, knew that world before the guitar picker became the bluesman.

PapaCharlieJackson_GetAlong

Hype-man ad copy circa 1924 for the first ever to record self-accompanied blues .

 

Yes, he’s poking a little fun at his banjo player, but Johnson’s real case is for his value. It was a cold 20 and icy this March morning, and Johnson says the banjo player’s music is welcome “as the violets in March.”

And the section where I do a bit of a sticks and harmonica breakdown is the heart of the poem: children, who won’t even be able to pay the banjo player dimes like the adults in the saloon, love him like Santa Claus.

Here’s an irony darker than the joke of the banjo player who doesn’t know what a troubadour is. Fenton Johnson, Chicago’s pioneering Afro-American modernist poet had a life a bit like those three in the lottery joke. There was no 100 million, but he was born into an Afro-American family that had somehow accumulated some wealth. He was able to attend college. He dressed well, drove his electric motor car around the city. Like our joke’s doctor and lawyer, he wanted to use his good fortune and talents for good, to raise the status of Black Americans, the present task then for the early 20th Century “Talented Tenth.” And so, he established literary magazines, hoping to start a Chicago variation of the Harlem Renaissance, to promote the arts. But he was also like the musician in the lottery joke. Slowly, as literary magazines often do, those enterprises drained his efforts and his finances. He spent the last half of his life living on diminished means, his pioneering verse forgotten by all but a handful in Chicago.

There’s probably a good novel, play, or movie in Fenton Johnson’s story, but here at the Parlando Project we ask only that you listen for a few minutes to the compressed expression of poetry and some music, best as I can make it. The player is below.

 

Well that’s it for our look back that most liked and listened to pieces this past Winter. I’ll return soon with some new audio pieces.

March 2018 Parlando Top 10 Part 3

We return with the next three in the count-down of the most listened to and liked audio pieces of last Winter. Like last time, all poets who worked in the 19th Century, but in this group, all men.

Two out of the three today are from the British Isles. In may be no surprise, given its head start in English literature, that Britain is an outsized contributor both in words to be used and the Parlando Project’s reader/listenership.

I’ll be taking my second, short low-budget trip to London this month, and I’m frankly not sure what I will find this time, other than planning a side-trip to Margate to see the Turner art museum there and its small exhibition commemorating Eliot’s “The Wasteland” which was partially written in Margate. I’ll no doubt re-visit the Blake room at the V&A, and who knows, maybe I should try to find that alley beside the Savoy Hotel?

JMW Turner Waves Breaking on a Lee Shore at Margate

The London forecast calls for rain, hopefully not JMW Turner stormy though!

4. Ring out Wild Bells

When I posted this for New Year’s I noted Tennyson’s level of fame when alive, something that even the most popular Instagram poet cannot reach now. What I found out afterward was even more intriguing, that this section of his long poem “In Memoriam A.H. H.”  has become a tradition in Sweden to be read at the turn of the year, sort of how the Times Square ball-drop is ceremoniously repeated in New York, or how Guy Lombardo would once appear with his Royal Canadians near the top of the hour on TV to play a Scottish tune.

As evidence of Tennyson’s fame, I noted that my little Iowa hometown had a major street named for him when it was platted back in the 19th Century. Eventually the town and it surrounding farms were settled largely by Swedish immigrants. The Tennyson and bell-ringing tradition in Sweden started in 1927, long after the town was founded and settled, but wouldn’t it have been good in the town’s heyday if the farmers, shopkeepers, and schoolchildren had gathered on the sides of the street on New Years Eve to hear a poem?

Instagram poets get knocked for the shortness of their verse and it’s focus more on remediation than demonstrating literary skill. Tennyson built “In Memoriam”  into a book length series of poems, but his focus too was on remediation, in his case, of grief.

 

3. The Wild Swans at Coole

Yeats was Irish, and for decades I’ve met monthly with a group of poets the majority of whom were Irish-Americans. Yeats seems to have seamlessly transported himself between the 19th and 20th Centuries, changing so smoothly that he could not be observed changing. Somewhere around the turn of those centuries he decided that poetry should be chanted (not sung) to music, and yet we seem to know little about how exactly that sounded. Contemporary reports (and that’s what we have, there are no recordings I’m aware of) were decidedly mixed, even derisive, and Yeats eventually set that quest aside. The recordings of Yeats reading that we do have are from decades later, and in them there may still be traces of that concept audible in his, by then unaccompanied, reading style.

Yeats warns listeners that his chant may not necessarily enchant.

Reports also tell us that Yeats suffered from a difficulty carrying a tune, much as I do. His chanted, not sung, idea did not come from that he tells us, rather it came because conventional art song had too much ornament and melodic elaboration, deducting from the inherent music in the words.

In the course of the Parlando Project I take various stabs at what Yeats was trying to do, recreation in the literal sense, trying to create from the ancient and natural connection between music and poetry some combination that doesn’t privilege one over the other. Sometimes it’s spoken word, sometimes it’s “talk-singing,” and sometimes I think it necessary to sing.

I avoid apologizing for my musical shortcomings. It never mitigates anything anyway, and I’ve always found the humble-brag distasteful. I’ve hesitated at—and decided against—releasing performances most often because of failures of my singing voice. This performance came close to staying in the can. At times it works, not from my skills, but because there’s a certain match in the failings in the voice and the meaning of the poem.

 

2. My Childhood Home I See Again

One last 19th Century poet, an American. Long-time readers here will know that US President George Washington’s teenage love poem “Frances”  has been a surprisingly persistent “hit” with listeners here. It didn’t make the Top 10 this season, but we now have another Presidential/Poetical contender in Abraham Lincoln. If Washington was all youthful alt-rock persistence, Lincoln is more goth, with a downcast you-can’t-go-home-again tale of all he finds missing when he re-visits his hometown in his thirties.

Lincoln’s “My Childhood Home I See Again”  was very close to the popularity of the Number 1 this season. If didn’t count the substantial Spotify plays the Number 1 received, Lincoln would have topped this season’s list.

I posted this for what was once a common U.S. holiday, Lincoln’s Birthday. Also on this season’s Top 10 are the Tennyson New Year’s post and Rossetti’s Christmas song posted on Christmas Eve. Not sure if this is a trend, but listeners did like the holiday poems this winter.

 

Tomorrow, the most popular audio piece.

March 2018 Parlando Top 10 Part 2

An artist named Linnea Hadaway made a book earlier this year. It had no words in it. She said it had no words because it was about listening.

Today is International Women’s Day, an arbitrary thing like all special days, months and years. I can hear some grumbling off in the distance as some read this: “Another one of those special-interest things. I go to poetry and music to get away from that faddish nonsense.” There’s consistency in that opinion: if one is upset at “identity politics,” dividing the world in halves is just as deplorable as dividing it into tenths or smaller.

Are there dangers in division? There certainly are. But I don’t see these sorts of things as division, but as requesting attention—and attention is what art, and this Parlando Project is about. You see, life is incarcerated in the ultimate special interest group, the ultimate identity, political and otherwise: our own selves. Breaking the cellular barrier to spill our selves, or enticing us into opening a tiny pore to stare across at the skin holding another self inside another world, the still unexplored world we share, is the whole of art.

There is no apportionment so small as to be smaller than that. There is no way out but the way of art, to pay attention. Our ears cannot see, they can only listen.

No planning in this, but the next three audio pieces in our Top 10 count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces this past winter use words written by women.

Carrington 3

Surrealist Leonora Carrington captures the Parlando Project recording another audio piece

 

7. We Grow Accustomed to the Dark

I think I’ve used more Emily Dickinson pieces for words here than any other writer. I didn’t plan it that way. I’m not sure that Dickinson planned it that way either. Obviously, she meant what she did, assiduously creating and collating the more than a thousand short and engagingly enigmatic poems that we now see as a cornerstone of American poetry.

But as a careerist she’s a mess. She showed some of her work to friends and family, but like most friends and family they probably saw them as artifacts of the ordinary Emily, that stubborn particular. Perhaps they understood or didn’t understand her poems better than we do; but we, her current readers, believe it’s the later.

She had a lucky break with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the critic and social activist who answered her letter and saw something there. Even in the intellectual ferment of Transcendentalist New England, how many would have? The posthumous publication he shepherded, made possible the Dickinson we have today. But did he understand her art? We, as posterity, think otherwise.

So, like the woman in “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark”  Dickinson pressed on, walking, almost straight, and like the bravest, aware that the comedy of striding face-first into a tree was possible.

 

The Emily DIckinson Internal Difference

I was there! What a concert! The music was good too.

6. A Certain Slant of Light

I didn’t think about this while writing the music for and performing “A Certain Slant of Light”  and “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark,”  but these two Emily Dickinson poems are companion pieces. The Dark poem is more clear, even comedic, the Light poem more mysterious.

In my original post I decided to not talk about what I think the poem means. In some ways, I think that’s true to the poem’s “Where the Meanings, are.” I had fun with the mock psychedelic rock poster I created to illustrate it, but I think the core experience of the poem is the same that some were seduced into having by ingesting drugs, the insight that the universe’s meaning may be unknowable and its substitute only available by fiat.

Cure the cod-sitar sounds, and stereotyped sparkle-eyed hippie whooshing “Oh, Wow!” Of course, we must laugh. This is an insight available even to the young that can apparently be induced by mere intoxication.

But it’s true. It may be easier to see the borders of truth if one comes upon it without chemical aids; but even true, it’s an insight that’s hard to integrate into an active life and compassion. Dickinson integrated it with these little packets of poems. “None may teach it,” she says, but I can let you see my experience of it.

 

5. In the Bleak Midwinter

And one slot higher in the countdown, a woman who isn’t Dickinson, but is roughly her contemporary, English poet Christina Rossetti. Her’s is a Christmas and Christian poem, faith is her fiat; and a shaped and received story is her poems plot.

As this post talks about division, opposites—and how, if one distrusts them, one must cross them, sometimes listening, rather than shouting at them to come down—“In the Bleak Midwinter”  is all about divisions and opposites, and where they fail to hold.

In the moment of Rossetti’s beautiful song, even if earth is iron and water stone, heaven cannot contain God, nor can the earth sustain winter or meagre poverty.

I remember someone asking one of the earnest folk-singers of my generation (alas, I can’t remember who) if a song could change the world. Their reply was something like, “Of course not, but during the time the song is being sung the world is changed.” Perhaps an argument for longer songs, better memories, or us slowly learning how to integrate the experience of art into the rest of our lives.

 

I plan to return tomorrow with the next three in our Top 10 count-down of the most popular pieces over the past Winter.

March 2018 Parlando Top 10 Part 1

It’s time for that quarterly exercise where we look back for the most popular audio pieces here at the Parlando Project over the past season. I’m going to follow the format we used last time, and break the countdown into four episodes. I base the popularity on the number of likes following their posting here, and the streams the audio pieces received directly from the blog, or on iTunes, Spotify, or other podcast sources. Let’s start the count from the 10th most popular as we move up the list to number 1:

10. Rosemary

Even though these pieces were listened to in the Winter for most of our listeners*, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s words have a kind of spring-cleaning of the heart vibe, and so may be apropos for opening the windows and letting the curtains blow around—or at least they will in a few weeks when it warms up here in the northern part of the northern hemisphere. I awoke to 10 degrees Fahrenheit and snow and polished ice myself today.

I rather liked the music I wrote and performed for this one, just as I have liked going back to Millay to reassess the strengths she brought to poetry. Millay’s popular reading audience, once substantial, hasn’t completely disappeared, and there’s a welcome re-assessment of her poetry starting in academic circles.

 

9. Stopping by a Woods On a Snowy Evening

I’ve featured Robert Frost’s words quite a bit here, perhaps to atone for my dismissal of him when I was a teenager as the kind of worthy poetry in our schoolbooks that we needed to move beyond. Two things were key to my learning to love Frost: his uncanny ability to write lyrical verse that sounds natural, and my finally noticing the dry wit and stoicism that underlies most of his work.

Frost, alone of his American generation, has retained a level of popular appeal and critical approval. He’s double-edged in maintaining that. Some are captured by the surface of his poetry, hearing and maintaining in their memory the catchy moral-of-the-story “big choruses” of Frost. In this poem, it’s the “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep” at the ending. Others listen carefully to the verses, the parts other than the lines we most remember, the parts we can come back to and find that we’ve forgotten were there. When I came to work musically with this poem, I’d forgotten those. There’s no lovely woods to see in this dark night. He may be lost. He’s so dark and alone that he can hear snowflakes sweeping across snowbanks between the jingle of his rig’s harness bells.

Musically, I was obligated to add shaker bells percussion to stand for those harness bells, but then, more obscurely, I decided to add a South-Asian tambura drone for the sweep of snow.

 

amedeo-modigliani-pierre-reverdy

Modigliani’s portrait of Pierre Reverdy

 

8. Clear Winter

I was a terrible French student in my little Iowa high school and my little Iowa college. I seem to have no ability with languages, and less than no ability to handle those accents and the reforming of the mouth that makes speaking a foreign language possible. But I love poetry translation. I feel like a paleontologist removing the clods of sediment from a skeleton. Slowly, painstakingly, there it is, just as it was in its moment of sudden! But then my task shifts, and I must become the process of fossilization, to find the minerals of English that can fill in for the sinew and feathers of it’s original language.

I had a great time with the challenge of Pierre Reverdy’s “Clair Hiver.” I’m unsure of the accuracy of the “tea-kettle” section of my translation, but I fell in love with it, and could not abandon it, even if the light behind Pierre Reverdy’s eyes cannot reach the little anteroom behind mine.

 

*web stats I get for the streams tell me I have as many recent listeners in Australia as I have in Texas—and one listener in New Zealand. Bret, please tell Jemaine that there’s a lot of good stuff to read and listen to in the archives you’ll see listed by months on the right.

Poets and Presidents Day

I don’t know if we’ll ever have a person who spent serious time as a writer as U.S. president. Yes, most write—or co-write to some degree—books leading up to their candidacy, and some kind of post-term memoir is now expected; but I’m speaking of a sustained and serious attempt at literary writing.

In my lifetime we had one prominent candidate (Eugene McCarthy) who did write poetry in the mid-century modernist style, and a substantial “leading up to their candidacy” book of political history from John Kennedy, though there is controversy about how much of “Profiles in Courage”  was ghost-written. Jimmy Carter has published books of poetry after leaving office, but at least so far as I’ve sampled his poetry, it hasn’t stuck with me.

Other democracies may have better examples. Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic, and that winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature with a side job, Winston Churchill. Farther back there are more chief executives who could fill a shelf with their own books: Disraeli, Theodore Roosevelt.

Overall, I’m not sure that “men of letters” (a gender-neutral term doesn’t seem to jibe with that archaic phrase) are, as a class, good candidates for the Presidency. Writing is the perfect example of a one-person enterprise. To do it well takes a lot of effort, but most always it involves the writer setting themselves on that course by convincing themselves of it’s necessity and then carrying on with little assistance, at least until the publishable stage is reached. Leadership and coalition–building aren’t needed in those tasks. Vision is helpful in either field; but if we are to be honest with our selves, democracies only set much value in that in times of crisis.

washington.lincoln.apotheosis

“I extend this laurel, and hearty handshake…”

 

Though neither sought to publish, the two Presidents whose birthdays have been merged into Presidents Day do have poems to their credit. George Washington, as a love-struck teenager penned an incomplete acrostic poem that was to spell out the name of the subject of his affections. Last year the Parlando Project turned it into an angsty soft-loud expression of that youthful boldness-fear, one that, surprisingly, remains the most popular audio piece we’ve ever done.  Here’s the player for “Frances,”  Washington’s love poem:

 

 

Abraham Lincoln, the great American orator and leader, wrote a three-section poem in his 30s while recalling the hometown of his early youth. We set part of this to music for his birthday earlier this month. It’s quite sad, in a mode that was somewhat common in 19th Century literature, but there’s reason to think that Lincoln wasn’t just striking a pose. It’s now commonly believed that he suffered from some level of depression in his adulthood. To hear Lincoln’s “My Childhood Home I See Again,”  use the player below.

Ring Out Wild Bells

This guy was once famous. Not just writer-famous, but Beyoncé or Beatles famous. In England, and to a large degree in America, he was the face of, and the center of, Victorian poetry. And poetry in Victorian times, the written-down and printed in books kind, was still a force in mass culture.

tennyson

Once an empire’s most famous poet, now reduced to modeling a Slanket.

 

The town I grew up in was platted and settled around 1880, its success achieved by the industrious Swedish-American farmers around it and the railroad that went through it. The town was named Stratford, after Shakespeare’s birthplace, and so it was that the town’s main street, with it’s block of stores, was named Shakespeare Avenue. Shakespeare Avenue was met just north of the shops by the town’s central cross street, Tennyson Avenue.

That’s a remarkable piece of trivia isn’t it? Think of how many suburbs and housing developments were similarly planned and platted in the centuries since in the United States. How many of them had main streets named for contemporary poets? Milton and Byron had their streets along with Shakespeare in Strafford, but even Byron was 50 years dead; but here was Tennyson, a man still in his career across half a continent and one ocean away, and here this proud avenue in a farming town was written down to bear his name.

The problem with being a big-thing Victorian, as Tennyson was, is that our Modernists came after them. Came after them in time and eventually, opposition. Even though you can see the influences of the Victorians on the early work of some Modernists, you can also see the things they came to reject in search of an art for their own time. In those scattered small settlements where page poetry is still read or studied, we are now more likely to be reading Hopkins or Hardy for the English, or Dickinson or Whitman for Americans, or hinge figures like Yeats who spanned the eras, than Alfred Lord Tennyson, the once leading poet of his age.

Besides the street in my tiny town, Tennyson lives on in a handful of phrases from his poems that have become commonplace mottos such as “It’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”words well-enough known even as their author’s fame and esteem has faded, that many people think they must be Shakespeare’s.

Today’s words come from another section in the same long poem or collection that premiered the “loved and lost” phrase, Tennyson’s broad meditation on loss and perseverance “In Memoriam A.H.H.”  If we’ve forgotten Tennyson, this makes it possible for him to be new again, and this is a piece, as I recast it, that seems very appropriate for our age—even for this year. The New Year’s bells ring in a new year, but they also chase away the devils of the old one.

So, enjoy the music I wrote and recorded for “Ring Out Wild Bells”,  but you may be surprised at how well Tennyson’s sentiments fit as you sing along with them while 2017 ends. The player for the audio piece is right below this.